ColumnsHealth & Wellness

AIDS Watch: Achtung, Baby

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AIDS is a mass murderer. It’s time to treat it as such
By Kelly A. McCann
KellyMcCann_WPTN
Kelly McCann

In early September, a German group released a new and controversial AIDS awareness advertisement featuring a 45-second video of a woman and a man having sex. Since it was created for European audiences, the video shows explicit sexual images and a variety of positions. At the end of the couple’s unprotected sexual encounter, viewers finally get a look at the guy’s face and … it is Adolf Hitler! Then the words, “AIDS is a Mass Murderer” followed by “Protect Yourself” appear on a black screen. 

Whoa. Heavy. Shocking, even. But it sure got my attention. And that’s just what the creators intended. 

Regenbogen eV, the German AIDS awareness group who dreamed up this campaign, wanted to emphasize the dangers of unprotected sex at a time of increasing public complacency about HIV disease. The use of Hitler’s face was designed to give the ad shock value in order to get noticed and, according to creative director, Dirk Silz, “to show the ugliness of the illness.”

With this illness, there is plenty of ugly to go around. HIV disease can lead to physical decline, infirmity, and suffering. There is a litany of unpleasant and uncomfortable opportunistic illnesses associated with HIV disease as well as 26 serious (and often hard-to-treat) AIDS-defining conditions that include various cancers, rare fungal infections, and parasitic infestations. 

Even in the least serious cases, HIV/AIDS can be financially devastating. Highly active anti-retroviral medications are often effective in the treatment of HIV disease, working to keep viral loads down and T cell counts up. However, they come with a hefty price tag. A 2004 study estimated the lifetime expense of HIV disease at a whopping $619,000!

There is emotional ugliness associated with AIDS, too. Guilt, shame, fear of rejection, worry about infecting others, and the daily stress of having a life-threatening illness can exact a serious psychological toll on HIV-infected people.

Given those facts and figures, it seems the producers of the Hitler video accurately illustrated the ugly face of AIDS. However, several organizations around the world have condemned the advertisement, claiming it stigmatizes those living with HIV by comparing them to a mass murderer.

Stigma is a real issue for people living with HIV/AIDS. In fact, stigma associated with HIV/AIDS seems more severe than stigma related to other chronic health conditions. This is likely the case because transmission of HIV is tied to certain behaviors, such as injection drug use and homosexuality, which carry stigmas of their own. 

While prejudice and discrimination against those with AIDS is much more common in other parts of the world, even HIV-positive Americans are confronted with evidence of stigma. For example, a 2008 UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic cited a study wherein 27 percent of Americans stated they would prefer not to work closely with an HIV-infected person. Slightly better, another study conducted by the CDC found 18.1 percent of people in the U.S. harbor AIDS-related bigotry.

HIV/AIDS stigma is real, no doubt about it. However, the critics of the German advertisement are off base. 

The video does not malign those living with AIDS. It does not put an HIV-infected person on par with Hitler. Rather, the ad uses powerful images and a strong negative association to vilify the disease. Let me say it again: the disease.

Silz put it beautifully when he defended the ad: “We wanted to draw attention,” he said, “attention which can’t be gained anymore with radishes which wear condoms.” He’s right. The time has come for us to forego politeness and abandon cuteness in HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns. 

In 1982, AIDS Foundation Houston co-produced one of the nation’s first HIV-education brochures. Cartoon characters and teddy bears were used to convey the safer sex information. It worked back then, but that method would be wholly ineffective today. We must continually alter our approaches in order to more effectively reach our target audience. 

With more than 50,000 new HIV infections occurring in the U.S. every year, it is obvious that our current awareness campaigns are not working. Many of our citizens are not heeding the traditional prevention messages broadcast throughout our communities. 

In today’s jaded world, where many people are experiencing prevention fatigue, we must develop creative and innovative ways of raising awareness of the disease. We need HIV messages to be powerful and memorable and impactful enough to make us sit up and take notice. We need prevention ads that make us think and generate discussion. This controversial German ad did just that.   

The ad’s creators were on target with the concept of their message, too. Given that more than 25 million people across the globe have died of AIDS-related causes since 1981, the disease qualifies as a mass murderer—and a proficient one. 

The verdict is in. AIDS is guilty as charged.

Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. To learn more about prevention and treatment recommendations for
persons living with HIV/AIDS, visit the CDC’s web
site at cdc.gov or contact AFH at 713/623-6796.

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