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AIDS Commission, good message change, but why the unhelpful guidance?

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

It’s been a long time coming, but the Ghana AIDS Commission (GAC) now has new commercials, in place of its ‘Abena’ ones – which this column criticised for being counterproductive.

(Hopefully, they’re not suspended, to be resurrected in future!)
It was gratifying to find out that the Commission has recently replaced the ‘Abena’, on Radio Ghana. In fact, it’s a duo, both featuring male voices.

One of them is promoting the use of antiretrovirals (ARVs); the second has an anti-stigmatisation message, encouraging people not to shun those identified as being HIV-Positive.

As explained by a source, Antiretrovirals are drugs which “inhibit the ability of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other types of retroviruses to multiply in the body.”

My issue is with the ARVs message. It begins with a male voice announcing confidently: “It’s been one year since I started my antiretroviral treatment.”

Then what appears to be a second male voice comes in with: “You can live a long, productive life with antiretroviral treatment. With antiretroviral treatment, HIV-Positive expectant mothers (emphasis added) can have healthy, HIV-negative babies. Go to the nearest health centre, test and know your HIV status.

If you’re positive, ask about antiretroviral treatment and you will receive help (emphasis added). Antiretroviral treatment is your only option for a long and fulfilling life.

“This advert is brought to you by the Ghana AIDS Commission and Ghana Health Service”, is how it concludes.

Similarly, the old ones, what I call the ‘Abena commercials’ were evidently intended to teach the need for everybody to accept those afflicted with HIV and not make them feel like outcasts. As explained in this space in 2020, they were aired on Radio Ghana, almost every day, during the 6 a.m. news bulletin; and there were two versions in Akan and English.

They featured a woman, identified as ‘Abena’ (a female born on a Tuesday), who is living with HIV – explained by health sources as “a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection.”

In the commercial, ‘Abena’, a victim of HIV stigma, is sobbing distressingly because of the discrimination and stigmatisation she constantly experiences. As she puts it hauntingly in the Twi version, even at home and at work “y’ayi me totwene” (“they have flung me out”).

A knowledgeable source defines ‘HIV stigma’ as “negative attitudes and beliefs about people with HIV.”

In that 2020 column, I expressed concern that it was only an ‘Abena’ whose plight was in the spotlight. I posed these questions: “Why is the focus only on a woman, on women? Does the role of men in the disease spread 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? … Or could it be because the creators of the commercial were men?”

In view of the above, I canvassed the need for another version, “a commercial with a ‘Kwabena’ (a male born on Tuesday) too, in distress.

“In my opinion, 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.”

That article ended with: “No discrimination, please!” (column of September 12, 2020, ‘AIDS Commission, why not a ‘Kwabena’ advert?).

My suggestion that the GAC needed to take a second look was because that advert appeared to be contradicting its own education that there should be no discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS – as it featured only a woman sufferer of the affliction.

Thus, it is laudable that the GAC and the GHS have changed the approach. Nevertheless, I wish they could review, especially the second part of the ARV one. Also, there are other problems regarding the content which, in my opinion, need to be tackled to improve the communication.

Firstly, I find it extremely puzzling to hear the advice, “if you’re positive, ask about antiretroviral treatment and you will receive help.”

Does this mean that if one doesn’t ask about ARV treatment that support will not be offered by the Health Centre staff? But shouldn’t the HIV confirmation conclude with the immediate start of treatment, the supply of some ARVs? Why should the sufferer have to ask before being given the life-saving assistance, the ARVs?

Surely, ensuring that they start treatment is the most pragmatic way of giving them hope after receiving such distressing news.

On the other hand, if that sentence in the commercial is simply an error, if the already traumatised person doesn’t have to ask for the medication – as directed by the commercial, then that part of the advert needs to be changed. It’s clearly not helpful guidance.

Secondly, I pray that going to “the nearest Health Centre” to do the HIV test is as easy as the commercial implies.

Another issue is with the use of the term “expectant mothers’. Although it’s a common expression, whenever I come across ‘expectant mother’, the question it generates is ‘what if this is the woman’s first child?’

Before a woman gives birth, is she qualified to be described as a ‘mother’? So why not use the more accurate description ‘expectant woman’?

Anyhow, much as I think the GAC has done well to make the change, I wish they had gone the extra mile and made a double, a ‘his and hers’ commercial. Instead of adverts featuring male voices, why not two adverts featuring a woman and a man, with their different perspectives?

I believe that a ‘his and hers’ approach would drive home better the message that both women and men are at risk, but that even after testing positive, there should be no cause for despair because treatment is available.

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