Bringing AIDS to the fore still a struggle

Communicating the realities of the disease remains a challenge as AIDS marks 25 years

Communicating the realities of the disease remains a challenge as AIDS marks 25 years

Last week, newspapers rolled out headlines detailing the United Nations' somber assessment of the progress on AIDS - that the world is losing ground to the disease. The UN meeting, and a raft of stories and events, were all part of a global "commemoration" of a bitter milestone: the quarter-century anniversary of the first reported case of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. If there's a silver lining, it's that for several organizations, such an event will provide a good platform to spread information and correct misconceptions about the disease.

"We believe that communications about HIV is about as powerful a tool as we've got to stop the epidemic, to reduce stigma about being HIV positive, to prevent infections, to care for those who are already infected," says Michael Cover, SVP at Ogilvy PR, which has worked with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a component of the National Institutes of Health, for several years. "It's the one tool that we've had since the beginning of the epidemic that has shown to be effective. It's important to continue to talk about it after 25 years."

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of anti-retroviral therapy, delivered in virus-attenuating combinations called the "AIDS cocktail."

The fact that strides in the treatment of AIDS have made people complacent provides a paradoxical communications challenge. "AIDS has been perceived as a chronic, but manageable condition," says Yolan LaPorte, EVP at Ogilvy. "How do you convey to the American public that this is [still] something to be concerned about?"

For Ogilvy, expanding outside of traditional media outreach is on the agenda to get the word out. "The online media environment has never been more important," Cover says.

However, in targeting the media, Bill Martin, SVP of GCI Group's healthcare practice, notes that it will be important to keep the desired audience in mind. In the US, women, African Americans, and Hispanics bear a comparatively higher burden of risk for acquiring the virus.

"While we want to satisfy our clients' interest in impressions and big media hits, we still have to remember what we're trying to accomplish," Martin says. "We're really trying to get more people tested and get more people into better care. To do that, we have to be focused on the forms of media that people of highest risk for HIV actually consume. That may not be... top-tier media. So we have to work a bit harder."

Jonathan Heit, VP of client services for Allison & Partners, which works with the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation (CAAF), notes that the 25th anniversary presents a good opportunity for smaller organizations to get out their messages. For CAAF, that means enforcing the message that children around the world are affected by or infected with AIDS, not just in Africa, as is often the focus of media reports. CAAF is focusing some of its outreach on Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

"Our primary message is that 25 years later there are still millions of children in this country and the world who are impacted... or infected by HIV/AIDS," Heit says. "While there has been an incredible amount of progress, we can't say, 'Great, we did all this, and now let's move on to something else.' This disease is still very prevalent."

For some organizations, it's not about informing the public, but about sparking action. Jennifer Kidwell, assistant officer of media and communications for the International Women's Health Coalition, says the group has used the recent UN meeting, the 25th anniversary, and upcoming Toronto AIDS conference as a news hook, adding that reinforcing the message of how AIDS is affecting women is especially important.

"The response has not changed," she says. "[Some people might think that it's] boring ... to read the same stories over and over again, but [AIDS] is a reality of their lives, and it deserves attention from the world."

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