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South African Viewers Hooked on AIDS-themed Show

Nandi Makhele, 25, poses for a portrait while wearing a T-shirt indicating that she is HIV-positive, in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township February 15, 2010.
Nandi Makhele, 25, poses for a portrait while wearing a T-shirt indicating that she is HIV-positive, in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township February 15, 2010.
Solenn Honorine
Sixty-nine percent of the people in the world infected with HIV-AIDS live in Sub-Saharan Africa. The situation is particularly dire in the southern part of the continent.  And in South Africa, an estimated 17 percent of adults live with the virus.  To address the issue, the health research center John Hopkins foundation has created an original and very popular TV show called Intersexions, broadcast on South African public TV channel SABC, that is currently in its second season.
 
A radiant young bride is getting ready to walk down the aisle, when she hears on the radio that a famous disc jockey is dying of AIDS.  He is a former lover, from a long time ago.  So what can she do?  She has had three lovers in her life.  But what can she tell the love of her life, a few hours before their wedding night?
 
Harriet Gavshon, producer of the hit TV show Intersexions, says that this is the type of situation that drives the HIV-AIDS pandemic.
 
“The original idea of Intersexions was to try and explain to young people the idea of a sexual network, the idea that once you sleep with somebody, you're entering a huge network of millions of people you don't know, so you should protect yourself," said Gavshon.

Gavshon says, like many popular TV shows, Intersexions hooks millions of people each week with its recipe of love, sex and secrets.  But its narrative is different: Instead a set cast of characters, it follows the progression of the evil virus through society.
 
“Each week we jump into a new milieu, from the city to the rural areas, to the prisons, to a club.  You know, every week you don't know where we're gonna turn up, because you don't know where the virus is gonna turn up.  You know, not to let anyone off the hook," she said. "Somewhere along the 26 episodes you will come across someone just like yourself."

Intersexions' innovative story-telling was internationally recognized last year when it won the prestigious, U.S.-based Peabody award, alongside hit American programs like Game of Thrones.

Catherine Chinyani, a nanny working in Johannesburg, is one of the 3 to 4.5 million people who tune in each week.  She says that the show strikes a sensitive chord.
 
“The other one that I watched, it was so touching," said Chinyani. "Because the nanny was in love with her boss, and later she was HIV positive.  Because her boss was saying “no no no no, we can't use a condom."  Maybe the boss promises to give you a lot of money, and then you get in bed with him without a condom.  And at the end of the day, you have the disease, and the money will never help you anymore.”

In South Africa, HIV-AIDS prevalence is particularly high among the young and sexually active: a third of women between 20 and 25 years old are infected by the virus, and research shows that the main driver of the pandemic is risky sexual behavior.

Lusanda Mahlasela, from the John Hopkins foundation, a health research center that initiates the project, says Intersexions' audience success lies partly in its ability to convey this message without patronizing the audience, she says.
 
“It's something we are constantly aware off.  And it becomes a fine line between trying to convey the message, and making sure you're not being judgmental and moralizing,” said Mahlasela.

One of the most contoversial episodes is from Intersexions' second season: a young lesbian living in a township is gang-raped by a group of thugs set to punish her for her lifestyle, something known as “corrective rape” in South Africa.  After her ordeal, she is in the hospital and is visited by a doctor.
 
“You're HIV negative," the doctor says. "Which means we're right on time to start an ARV course, just in case one of your attackers was HIV positive.  By taking ARV you're lessening your chances of getting the HIV virus, which we call post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP.”

Intersexions' main message is health, and it conveys practical information about the disease, how to avoid it and how to get treated.  It also aims at triggering discussion about HIV-AIDS.  It has a very strong presence on social networks where each episode is animatedly discussed by viewers.  Catherine Chinyani also says it makes her think about the disease.
 
“The other day, it was a guy who was so much in love with women," said Chinyani.  "You know, I've got also a son, and it taught me: you know, I should sit down with my son, and let him know: “look at what this one is doing, it's not good.  At the end of the day, he's got HIV."

South Africa is making strides to fight against the pandemic. In the past few years, it extended access to antiretroviral treatments to 1.7 million people, which means it can lengthen and better life with the virus. But in order to get the treatment, one must know his or her HIV status, which is also one point Intersexions tries to convey.

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