1st December is chosen as the commemorative day every year since 1998 as the day for AIDS awareness globally by the United Nations.
Leaps and bounds have been achieved during this timeline to increase public awareness about the transmission of human retroviral infection since it makes it first appearance back in 1983.
At the time of the first outbreak among men who have sex with men (MSM) in the United States, much fear have been generated from this relatively unknown disease that do not respond to any medications. The outbreak reached an epidemic proportion in 1985 and the fear reached such frenzy quite like the Ebola outbreak recently in Africa. It was compounded by the fact that there is no cure for the disease. Of course there was a lot of public stigma against the gay community and was then known as a gay disease. Rock Hudson who was an openly gay actor died from the disease only reinforced this stigma.
Concurrently, the disease have struck the another segment of the American unfortunate community, the intravenous drug user.
So it was labelled a gay man and intravenous drug user disease. Such public labelling on an unfortunate segment of the community and the general perception that we the straight and normal American never get this disease was the main reason the disease made its way into the general population, spreading far and wide on the north American continent in the later part of the 80s. This attitude was reinforced by the Reagan Administration who choose not to broach much on this subject with the Republican agenda quite closely associated with the church.
Researchers later discovered that the disease actually originated from Africa and it has nothing to do with gay or drug abusers. It was decades ago an unknown disease in Africa, particularly inaccessible and remote part of the continent where untold number of people have died but nobody know anything about this disease with no name.
Why increasing public awareness and changing perceptions are so important
According to the WHO report (2012) on HIV transmission, about 30 million people has died from the disease since it discovery and the infection rate is about (estimated: 2011)) 34 million worldwide. Death from HIV infection continues to decline due to the availability of anti-retroviral drugs.
However the infection rate continue to climb from 8 million (1990) to 34 million (2011).
The infection rate and death in North America (the place it was first discovered) continue to decline. So was Western European countries where the infection rate has dropped substantially since the 80s. Sub-Sahara Africa continues to bear the brunt of the epidemic with 69% of the population infected. The continent of Africa is still the epicentre of the epidemic without relent. What is more ominous is that it continue to rear its head in Asia, particularly in countries that were once the former Soviets Union like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. China and India have shown increased infection rate, especially in remote hinterland where public awareness and illiteracy is still rampant.
The above statistic has revealed that the greatest ally for HIV infection is public taboo and stigma.
In the course of 3 decades, Western countries such as the United States (the place where it was discovered and earned it name) and Western Europe have undertaken great efforts to speak up about the disease and dispel public stigma.
High profile personnel and Hollywood stars have come out to talk about the disease, some who themselves are infected. Sport stars who are HIV positive came out too and talk about it in public forum. NBA star ‘Magic’ Johnson told of his HIV positive status. So was Greg Louganis, the American Olympic gold medallist. Oprah Winfrey has hosted countless of talk show on this subject with numerous high profile individual who are infected.
But the central theme of their message is that of ‘practicing safe sex’, not the old conservative lingo of abstinence. It was the former line that have drawn many fires from countries from the third world that could not fully accept this line. Gleaning from the statistic, it is clear HIV continue to rear it head high in countries that still held to this old line of thought.
Taking a case study of South Africa, another country where HIV has wreck havoc, a substantial portion of it population are infected but unable to take the modern theme of safe sex. Since most of the population are catholic and toe the church official line of abstinence, the official reaction to this silent killer is silence. Policy makers comment little about it and communities are coy to broach on this subject. This could be because of it association with sex. Just by not talking about it because it is shameful and taboo feed on it transmission. Family refuse to talk about sex, not to mention safe sex with their teenage children. Just not talking about it does not mean they will not practice it.
Nelson Mandela managed to break the mould by talking about his son’s death from AIDS. He has mounted numerous high profile campaigns by donning a ‘I am HIV+’ Tee shirt and educating the public about safe sex.
Many third world countries with a conservative agenda quickly redraw the line into conservatism vs. liberalism. Coincidentally, these countries are facing an exponential rise in infection rate.
On the same token, many think-tank institution such as WHO and UNAIDS redrawn the equation into ignorance vs. pragmatism.
Pragmatism is that sex and sexuality is part of human. It is present in every individual as a drive to reproduce. Teenagers may practice it without their parents knowing. Young adults may practice it before marriage. Even married couple can be infidel and practice it outside marriage.
Talking about safe sex has nothing to do with liberalism. Sex is just part of human nature.
Malaysia In perspective
Infection rate in Malaysia is still relatively low compared to many other countries in proportion to it population. The state with the highest infection rate is Kelantan despite of it smaller population size.
The country is still considered conservative when the subject of sex and safe sex come into focus. One can easily glean from it from many talk shows hosted. It became even rarer when mention about wearing condom during sex.
Just like other third world countries, talk about safe sex can swiftly become the old battle line of conservatism vs. liberalism.
The public should be encouraged to use the social media to increase awareness about HIV and AIDS.
More high profile events should be organised to increase awareness such as public billboard with advertorial content of safe sex. Just talking about AIDS prevention and awareness without broaching about safe sex does not connect logically. It is like passing half the message with the other half for the audience to figure out.
The Pink Triangle (PT) foundation in Malaysia has done a commendable job in filling the other half of the message by their efforts to educate the public and counselling those already infected.
Marina Mahathir has done a courageous deed by speaking up in areas considered taboo. Her role in conjunction with PT foundation has treaded into territory where many in this country are still coy to venture.
Many bravos and accolades should heap on Marina Mahathir and PT foundation.
For the sake of public notice, PT foundation has announced that on this coming 1st of December, a carnival will be held at NU Sentral Shopping Mall (adjacent KL Sentral) and the public are invited to attend. The objective of this carnival beside HIV awareness is to treat every HIV positive person with respect, dignity and understanding.