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Thailand Group Uses Drama to Teach AIDS Prevention

A member of the audience looks at slides projected on huge video screens during the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, July 25, 2012.
A former United Nations official has taken a step back in technological time in an effort to prevent the transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus in Asia.

As more than 20,000 delegates attended last week's AIDS 2012 Conference in Washington, Dr. David Feingold, an anthropologist and former director of the HIV, AIDS and trafficking program for the Bangkok office of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), stood near an exhibition room talking with anyone who passed by about the poster affixed to a temporary wall behind him.

The poster extolled the efforts of his UNESCO group, including the use of what some consider an outdated technology.

"We decided to reach people by using radio which could reach people in the most remote areas," explained Feingold. "You could carry your little transistor radio with you when you went to the rice fields."

The goal, according to Feingold, was to give people prevention information they need in their own languages. Feingold says the focus of the program is to reach members of Southeast Asia's ethnic minorities, many of whom do not speak the national language.

"The first thing was to use drama," said Feingold, "because young people don't pay any attention to public service announcements anywhere and drama engages people." The dramas, said Feingold, are "research based, based on real stories of real people dramatized to make it more exciting."

The effort was started more than a decade ago when 30 programs were produced in the Shan language of Burma and Thailand. It was then expanded, said Feingold, with public and corporate donations to remote areas of Laos, Cambodia and China.

"All of the dramas dealt with HIV/AIDS prevention, trafficking and unsafe migration and non-traditional drug abuse," Feingold said. But he added local issues were also included. The problem of land security was very important to one tribe in Cambodia, said Feingold, while another Cambodian tribe had a major problem with domestic violence. These issues, said Feingold, were also addressed in the dramas.

The dramas produced results. "In a number of cases," Feingold said, "we did testing of what the people knew before they were exposed to the program and then what did they know after. What we found were very, very significant increases in knowledge. But funding for the dramas ran out, and so did the production."

Feingold says that did not stop their usefulness. "One of the things that happen with these dramas is that they are repeated very often."

UNESCO also distributed these dramas on Compact Discs. They are then played repeatedly on boom boxes, portable stereo CD players popular with today's youth. He adds, "there are also some very old fashioned ways it's used." He says in villages, especially in communist countries, have village loudspeaker systems that are used to play and replay these dramas.

Feingold says in Cambodia, the government played the dramas on loudspeaker trucks that travel to very remote areas. While production of the dramas, with an estimated cost of $20,000 each, has stopped for now and Feingold has retired, he says the dramas could reach an audience of about 15 million people at risk of HIV and human trafficking. Although he does not speak for UNESCO any more, he says anyone that wants to fund more dramas can contact UNESCO's Office of Asia and the Pacific.

Additional reporting by Diane Gao