World AIDS Day 2011 has come and gone, now what?

Another World Aids Day has come and gone and I am wondering how many of us have thought about the day and its significance a week later. The reason I ask is because I’ve been wondering whether these are the same people questioning the so called denialist attitudes of our leaders towards HIV & AIDS.

For some time now I’ve been wondering where all the media coverage tracking this terrible medical affliction goes to after December 1st?

Where is the determined ferociousness of the daily scoop on a health minister who seemed to personify the crisis or controversy of this dreaded disease?

I’ve been wondering why, except for a few occasions, this disease was not making the 6 o’clock news, or 7 o’clock bulletin for that matter.

What I wanted to know and what I guess I still need to figure out even today is, who moved my HIV? Who took Aids off the front pages and out of our top-of-mind awareness?

It’s easy on December 1st, to showcase the successes, highlight the latest trends and even do a call-to-action around our beloved nation. We have everybody from politicians and pop stars, radio DJs and school children all waving the collective flag and quoting the quotable quotes and shouting the mandatory catchy slogans.

On the day we feel proud, motivated as one nation against this global pandemic, determined and well-informed….and then, the reality bites: after the day is over, there are another 364 to go. How then, do we motivate ourselves for those 364?

What do we need to do to keep the awareness going for another 364 days?

I ask you, not to be flippant or disregardful of the mighty effort of companies, individuals, NGOs and indeed government departments at every level on World Aids Day. Rather I ask because even for me as the author of a hugely successful book on HIV Aids, there is a daily struggle required to keep HIV AIDS top of mind. I’m reminded about it every time I meet wonderful, young people from communities – once firebrands – who would now rather give up and die.

I’m reminded of this during the counselling and training with people from all walks of life, with all manner of worries and troubles, not the least of which is HIV and Aids.

So as we reflect on the speeches and the words of encouragement, as we dutifully remind ourselves to know our status, I want to tell you that only you as an individual have the power to change, to create hope and turn on its head this once-a-year commemoration of HIV Aids.

Consider this: Who can recall how many pages have been written about HIV and Aids – just in South Africa alone? Take a guess: is it 25 million; is it 286 million pages, or is it 375-million pages? The truth is that billions of pages have been devoted to HIV and Aids!

Billions of rands have been spent on everything from TV talk shows and radio shows to street posters and billboards, from brand campaigns to campaigns to change our behavior, sexual practices, to teach people that no means no and that if it’s not on (condom) then it’s not on…

Do you think that the general population has an inkling about the HIV Aids pandemic? Well, while billions of pages have been written about it, more than 20% of South Africans were unable to read a single word of it. More than 9-million South Africans are considered illiterate or functionally illiterate. Thirty years ago, pre-democracy, we heard the cry of no normal sport in an abnormal society.

That truth is still relevant today, except in the case of HIV Aids it is impossible to fully deliver normal truth in an abnormal environment – not when we are dealing with a wickedly abnormal killer disease that is in fact preventable…

And, that really ought to answer the inevitable question as to why did this loud and boisterous white lady from the northern suburbs choose to produce a book of pictures to explain all the details of HIV and Aids.

My answer is simple: why not?

With respect to the politicians and slogan shouters and once-a-year back-slappers, what we need is fewer words, more action, more pictures. In creating a book that would be a critical companion to anybody from middle management to security guards, CEOs to secretaries, I believed that something interactive was needed.

Not just cartoons, but cutting edge illustrations from the brush of one of South Africa’s brightest talents.

The great thing about pictures is that they often tell the story. Where a thousand words would be needed to explain, a picture or drawing captures it succinctly, challenges the thought process and forces us to think.

If it forces us to think, it’s going to propel us to act and if we act, people, we are empowered.

We are no longer standing on the sidelines watching the world die around us: we are taking charge.

Of what? Our actions, the actions of our children, our families, our communities, our men and women.

What happens once we know our status? What do we do about it? How do we function? How do we react and integrate with those around us?

