I’ve been roused from my long summer torpor by a row over a German ad that tries to make Hitler the face of AIDS. Predictably enough, activist groups immediately yelled “stigma”! What we should be yelling is “dinosaurs!”. In Western Europe, AIDS is no longer the “mass murderer” the ad claims. In fact, it is all but non-existent.
AIDS activists need to change not only their tune but their name. What we need is HIV activism, not AIDS activism. Because with the treatments that are now widely available in Western Europe and North America, AIDS is vanishing fast. While it continues to kill millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, where two thirds of people with HIV live, in most industrial countries it now kills a few hundred people a year at most. As long as treatment is available and effective, AIDS will remain largely a thing of the past in the rich world. But if drug-resistant strains develop and spread — and there is a real possibility they will — we’ll be back to the carnage of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Only very much worse, because there are so many more people now living with HIV in the West. And there are more people living with HIV in part because people aren’t dying of AIDS any more (a good thing) and in part because we are doing so very badly at prevention (definitely not a good thing). Brand new HIV infections are on the rise again among gay men in Germany, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands — just about everywhere we’ve can measure it. That really is shocking.
Does it seem churlish, then, for me to be criticising the new prevention campaign in Germany? Some respondents to a comment I wrote in The Guardian think so. But I’m critical precisely because we need more good prevention that addresses local realities. The local realities in Germany are:
1) we are already effectively preventing AIDS, through treatment
2) we are failing to prevent HIV
3) the vast majority of the sexual transmission of HIV happens between men in anal sex
What Germany needs is campaigns to encourage gay men to avoid an inconvenient life-long infection (HIV) that is expensive to treat and can be most easily prevented by using condoms in sex. That is not what Malawi or Washington DC or Buenos Aires need, but it IS what Germany needs. What the Das Comitee ad gives the German public is a campaign to encourage heterosexual women to avoid a killer disease that in their local reality barely exists. “Shock value” is all very well, but if you are shocking the wrong people about the wrong things, you’re not going to prevent many HIV infections. And that’s what we need to do, now more than ever.