Caribbean: HIV/AIDS Goes Primetime Inter Press Service
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Caribbean: HIV/AIDS Goes Primetime

Inter Press Service - August 18, 2006
Stephen Leahy

TORONTO, Canada, Aug 18 (IPS) - With persistently high HIV/AIDS rates second only to sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean is stepping up outreach efforts with a new media collaboration that will use everything from documentaries to soap operas to haul the disease out of the shadows and into public consciousness.

The Caribbean is hardly a homogenous region -- HIV prevalence rates range from one percent in Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Suriname, to more than three percent in Haiti. The main bright spot is Cuba, where thanks to aggressive prevention campaigns and greater gender equality, prevalence is yet to reach 0.2 percent.

But overall, according to UNAIDS, at the end of last year, an estimated 330,000 people were living with HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean. Some 37,000 people were newly infected during 2005, and there were 27,000 deaths due to AIDS.

AIDS is now the leading cause of death among 15-44 year-olds in the region. Which is why, experts say, reaching out to young people through popular media like television is essential to reversing the spread of the disease.

With a one-million-dollar donation announced at the 16th annual International AIDS Conference in Toronto Thursday, the Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS will launch radio and television programming to increase awareness, and reduce homophobia and other stigmas surrounding the disease starting in 2007.

"HIV/AIDS is the biggest health problem in the Caribbean," Allyson Leacock, general manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), told IPS. "The disease has the potential to decimate the economies of our small countries."

Women in the region are increasingly affected, comprising more than half of those living with HIV/AIDS, recent studies have found. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, HIV infection levels are six times higher among 15- to 19-year-old females than among males of the same age.

In a unique effort to address these problems, Caribbean broadcasters formed the Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS last May, said Leacock.

"This is the first time broadcasters have come together to combat a social problem," she noted.

Broadcasters have promised to make 12 minutes of airtime available every day, including prime time. Programming will go beyond public service announcements and include news, documentaries, dramas and other formats.

"We have a unique opportunity to leverage the communication power of our media platforms to raise awareness, fight stigma and intolerance, and support people already living with this disease," Leacock said.

The Caribbean Partnership includes more than 30 television and radio companies representing 22 countries from across the region and in the United States which have committed to making HIV/AIDS a core business priority and integrating HIV-related content across all programme genres, including news, public affairs and entertainment.

Among the education efforts will be a pan-Caribbean public service campaign, and original HIV-themed entertainment programming, such as soap operas. Training workshops for writers, producers and on-air talent will be held along with journalist trainings and briefings. Special efforts will be made to reach young people.

"Media-based public education campaigns are a powerful force to motivate social change and deliver life-saving information to young people," said Matt James, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Kaiser, the Ford Foundation and the Elton John AIDS Foundation have contributed the one-million-dollar startup money and are providing technical and AIDS education support.

James says Kaiser has worked on similar media education programmes in Russia, India and Ukraine, but no one has jumped on board as fast as the Caribbean broadcasters.

"We know that the media is our most powerful tool to get out information and change attitudes," said Sir Elton John, founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Equally important is that political leadership in the region is taking the problem seriously, said Sir George Alleyne, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Four years ago, the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS reached a deal with six major pharmaceutical companies to buy antiretroviral drugs at one-tenth of market prices. However, the British-based AIDS charity Avert says that actual access to these drugs remains unequal across the region as a whole, partly due to wide differences in prices.

For example, antiretriviral medicines are provided to all those in need in Cuba, and the Bahamas and Barbados are advancing toward this goal. However, in Trinidad and Tobago, barely more than a third of those in need of treatment were receiving it at the end of 2005, and rates were even lower in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Sir George said that government leaders are borrowing money to address these issues. "But infection rates are rising faster and we need more prevention efforts in the region," he added.

Homophobia remains another major problem. "People have been killed for being gay, we have to find ways to deal with this kind of thing," he said.

With the one-million-dollar donation, production of new programming to address these kinds of issues can begin immediately, said Leacock. The CBC has already launched some programming this summer, including a website.


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