In AIDS Crisis, Serious Times Call for Serious Measures

The Washington Post's Jose Antonio Vargas and Darryl Fears talk in depth about D.C.'s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Video by News Channel 8
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In response to a report released Monday on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the District, city officials say they plan to develop a new and improved public awareness campaign. Such efforts will no doubt take time and involve focus groups and require lots of data and even more money.

A person could contract AIDS and be dead by then.

Perhaps I can help get the campaign going based on what we already know, starting with black women, who represent more than one-quarter of HIV cases in the District. Most of them -- about 58 percent -- have been infected through heterosexual sex.

I propose a TV public service announcement that goes something like this: You see a man holding a gun to a woman's head and pulling the trigger while professing his love for her.

Voiceover: "Is that any different from what a 'down-low brother' does when he has unprotected sex with other men, then comes home and has sex with his unwitting wife?"

As a rule of thumb, marketing strategists told me, it is best to emphasize the positive -- say, remind the man of how good it feels to provide for and protect his family -- instead of denigrating him for immoral behavior.

So I tweaked my ending.

Voiceover: "Women, protect yourself. Men, it's bad enough being a liar and cheat, but don't go so low as to become a murderer, too."

(If you have a better message, please let me know.)

Asked in a telephone interview what she thought of my PSA, former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders said, "That would get my attention."

And isn't that what public awareness is all about?

In releasing the first report on the AIDS epidemic in 2007, city officials laid out an action agenda calling for a "modern response" to a "modern epidemic." Two years later, little has changed except the name of the problem -- which city officials now refer to as a "generalized and severe epidemic," and just in case you don't know the difference between the two, the latter involves infection rates "higher than West Africa."

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