A healthy discussion about AIDS

This month marks 25 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the emergence of AIDS.

This month marks 25 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the emergence of AIDS.

Recent research breakthroughs have focused attention on treatments that have dramatically extended the lives of millions of HIV-positive people. But as we look back, we should not forget the critical role that communication programs have played in raising HIV awareness and promoting prevention in the US.

In the 1980s, Americans knew more fiction than fact about AIDS. Health officials were quick to alert the world that AIDS was not transmitted by casual contact, but many remained skeptical or misinformed. Talk of "catching" AIDS from mosquito bites, toilet seats, shared drinking glasses, or shaking hands was common. Ryan White, an HIV-positive student, and his mother had to fight open fear and threats against their safety to secure his attendance at an Indiana public school.

The fear induced by AIDS required the launch of an unprecedented health communications program that remains the government's most comprehensive outreach on HIV/AIDS. At the core was CDC's "America Responds to AIDS" program. My colleagues and I at Ogilvy Public Relations and Ogilvy & Mather were honored to work on this 10-year multimedia push, which focused on providing the public with accurate information and emphasizing prevention - over all else - to combat stigma and concentrate public attention on key behaviors that reduce the risk of HIV infection.

Messages from the early years of the campaign sought to educate the public about the key aspects of AIDS, such as the fact that HIV primarily is spread by sexual activity and contaminated injection drug needles. Although Americans now view this as common knowledge, understanding of HIV risks was limited back then.

Looking back, the first turning point against HIV/AIDS was not the development of HIV testing or drugs, but the promotion of HIV awareness and prevention that changed attitudes and behaviors.

Evidence of mainstream acceptance of the campaign's messages registered in the media and in public debate. Our development of the campaign's groundbreaking Surgeon General's National AIDS Mailing - which was sent to every household in America - put AIDS on the US health agenda and opened a much-needed dialogue.

PRWeek recognized the mailing as one of the 20 most successful American PR campaigns of the past 200 years. A key element of its success was the high-profile participation of the charismatic C. Everett Koop, whose authoritative, plain-spoken, and fatherly approach made it acceptable for everyone to talk about AIDS. The campaign made open discussion of the epidemic legitimate and made AIDS a national health crisis that required the attention and concern of all Americans.

CDC's effort produced a model for breaking down obstacles to understanding and creating space for public health education and behavior change. It shattered political, social and religious taboos - and saved untold lives.

The war against HIV/AIDS goes on, but no one can deny that how we think and talk about the greatest health challenge of our lifetime has been transformed.

Yolan LaPorte is an EVP at Ogilvy PR in Washington, DC.

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