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Combating AIDS With Effective Communication Strategies - 2003-04-17

The authors of a new book, Combating AIDS, say, “fighting the epidemic involves more than political will and socio-economic factors. They say better communication strategies could save lives.

Communication professors Arvind Singhal and Everett Rogers say, “A clear understanding of a social problem is the first essential step toward its solution.” Professor Singhal of Ohio University – and Professor Rogers of the University of New Mexico – say “simplicity and clarity” are needed in HIV/AIDS education.

Professor Singhal says unless AIDS policies are “implemented effectively they do not matter.”

He says, "When it came to HIV prevention, care or support – communication was really at the basis of any strategy. And given that we are dealing with a disease that is preventable, communication and education clearly had a very important role to play in this endeavor."

He says in the early days of the epidemic, awareness programs often lacked sensitivity or were too authoritative.

"Most of the programs that were directed at HIV and AIDS were run by medical doctors – and they still continue to be run by medical doctors or people who have a public health degree," he says. "Clearly they know a great deal about the virus (HIV) and what effect it has on the human body. But there was not much attention paid to issues of culture. In the early days and even to this day many programs do not adequately account for sensitivity."

Professor Singhal describes many past and current HIV/AIDS programs as “very preachy and blame oriented.” He says they don’t address the issue of stigma.

He says, "When you deal with issues that have that moralistic tone, that deal with issues of dying, it’s sort of a double or a triple whammy (big problem) when it comes to stigma. So, while we’ve covered some distance, I think it is one of the biggest issues that we continue to need to deal with."

To emphasize the impact of stigma, he talks about a friend who died of AIDS.

"He used to say to me that living with AIDS is like dying every minute. And that’s because of the stigma that there is. People are killing me with their looks and people are killing me with their words every single minute. And that is more virulent than the virus itself," he says.

He says people at the grassroots level helped bring change by bringing the epidemic to public attention. They did so by such things as candlelight vigils, a giant quilt listing the names of those who died, even civil disobedience. They were able to put a human face on the disease – that in the early days – was often only associated with a marginalized segment of society, gays.

One of political leaders who spoke out early about HIV/AIDS is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

"He says that when a lion comes to a village you don’t make a small shout; you make a very big shout. And you shout and shout and shout and you mobilize your forces and you pay attention. You don’t pretend that a lion doesn’t exist. Or you don’t sort of try and gear up after the lion has already eaten your stock," he says.

The presidential research scholar says in Thailand, for example, they use humor. One man there opened restaurants called Cabbages & Condoms to help raise awareness. He also says entertainment education can play a vital role. He says soap operas with AIDS storylines can have a big impact because viewers are emotionally involved with the characters.

The authors of Combating AIDS say, “The fight against AIDS is not just a fight against a biological virus, but a battle against bigotry, fear, denial and ignorance.” They say, “Communication strategies can help stop the epidemic, and certainly, they can slow it down.”