Soaps and Sitcoms Combat AIDS

Columbia AIDS summit features programs in China, India that promote HIV-positive stars

From Hollywood to Bollywood to the banks of the Yellow River, television and radio dramas are featuring plot lines that deal with AIDS and HIV-positive characters in an effort to bring AIDS out of the darkness of ignorance and stigma and into the light of awareness and compassion. That was the message put forth at an international meeting sponsored by Columbia University on November 18.

The former ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Richard C. Holbrooke, and Stephen Lewis, the U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, joined an international panel of writers, producers, actors and business leaders at a meeting sponsored by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Population Communications International (PCI), an organization dedicated to producing dramatic television in an effort to change attitudes about sexual health. The entertainment summit addressed programming that seeks to influence the effects of a disease that is widely misunderstood in parts of the developing world.

Holbrooke, currently the CEO of the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS (GBC), emphasized the importance of getting people to talk openly about the disease. GBC is an alliance of 130 corporations in 18 countries brought together to fight the spread of AIDS and improve the treatment of HIV. “If we cannot destigmatize, if we cannot talk openly, then we cannot prevent its spread,” Holbrooke said. He praised the prevention efforts made by the summit panelists and PCI, but he insisted that the AIDS message should not be discreet. “In the end, the medium is not the message, the message is the message,” Holbrooke said. “What matters is what is being communicated.”

Lewis spoke about the devastation HIV has caused in Africa, painting a picture of death and misery for millions of people afflicted with the disease. “Child-headed households” or “sibling families” where girls and boys live without parents, need life lessons. Soap operas have the power to break down the stigmas associated with HIV. “The entertainment industry can do things with creativity that can otherwise not be done,” Lewis said. “If the pandemic spreads to China and South Asia, then the apocalypse will truly be upon us.”

Compared to some countries in Africa, the infection rates in India and China are low. According to PCI, 19.9 percent of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected with HIV. In China, the rate of infection for the same age group is .1 percent and in India it is .7 percent. But the populations of China and India are much larger and less aware of the problem. If the infection rate in India rises to just four percent, Holbrooke said, then India would have more than half of all HIV infections.

In India, where cultural taboos keep AIDS out of everyday conversation, one program entitled “Jasoos Vijay,” was created specifically to raise the AIDS awareness. Jasoos Vijay, the handsome protagonist of the popular police drama, is not a slick urban detective, but a normal guy who helps unravel crimes in the villages of rural India. Devika Bahl, creative director of the BBC World Service in India, said the show’s message is that it doesn’t really matter how you get AIDS and that once you have it, you still have a life and you can still contribute to society. Vijay encounters HIV-positive characters, but due to cultural sensitivities of the more than 100 million viewers, the producers don’t reveal how the character contracted HIV, Bahl said. In a major plot twist, the audience has learned that Vijay himself is HIV-positive.

In China, “Ordinary People,” a series about a woman who is forced into an arranged marriage, also includes HIV in the story line. The dramatic series, filmed on location along the banks of the Yellow River, is about the role of women in rural Chinese society and their ability to control their own destinies in love and in their careers, the show’s director, Xinyong Zhang, said. Sixty episodes of “Ordinary People” have already aired to an audience of 800 million, including reruns, and twenty more episodes are in the works. The show’s female protagonist cares for people with AIDS and in its next episodes the show will feature characters who contracted HIV from blood transmission, Jiande Yan, the show’s producer said. He added that the Chinese government is reluctant to address the sexual issues related to AIDS, fearing the audience will stop identifying with the characters.

According to Holbrooke, it is not hard for the Chinese to disseminate information. “They have complete access to a billion people once they decide to do it,” he said. “They just don’t want to do it yet.” Holbrooke’s speech focused on China and India, the two Asian giants, where AIDS is not yet as visible as it is in Sub-Saharan Africa, but whose enormous populations are very much at risk. Holbrooke warned that television producers and government officials who try to protect communities by respecting cultural sensitivities towards sex, are creating a situation where “the culture itself is in jeopardy” from the disease. Once people know their lives are at risk, he said, the taboos are unimportant. Warning that the alternatives for India and China are apparent in some African countries, Holbrooke said, “I can say the message in two words: avoid euphemism.”

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