Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The myth about AIDS

"The myth about AIDS Jayne, is that it's easy to catch..." When a mate of mine uttered these words to me in the pub a couple of weeks ago, I doubt he realised he was about to become the lead actor in my World AIDS day post.

The attitudes towards HIV and AIDS that I came across in Sierra Leone shocked me. From conspiracy theories (America's Indention to Destroy Sex) to simple and complete disbelief in it's existence (have a look here for some insight into people's views). Sierra Leone is one of the 'lucky' countries; a reported prevalence rate of 1.7% (compare this to Swaziland at 26.1% and UK at 0.2%). Many people would dispute how accurate that rate is (the real rate is generally thought to be higher) and work is going on across the country to raise awareness . How effective that will be in a country where even high profile, intelligent people deny the existence of HIV/AIDS remains to be seen.

It has to be said though, if that shocked me, then what about the attitudes I've found in the UK? We're officially a sexually liberal nation, being placed 11th in a new 'index of sociosexuality'. But how many people see HIV as a real risk to them? Certainly not my friend above, and I don't think I did either. The first HIV test I had was on returning from 7 months working in Sierra Leone. But that time spent working with people, educating people and advocating the importance of knowing your status, made me realise that the same applied back here.

Before I went away, I was given a health briefing to highlight the risks of HIV infection. I remember the other participants in the training literally scoffing at another girl and I, two twenty something single volunteers who said that we simply wouldn't sleep with someone without a condom in this country, so the additional risk of being overseas didn't worry us too much. They laughed at us 'oh girls, in the heat of the moment, it's not that simple' like we didn't know what we were talking about. But to be honest, it can be and for us, it is. We probably didn't have AIDS in the forefront of our minds when we made those choices, other risks seem higher (pregnancy, chlamydia, the list goes on) but nonetheless that awareness protected us. In a sexually liberal world, where we do have sex with more than one partner over a lifetime, and without intention of that partner continuing for a lifetime, then having the wherewithal to insist on condom use, be able to talk quite frankly about these things, surely that shouldn't be so socially uncomfortable? The number of my friends who get into 'relationships' and say, "well... I'm not sure what to do... he won't use a condom..." amazes me. As does the number of my male friends who think that protecting against pregnancy is a primary concern, so the pill or whatever will do. We just don't realise what we're risking.

Granted, in developing countries, particularly Africa, AIDS is a bigger issue than it is here, because it is affecting so many more people and for myriad other reasons. But if we don't take action, then that will change and not for the better.

Providing decent condoms in developing countries would make a difference for a start. I mean it's hardly going to encourage people to use condoms when what's provided free is practically a marigold! (Having said that, when we decided to introduce free condoms in bathrooms for our staff in my organisation, my colleague picked up a couple of thousand to 'keep us going' from the National AIDS Secretariat. Hundreds disappeared on the first day from the storeroom and she had to go round asking everyone only to take what they needed, and to bring the others back for now... presumably they were being taken to sell on to other people, so there must have been some demand!) Obviously there are also multiple other interventions that are going to help here, the move from ABC to SAVE being a big step in reframing the issue (which has a huge religious influence that gets in the way a lot of the time, but I will just gloss over that for now, as I am doing with many, many issues in the whole AIDS situation), but getting people to use condoms is a crucial part of any programme.

And in the UK? We have access to decent condoms and we have access to huge amounts of education and information (despite poor sex ed in schools) so there's really no excuse for being unaware of the risks. To be a truly sexually liberal nation, we need to stop being so embarrassed about discussing these issues and recognise that the practicalities can be dealt with quickly, easily and without impacting at all on the fun, enjoyable and hopefully very good sex that we're having.

I know I am HIV negative and I intend to remain so. And next time I reach the point in a relationship where it's more than causal, and may be going somewhere, I would be delighted if it was the man, and not myself, who was the one who suggesting dinner, a movie and a trip to the GUM clinic.


Anonymous smyf said...

Whilst not having any direct experience with regard to HIV/AIDS I'd still like to make a comment here. From a little reading about HIV the first thing that struck me was that it is difficult to catch and is associated with specific behaviours. It's fashionable to say that AIDS doesn't discriminate, but in truth it does. It effects gay men, drug users and African's more than other groups purely because they behave differently to white British heterosexuals. AIDS is basically transmitted via blood and therefore is very difficult to catch through vaginal sex. Anal sex and injecting drugs are a hell of a lot more unsafe. It also appears that people are more contagious after just contracting HIV so promiscuity also plays a part.

03 December, 2008 10:33  
Blogger Uncle Petie said...

I think thre are two separate claims going on here. Obviously HIV/AIDS effects different demographics to different extents but that doesn't really have an effect on the idea that everyone should be more careful and less uptight about blood tests.


It effects gay men, drug users and African's more than other groups purely because they behave differently to white British heterosexuals

That only works for the, I suspect rather smaller, group of white British heterosexuals who only have vaginal sex, don't use intravenous drugs, and only sleep with people exactly like them. And even then, they're still taking easily avoidable risks.

And it strikes me that in the African case, the difference in behaviour is "using a condom". Which is sort of the point.

03 December, 2008 11:52  
Anonymous Smyf said...

Uncle Pete,

I certainly agree that everyone should modify their behaviour - and to a degree people have. However, we still have to be as honest as we can about who is most at risk and why. Contact with blood is much more likely in anal sex, which itself is more prevalent in the gay community. The partner being penetrated is more likely to be the one being infected and in gay sex that could be either partner - so the risk is increased again. HIV is more contagious when new in the body so the number and frequency of partners has an effect too. From what I've read gay men tend to have more sexual partners than straight ones. Overall, it's sadly no surprise that HIV rates are vastly different in the heterosexual and gay communities. One of the easy ways to see what constitutes risky behaviour is to have a look at the list of people who are banned from donating blood.

Whilst I agree that white British heterosexuals do partake in risky behaviour it is as part of a low risk group in general. Also whilst anal sex does occur it's normally secondary to vaginal sex not a replacement.

Africa is a little similar too. You have a weird mix of superstition, poor education, an importance placed on virginity (hence high rates of anal sex), polygamy, high levels of promiscuity and pregnancy etc. You can't really compare it like for like with British sexuality.

03 December, 2008 13:37  

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