Saturday, December 5, 2009

History of Media Messages on HIV & AIDS

This is cross-posted from my Media Justice Column and as I think ALL my entries on my MJ column are fabulous and important, I think this one is especially important for this time we are in and in educating ourselves especially because I've spoken about this film to friends all week.

This entry is a part of our World AIDS Day Blogathon. During this week we share our experiences, stories, and ideas about how HIV affects young people around the world. Join the blogathon.

Many of you reading this already talk about HIV every day, not just on World AIDS Day. Yet, as time progresses I realize that not many of us know what role the media played in HIV and AIDS prevention and education. The history of HIV has been overlooked as efforts in prevention focus on the here, now, and future. Yet, the history of HIV and AIDS in the US and around the world, and the role media played is, in my opinion, essential to crafting, creating, and implementing new prevention efforts.

When I begin to teach about the sociology of health and illness, HIV is always part of my anticipated class discussions. You see, I remember a time in this world when HIV was not something I had to worry about because it had not yet existed (same thing with computers, but that’s another post). This is not the case for all of us today. As many of my students were born after 1990, their understanding of the history of HIV and AIDS in the US and the world is limited.

In some communities the idea that HIV and AIDS only infects gay White men is still prevalent. Yet, many people do not know where or how this myth began. Part of my essential reading list for my students is to watch the PBS Frontline documentary: The Age of AIDS. I ask students to at least watch the first hour of the documentary (which is over 5 hours long). PBS has created a timeline of AIDS around the world and many of the cases are stunning to see how far along we have come in technology to be able to detect infection in blood samples from the 1950s.

Watching the documentary and hearing from doctors who worked with patients in the late 1970s and early 1980s informs us that people all over the world were infected with HIV and/or dying of AIDS. Not all of them where White, gay, or men. In fact Black, heterosexual Haitian men and women were infected, injection drug users on the east coast of the US become infected, gay men and heterosexual women in Paris, heterosexual men in Portugal, and Central Africans of every sexual orientation became infected. Instead of recognizing how this disease affected all people around the world, the US government, at the time, chose to use the media and their power, to send a very specific message about HIV and AIDS.

This message was not just in cutting the budget for HIV and AIDS research. The media was used to isolate, target, and marginalize specific communities. In 1987 President Reagan speaks about HIV for the first, and only time, prior to that he said nothing. For people who wonder where the “Silence=Death” mantra comes into play, for many activists it was created in response to the silence among the US government. Silence is a very constructed message. [Please don’t confuse this type of conscious silence with the silence some people exercise because they are doing hard work: thinking, being thoughtful. This type of silence implemented is the type where thoughts have already led to a decision to remain quiet.]

Not all leaders reacted the same way. President of Uganda since 1986, Yoweri Museveni , spoke of challenging stigma, myths of transmission of HIV or AIDS, and had said: “you can only find AIDS if you go looking for it.” Uganda has one of the most effective HIV and AIDS prevention efforts in the world. Their initial program was ABC (A for Abstinence, B for being faithful, and C for if you can’t do the first two use a condom). The messaging in Uganda is drastically different from what we see in the US, even today. At the same time Uganda recognized how HIV and AIDS affected their people, it is from a heterosexist perspective as President Museveni has proposed to introduce laws that will isolate and incarcerate people who identify as anything other than heterosexual.

Even though the media was used in such a way towards the LGBTQ community in the US, it is through the activism of many LGBTQ people that we are able to do the work we do today around HIV prevention and education. It is also through the efforts abroad that we have been able to examine how utilizing the media can create change and awareness surrounding HIV. For example, the documentary states that Thailand was the first country to utilize mass media for prevention and education. Prime Minister of Thailand, Anand Panyarachun, supported national condom distribution efforts among Thai people with specific focus on sex workers. The rates of HIV infection among sex workers decreased by 90% over a 10 year time period. One of the first countries to utilize mass media, Thailand has been on the vanguard in prevention efforts especially with media use.

We continue to see how the media can be useful, especially social media. Many of my friends on Facebook and Twitter have posted about World AIDS Day. We see how some progress is being made utilizing the media (even if it is Bono speaking with President Bush about HIV around the world, President Clinton shaking the hand of Chinese activists who are living with HIV and having Chinese Deputy Ministers shake his hand as well during a largely televised session, celebrities and musicians speaking to youth to get tested, and famous people living with HIV sharing their stories). Yet there is so much more to do, so much more that can be done. This week I hope you don’t find exhaustion, I hope you find excitement in continuing such efforts and utilizing the media in ways that have yet to be done.

The media is powerful. With advancements in technology we become media makers, and thus have power. How will we utilize our power to create messages that can combat stigma, eliminate myths, and encourage people that they are valuable and powerful?

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