Addressing AIDS Effectively

Feb 222006
Authors: Meg Burd

Taking Cultural Context into Consideration for Education, Treatment

With an estimated 40.3 million people currently living with HIV worldwide and more than 3 million dying of AIDS related illnesses in 2005, the United Nation's AIDS program reported that the number of individuals with HIV is at the highest yet.

Sweeping swiftly over the world, HIV/AIDS is an epidemic that claims more victims daily and, while strides have been made to educate the public and hopefully slow the spread, there appears to be much more needed on a global level to halt this deadly disease.

"Given all that we know about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), it is sometimes surprising, even shocking, to note how little seems to have changed," notes Benjamin Weil in an article for the UN Chronicle.

Indeed, asking ourselves why so little has changed is in essential question, a question that holds millions of lives around the globe in the balance.

Already effecting 25.8 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2005, as reported by UNAIDS, and millions of others worldwide, the BBC reports that HIV/AIDS is now growing in places such as Russia, a place whose general population was at one time considered not particularly at risk. Watching HIV/AIDS spread across a region where HIV/AIDS infection was considered limited to a smaller at-risk group, the fact that "Russia has the second fastest growing rate of HIV/AIDS in the world" today, as reported by Lesly Simmons of the Red Cross, it seems AIDS is now reaching even more.

Looking at the rate of infection and the enormous amount of individuals affected by the disease around the world, important questions, ideas and concerns about prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and the conditions of those currently suffering from the disease should be raised.

At the moment, public education as a tool for prevention seems to be the main tact for hopefully halting the continued spread of the epidemic. "In many countries… a combination of governmental and non-governmental efforts has yielded extensive public information, education and communication… As a result, the vast majority of some national populations are at least aware of how to avoid becoming infected with the virus," notes Weil in the UN Chronicle.

While education programs are certainly useful and have made an immense impact in America in particular, making people aware of HIV/AIDS safety, it is important to evaluate these education and prevention programs to see they are effectively communicating messages of prevention and treatment for people all over the world.

Many current programs for AIDS operate on the same ideas of education we see around us in America – education that talks about condom use, virus transmission, autoimmune deficiency and the illnesses such a condition might allow, and discussions on general sexual health. In other countries and cultures, such knowledge might not mesh with the local cultural context or might not be so easy to convey due to taboos, therefore not allowing the messages of health to be conveyed in a useful way.

Instead of simply utilizing a "one-size-fits-all" plan of education on the topic of HIV/AIDS, it seems vital to consider the cultural context for the message. Culture often plays a role in the transmission of HIV/AIDS: It should likewise play a role in the transmission of education about preventing and treating HIV/AIDS.

In places such as India, for example, Sanjoy Majumder of the BBC reports that education and treatment "efforts are hampered by the fact that most Indians still find sex and AIDS taboo subjects." While condom education has been useful for sex workers and others in places such as Bombay, the BBC report finds, the information about the sexual transmission of AIDS and the prevention methods such as condoms are not talked about in the home or in broad society. Education, therefore, must consider these taboos and consider ways to address the topic in a way that will still inform, even if people hold such taboos against outright discussions of sex.

"Culturally appropriate curricula" is advised by the United Nations, who suggests that ideas such as context (the environment in which education and discussion of AIDS is taking place), content (where local values and resources are carefully understood and considered) and methods (which allow local people to involve themselves in education as well as embed ideas of prevention into their cultural context in an accessible way) be carefully considered. Instead of necessarily allowing only one perspective on education and treatment run roughshod over local culture, working for and within the culture to address this series problem seems to be essential for many reasons.

This is not an easy task, but HIV/AIDS, but as As Sy of Senegal notes in Weil's Chronicle article, "People often expect simple answers to a complex problem." A complex and growing global issue, HIV/AIDS must be addressed quickly, but also effectively.


Meg is a graduate student in Anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday.

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