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UN: Initiative Aims To Curb HIV/AIDS Epidemic through Communication

The UN has launched what officials called a "Global Media AIDS Initiative" to enlist the help of mass media in education about AIDS. RFE/RL reports that the UN estimates effective prevention and public education could head off 30 million of the 45 million new HIV infections projected to occur worldwide over the next 10 years.

United Nations, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A roundtable meeting at UN headquarters in New York yesterday brought together more than 20 executives from some of the largest media organizations in the world. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, UNAIDS Executive Director Dr. Peter Piot, and Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman co-chaired the conference.

The idea of recruiting mass media to join the fight against the global HIV/AIDS epidemic stemmed from a UN-hosted conference in June 2001. Secretary-General Annan said then that the media are an overlooked and underused resource in the fight. He reiterated that view yesterday. "Every generation faces its great challenge," Annan said. "The fight against HIV/AIDS may be ours. Only if we meet this challenge can we succeed in our other efforts to build a humane, healthy and equitable world. We cannot do it without the unparalleled power that you, the media, have."

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus that causes AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The most common means of transmitting the disease are unprotected sexual intercourse and the use of contaminated needles by drug users. People have also contracted the disease through the use of improper techniques during medical procedures, including blood transfusions. Drug treatments can slow the progression of AIDS and relieve symptoms, but no cure has as yet been found.

Piot said the global HIV/AIDS fund managed by the UNAIDS agency he directs has risen from $200 million in 1996 to more than $4.7 billion last year. But he said the epidemic continues unabated. "Last year, more people than ever were infected with HIV and more people died of AIDS than in any previous year. We've got more orphans than before. And it's truly sobering to think that we are only at the beginning of this epidemic, both in terms of the spread of the HIV and of impact of AIDS. That is why we believe AIDS is one of the greatest leadership challenges of our time," he said.

Among contributors to the new initiative is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates, Microsoft's co-founder and chairman, said in a keynote speech at the conference that communication can save lives, especially among young people, victims of half of all new infections.

Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman urged that communication efforts about AIDS be tailored to the culture of each country and audience. "Messages need to be country- and culture-specific. Different messages and information need to be targeted to different risk groups, such as teens or IV drug users, or the gay community," he said. "Generic, one-size-fits-all campaigns are seldom effective. Second, campaigns need to operate at a sufficient level of intensity to have an impact. An occasional PSA may make us all feel very creative but it's not likely by itself to have a significant impact."

Kofi Annan praised previous efforts that have combined educational material with entertainment programming. "Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. If, for example, a well-known character in a popular television series has to confront HIV or AIDS, this can have a dramatic effect on viewers or listeners who may not choose to watch or listen to a nonfiction program about the epidemic," he said. "In several regions, television dramas have been used to bring AIDS awareness to wider audiences than traditional health promotion could ever hope to reach."

Drew Altman announced what he said was a major initiative by Russia's Gazprom-Media. "A major new commitment by Russia's Gazprom-Media to address HIV/AIDS across all of its properties including television and radio public service messages, and special programming, and briefings and training for its new staff. [It is] the kind of comprehensive initiative which our experience shows is what works," he said.

Recent surveys from more than 40 countries show that more than half of adolescents and young adults have serious misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and about how the virus is transmitted.