How many of us as parents sit down and talk with our children, 7 or 8 years old and really talk? Not about birds and bees but about the act of sex, the physical changes in the bodies that allow for the act to take place, why husbands and wives or partners do it, the emotional attachment, the life-changing experience once it happens?

How can we expect our kids to know about HIV and Aids and want to know their status when we haven’t even talked to them about what it feels like to be penetrated sexually – not just physically but emotionally as well?

How can we engage without children and communities on issues relating to condom use, knowing our status, cultural issues around Aids and sex, society stigma, microbicides when our mindset at home or at school or in the workplace is to keep it clean, keep it politically correct and not deal with the shift in our thinking, in our mindsets that is required before we can become truly empowered in the fight against HIV and Aids?

I bring up the microbicides because as much as it is in its infancy stages of testing, the initial results are astounding and offer a true empowering element that has not been there in the global fight against the pandemic.

For the first time, we have the prospect of women being able to protect themselves from HIV without needing to convince the male partner to put on a condom before sex occurs.

The great news is that South Africa is at the forefront of the research on microbicides and it could very well be the most critical medical advance since the advent of the PILL.

Imagine that ladies? A new development; a product either as a cream or gel and possibly other forms that release an active ingredient over time to ward off sexually transmitted diseases and HIV?

Let’s get one thing straight here: For many of us who know or have lost loved ones, friends and family to HIV and Aids, the experience has been a reactionary one.

Someone is tested, results come back positive for HIV and then starts the long, reactive process: medically, it must be treated, managed. Emotionally, it has to be digested, understood, perhaps shared, perhaps not – but the decisions to tell or not tell are very often motivated by our cultural sensitivities, or simply issues around privacy. Sexually, the reaction continues: Do we continue acting as if everything is normal, throw caution to the wind and live for the day? Visit home in the hope of finding the right local traditional doctor with just the right concoction for this global killer? Believe me, if it were out there it would be bottled and sold so fast by the global pharmaceutical companies…

So, know your status, but then what?

Are we talking women to women about changing our attitudes, our mindsets? Are we gathering our men to discuss these hard-hitting issues no-one wants to engage on? Are we hiding behind cultural considerations so that we don’t have to deal with reality? Instead of hiding or fighting polygamy, why are we not using it to establish a safer way of managing the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases or HIV?

Before we even get to the “know your status” with our children, what is the status all about?

We live in a different world. It’s an increasingly mobile, socially interactive world. Our children communicate in an online language totally foreign to us. Children are having sex at 11 years old, never mind teenage ages.

Knowing their status is the last thing on their minds. Some want airtime, others need attention, love. Some live in a consumerist bubble, others have their lives changed by deaths of caregivers, parents.

The status of life as we know it has changed. It’s impossible for millions of women around the world to simply say no or to force their men to wear condoms or to demand monogamy or treatment for STIs.

I think we need to be clear. When you are dealing with a subject matter as critical and life-altering as HIV Aids, there is no room for democratic consensus. There is no room for denialism. There is no room for political correctness.

When I set about my writing book, I had a very clear thought process of what the end result should be. My goal was to simply ensure this would become the must-have information companion when it comes to HIV Aids. More than that, it needed to be as relevant and appealing to a 15-year-old as it would be to a 60-year-old.

The one thing that people feel with regards to HIV Aids is a sense of inevitability. For me, working with some amazing people during my training and counselling I realized that many have already resolved themselves to that inevitable.

But, that inevitability can be tempered or countered with hope.

Hope needs to be based on a solid foundation and that is knowledge. Personal empowerment, especially in the battle against HIV Aids, needs to be built on knowledge, a grasp of all the issues, factual and cultural.

Know your status, yes. But then, what do you do about it? Back when South Africans had a common enemy, we gathered, we had political discussions, we plotted and schemed and everyone, from the very young to the old, all knew there was this terrible thing called apartheid and we could all play a role in dismantling it.

HIV and Aids is not concentrated on one race or community. It is a global killer and if we are to get on top of this globally, we need to start by taking charge locally. One by one, it starts with you and me.

What are you going to do about it during the days, weeks and months before we again get to World Aids Day on December 1, 2012?
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