Population Matters

HIV/AIDS: Education, not Discrimination, is the Best Prevention

December 1st, 2009

Today is World AIDS Day.  Observed every year on the first of December, it is an international day to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS around the world. The first World AIDS Day was celebrated twenty-one years ago. The theme of this year’s observance is “human rights and access to treatment.”  Unfortunately, discrimination against people living with HIV is on the rise in many developing countries.  Human Rights Watch reports that:

Since 2005, 14 countries in Africa have passed HIV-specific laws that potentially criminalize all sexual behavior among HIV-positive individuals, including those who use condoms, regardless of disclosure and actual risk of transmission. In a number of countries, maternal-to-child HIV transmission is a criminal offense, even where antiretroviral treatment may not be available. In Uganda, the draft legislation exempts HIV transmission before or during birth but allows for the prosecution of women whose infants acquire HIV from breast milk.

Meanwhile, the number of people living with HIV continues to grow, principally because increased availability of treatment is helping AIDS victims live longer.  In its recent annual AIDS Epidemic Update, the World Health Organization reported that 33.4 million people, including 2.1 million children, were living with HIV in 2008, up slightly from 2007. There is hope, however, as the total number of new infections has dropped 17 percent over the past eight years. The number of children newly infected with HIV in 2008 was roughly 18% lower than in 2001.

Despite the drop in infections, there is no reason for complacency.  AIDS remains a deadly killer and the need for prevention is as important as ever.  On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I had the opportunity to meet with the staff of the Population Media Center in Ethiopia and learn more about how they are using entertainment media to help prevent the spread of AIDS.

For the past several years PMC Ethiopia has been producing radio serial dramas, or soap operas, to educate listeners about issues such as family planning, prevention of HIV/AIDS, and violence against women. Their radio programs reach about half of Ethiopia’s 77 million people and have achieved notable success. Using the Sabido methodology, the script writers develop plot lines with positive, negative, and transitional characters that serve to educate and inform listeners about the value of positive behaviors.  The results are impressive. With respect to HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, surveys at public health clinics have shown that male listeners sought HIV testing at four times the rate of non-listeners; women sought testing at three times the rate of non-listeners.

Until such times as there are vaccines for the prevention of HIV and cures for AIDS, we need to be investing more resources in programs like these.  Education, along with expanded treatment, continues to be an important tool in the fight against AIDS.  Discrimination and punitive laws, like those being passed in many developing nations today, are not helpful. They are counterproductive.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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