A dire warning from UNAIDS, and need to avoid message fatigue

BY: By Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

It is troubling that on December 1, which the world marks as World AIDS Day (WAD), none of the main daily newspapers in Ghana published even a sentence about the observance, although this year’s was a significant one.

World AIDS Day 2021 is regarded as a milestone because “it marks 40 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported”, said UNAIDS in a commemorative message.

UNAIDS is the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

However, perhaps the unfortunate oversight will serve to alert the Ghana AIDS Commission (GAC) that they need to crank up their publicity, and not just by relying on their long-running radio commercial of dubious positive impact.

This year the global WAD theme was ‘End inequalities. End AIDS’ and UNAIDS issued a grim warning calling on world leaders to tackle inequalities in the world or there could be 7.7 million AIDS-related deaths over the next 10 years.

For his part, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “it is still possible to end the epidemic by 2030. But that will require stepped-up action (emphasis added) and greater solidarity.”

To me, it surely says something about attitude to the crusade to stop AIDS if even the national dailies forgot to publicise the event on the anniversary day.

Evidently, sustained education is central to the war against AIDS; as is continuing publicity about the importance of testing to know one’s status.

Yet, here in Ghana, it appears that currently, the radio commercial regularly broadcast on Radio Ghana, the ‘Abena commercial’, as I term it, is the main publicity strategy of the GAC is relying on.

Still, how effective is that radio commercial? After such a long time of being aired, has it not lost steam?

The following is a summary of issues with that commercial which I raised in this column last year.

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I’m suggesting that the Commission needs to take a second look its anti-discrimination commercial which regularly airs on Radio Ghana because the advertisement appears to be contradicting its own message, that there should be no discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS.

Heard almost every day on Radio Ghana, during the 6 a.m. news bulletin, the commercial has two similar versions, in Twi/Akan and English.

It features a woman, identified as ‘Abena’ (a female born on a Tuesday) who is apparently living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV – “a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection.”

‘Abena’ is sobbing distressingly because of the discrimination and stigmatization she constantly experiences; she has been made an outcast.

As she puts it hauntingly in the Twi version, even at home “y’ayi me totwene” (“they have flung me out”).

She wails: “Am I the only person who has HIV or TB? I even want to die!”

Then a sympathizer responds: “No, Abena, you can’t give up and die.

Indeed, a new dawn has come for persons living with HIV and AIDS, and those suffering from TB and other sexually transmitted infections …”

I find troubling the fact that it is only an ‘Abena’, who is at the centre of this otherwise innovative commercial.

Why is the focus only on a woman, on women?

Does the role of men in the spread of AIDS not matter?

Why is the impression being created that HIV is a women’s problem; that women cause it?

Are women, too, not victims?

After all, a woman with HIV most probably got infected by a male.

Conversely, are we to believe that male HIV sufferers are not discriminated against?

That it’s only women who get stigmatized?

Or could it possibly be because the creators of the commercial were men?

I shared my concerns with a very senior HIV /AIDS specialist, as I wanted to know the view of a sector professional.

The following was the response:

“Scientifically, only mothers can transmit to unborn babies through pregnancy and also to babies during labour or breastfeeding. For adults, it is easier for women to get infected than men due to their biology. That does not make women the transmitters.”

The response supports my view of the need for another version, a commercial with a ‘Kwabena’ (a male born on Tuesday) too in distress, with a supporter commiserating with him.

With such an addition, the commercial will be tackling the subject more realistically, treating both women and men living with HIV equally; underscoring the appeal for respect, sympathy and support for both.

No discrimination, please! (Column of September 12, 2020, ‘Suggestion: AIDS Commission, why not a ‘Kwabena’ advert?’)

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I note that after a break, the 'Abena' radio commercial has resumed playing on Radio Ghana, again a regular feature during the 6 a.m. bulletin.

However, every time I hear it, I wonder how effective its message is, whether it's not generating message fatigue.

Has the GAC ever conducted or commissioned an assessment about the impact of their ‘Abena commercial’?

Despite its critical information, who wants to listen to the same commercial, day in, day out, for months on end?

Even if it’s being broadcast gratis, or sponsored, wouldn’t that prime slot be better used with a fresh commercial which people will pay attention to?

UN Secretary-General Mr Guterres has said that “stepped up action” is required, which definitely means more education, more spreading of the messages.

But, understandably, if the publicity, in this case, the now stale ‘Abena commercial’, is not up to the standard, what guarantee is there that it will be able to achieve the desired result?

There is a need for new thinking by the GAC, creating more appealing content, with gender neutral victims as illustrations.

And obviously with vital information there is need to avoid message fatigue.

Therefore, it seems to me that the GAC should launch a publicity offensive, with imaginative approaches – starting with a long-overdue ‘Kwabena’ version of the current tedious commercial.

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