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CHILE: Flood of Criticism for “Retrograde” AIDS Campaign

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 8 2010 (IPS) - “It’s much more fun to die of old age than to die of AIDS. And if you die with your lifelong partner, so much the better. Avoid AIDS: be faithful” is one of the controversial TV spots in this year’s edition of the annual anti-AIDS campaign by Chile’s Health Ministry.

The ad shows an older couple suddenly clutching their chests and dying, while applause is heard off-stage and balloons and confetti are thrown.

The ads invite viewers to visit the web site to find information about the disease, prevention methods, and HIV testing centres.

“This is the worst campaign in the history of campaigns against AIDS, which, it should be added, have never been particularly successful in this country,” Manuel Jorquera, with Vivo Positivo (Living Positive), an umbrella group linking organisations of people eliving with HIV, the AIDS virus, around the country, told IPS.

Although one of the spots, all of which strike a humorous tone, urges people to use condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, activists, experts and politicians are complaining that the campaign as a whole does not send a clear message.

One ad shows an actress being made up to look like she has different illnesses, like the flu, mumps or chicken pox. But when she is made up to represent “AIDS”, she is dressed to the nines, ready for a party. The final message is: “You can’t see AIDS, but that’s no reason for us to act blind. Take the test, and bring your partner with you.”

“This is the vaguest, most ambiguous campaign ever. It does not have a health focus, nor does it target the highest risk populations. It sends out a very diffuse message, and we see it as a step backwards,” said Jorquera, whose organisation is studying the possibility of filing a court injunction against the Health Ministry for “attacking the right to life.”

The issue will also be discussed by the health commission in the lower house of Congress, where opposition legislators will ask the government to cancel the campaign.

“What needs to be said, no matter who likes or doesn’t like it, is that consistent use of condoms is still the most effective method to avoid HIV,” said Jorquera, who sent a letter Tuesday to Health Minister Jorge Mañalich in the name of Vivo Positivo.

“The campaign strikes out at women by establishing a link between the concept that AIDS is a disease that is not physically apparent and a woman ready to go out and seduce,” the open letter says.

“It is also insulting to people living with HIV, telling them it is fun to die of old age but not of AIDS, which is a return to the AIDS=death equation, which was overcome in earlier campaigns thanks to the influence of civil society,” it adds.

This is the first major health prevention campaign by the government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, who took office in March, putting an end to 20 years of government by the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which governed the country since the end of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The campaign, launched Sunday Dec. 5, targets teenagers and young men and women between the ages of 15 and 29, the highest risk age group. Government officials have said the playful, fun tone of the campaign is in line with the use of on-line social networking sites by today’s young people.

Between 1984 and 2008, 20,100 people in this country of 17 million people were notified that they were HIV-positive, according to official figures. Most HIV-positive people in the country are between the ages of 20 and 39, and a majority are men who have sex with men.

Although posters will be distributed to gay bars and night clubs, the failure of the TV spots to focus on this particular population group is considered discriminatory by activists.

“This campaign seems to me to be retrograde and out-of-date in terms of information,” Claudia Dides, director of the social inclusion and gender programme of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Chile), told IPS.

“I am very annoyed because the title of the campaign ‘who has AIDS’ seems to be discriminatory, and everything that has been achieved in terms of a human rights approach to the question of HIV/AIDS over the last 20 years, including the 2001 law on AIDS, is back to zero,” Dides said.

She explained that “people don’t ‘have AIDS’, they are ‘living with HIV’, and the campaign revives the idea of the ‘sidoso’ (a pejorative term for someone who is HIV- positive), of the ‘leper’ who is outside the system, which shows an incredible lack of respect” for people with the disease.

“I value the intention, and every prevention effort is important, but the truth is that this campaign does not contribute” to the cause, concurred Elena Sepúlveda, head of the masters programme on sexuality at the public University of Santiago.

The campaign neither takes into account the sexual conduct of young Chileans nor their idiosyncrasies, Sepúlveda said. By urging people to abstain from sex unless they are in a stable, monogamous relationship, the campaign ignores the fact that teenagers are having sex at younger and younger ages, and that infidelity rates in the country are high, she added.

Dides said that “When you work in the area of prevention of cholera, you clearly explain that people should wash their hands and should avoid raw vegetables or fruit. So I don’t understand why it can’t just be clearly stated here that condom use is the most effective tool for preventing HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.”

In the FLACSO expert’s view, behind the campaign “are operating the most conservative ideas with respect to the sexuality of Chileans, and political and values-based decisions that do not reflect what the majority of Chileans think.”

“The government’s identification with the Catholic Church is very obvious” in the campaign, Jaime Valderrama, a 30-year- old Chilean, told IPS. “All approaches are valid, but I don’t think faithfulness should be a government policy against AIDS.”

Jorquera said “AIDS is curbed by means of anti- discriminatory policies, secular sex education, the promotion of citizen rights, and without a doubt, strengthening joint efforts by civil society and the state.”

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