Is AIDS a mass murderer? Not in Germany

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.

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This post was published on 09/09/09 in Ideology and HIV, Men, women and others, Pisani's picks.

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  1. Comment by peripheries, 09/09/09, 04:30:

    And most of those who commented are either commenting on something you did not write or did not read what you wrote … The usual Guardian readership attention-span… not the worse though…

  2. Comment by Bears are Fat, 09/09/09, 05:02:

    Hi Elisabeth:

    Thanks for this and the Guardian piece.


    That comment really hits the nail on the head with regard to this particular advertisement. There are countless HIV prevention ads that portray people with HIV as ticking time bombs, poisonous insects, dangerous animals, and now genocidal killers. All this, and you gently mock the very notion of ‘stigma’. Some of us with HIV find it shocking that the rest of you still think of us as homicidal maniacs just because we would have the temerity to continue having sex lives. If our reaction is ‘predictable,’ may I suggest that this is because stigma continues to be a major obstacle to shaping a rational and humane response to the epidemic?

  3. Comment by Carlos Rivas, 09/09/09, 06:12:

    I can easily connect with your style and thoughts. In fact, you’re condensing very well my reaction to this campaign.

    My experience regarding HIV and AIDS is limited to Venezuela and Canada. However, this is enough to put into perspective how different the realities are, dependending of where you are.

    Despite any difference, there’s a common key point: marketing agencies cannot be left to themselves. When “creative” people design campaigns, they tend to repeat all the misconceptions society is carrying from the 80’s. Just as an example, in Venezuela the marketing agency hired by the only NGO with money to pay for this kind of service NEVER has tested any campaign with people living with HIV (or any group); just 2 people, the head of this NGO and a “creative” women. The result: campaigns promoting the they/us segregation through shocking campaigns suggesting we need to fear about people living with HIV; they’re like Hitler, isn’t they? In this vein you’re totally right: some people doing prevention are dinosaurs.

    BTW, this mass murder campaign can be a delight for those who are looking for “evidence” to criminalize people living with HIV.

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  5. Comment by Shawn Syms, 14/09/09, 01:15:

    I wrote about this ridiculous campaign on Xtra.ca:

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