Wednesday, August 3, 2011

UN Publicity Machine Devours its own Entrails

With a breathtaking lack of self awareness, IRIN, part of the UN, has an article entitled 'Africa: The crazy things they say: politicians and HIV'. If this article is not an argument for the abolition of UNAIDS I don't know what is.

Yes, there are some political leaders in Africa who think strange things about HIV. And there are political leaders everywhere who think strange things about HIV. This is despite billions of dollars being spent around the world on the disease, some of which was aimed at informing people about it.

Established 17 years ago, a more spectacular failure among international instutions than UNAIDS would be hard to find, though there is plenty of competition.

Not only are some of the leaders and populations of the highest prevalence countries in the world systematically misinformed about HIV, meaning that little can be done to reduce transmission, but the institution continues to point the finger at Africans themselves for a disease that it was their sole mandate to address.

I have tried to articulate why I thought lying about how HIV is transmitted in African countries is a form of extremism. But the IRIN article does it far better. From a Swazi MP who said HIV positive people should be branded on the buttocks, to a South African president who severely curtailed treatment for hundreds of thousands of HIV positive people, the article just about sums up what UNAIDS has achieved.

The press is as bad as those leaders, spreading just about any rumor they think will sell their content, with the BBC recently leading the pack of racists with a 'story' about Swazis eating cow dung because they were too poor to afford food and needed something in their stomachs to reduce the side effects of antiretrivoral treatment.

One of the African leaders who started off pressing for effective measures to reduce HIV transmission was Museveni of Uganda. Under his leadership in the 1980s many things changed in health facilities, government departments, schools, universities and elsewhere, so that people were informed about HIV and enabled to avoid it.

But the 1990s saw the health issue of HIV being hijacked by the media, the pharmaceutical industry, politicians, religious leaders and others. HIV prevention messages were exclusively replaced by patronizing rubbish about what people should and shouldn't do in bed. Making HIV into a moral issue and one about promiscuity and illicit sex ensured that stigma, which was already a problem, became institutionalized and it has remained so ever since.

UNAIDS have rarely been heard to refer to any kind of non-sexually transmitted HIV except to deny that it exists. And they have to spend their time thinking up ad hoc explanations of why a virus that is difficult to transmit sexually is almost always transmitted sexually in (some) African countries and hardly ever in non-African countries.

If IRIN want a real story, they could look at why some people who should know better have strange ideas about HIV. But IRIN itself has always been part of the problem, being a mere mouthpiece for the UN aristocracy. The article modestly declares that it "does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations". True, not necessarily.

It's easy to point the finger at African leaders and sneer at their misunderstandings about HIV, and finger pointing is a specialty for UNAIDS. But it's worth asking why these leaders are so misinformed by an institution that has had little else to do with its billions but inform them. But kudos to IRIN for highlighting part of the problem, however inadvertently.


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