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View the documentAIDS in the South Pacific - getting the message across

AIDS in the South Pacific - getting the message across

What do theatre companies, comic strips, broadcasters, confessional groups, videos and male and female impersonators in the islands of Oceania have in common ?

They have all been roped in by the South Pacific Commission, that veteran of Pacific regional organisations, to stop the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the region.

The SPC works mainly for the development requirements of its 22 Pacific island members from its headquarters in Noumea (New Caledonia). Since 1991, when the AIDS-STD prevention campaign was launched in Oceania, the project organisers have been doing their utmost to ensure that information about AIDS spreads faster than the implacable disease itself.

'The AIDS project has been able to use the vast information network built up over the years through the SPC's different work programmes in fields as varied as fishing, rural development, health, the media and women's affairs', Helene Courte, the head of the Commission's programmes, explains.

'We in the Pacific have been lucky enough to be able to draw on the experience of what have proven to be the most efficient AIDS and STD prevention policies in other parts of the world and one of the conclusions we have come to is that any drive to contain these diseases must rely heavily on local communities and associations', she says.

So, for instance, the AIDS project has supplied technical assistance and made grants of up to $5000 to various groups and associations, as part of the South Pacific Commission's small grants scheme for AIDS-STD prevention, to enable them to run their own prevention programmes.

The theatre-a good way of promoting AIDS education

More than 20 associations in 12 countries have had help since the project began and 19 applications for small grants are currently being processed. Among the projects financed with these grants, seminars have been set up for women's associations, information booklets have gone out to male and female impersonators and teaching aids have been produced for family planning organisations. Theatre groups in Papua-New Guinea have had grants to write scripts and put on plays about AIDS and the Wan Smolbag Theatre of Vanuatu has been able to tour the country to tell people about AIDS. 'When you realise that Vanuatu has 145 000 people speaking more than 100 different languages and Papua-New Guinea has 3.8 million people and 742 known languages, you begin to realise that the theatre is a good way of promoting AIDS education', Mrs Courte explains.

The AIDS project organisers are also working closely with other organisations on setting up training activities. Broadcasting specialists and health professionals, for example, have got together to see if they can improve their production skills. Messages and radio plays on AIDS and STD-related subjects have been produced as part of this drive and all the region's radio stations now broadcast them regularly. Since 1991, the SPC and PIBA, the Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association, have awarded prizes to the stations organising the best AIDS-STD news and prevention campaigns on radio.

Youth organisers and artists had the opportunity to get together at a seminar run jointly by the Commonwealth Youth Programme and the Australian publisher, Streetwize Comics. They saw how useful comic strips were for health promotion and produced two of their own on AIDS-STD prevention, one in French and one in English. Mrs Courte hopes to see them translated into some of the languages of Oceania too.

Publications

The SPC's AIDS project produces a number of regular publications, led by Alerte au sida-Oceanie, a quarterly distributed widely in the region and elsewhere, whose success is such that, by the fourth edition, the original print-run of 2000 had to be increased to 5500. The AIDS project also brings out a quarterly list of acquisistions giving all documents received through the WHO-SPC data exchange network. There have been five printings of the 200 publications listed and sent to various resource centres, national AIDS control committees and other organisations in the region.

The AIDS project is also behind a number of publications in Oceanic languages. Friends of workers on the project took their cue from the theme of the WHO's World AIDS Day in 1991 - 'Let's join forces'-and agreed, as their contribution to the drive to reach as many people as possible in the region, to translate a children's booklet written during a series of WHO-UNESCO backed courses aimed at producing AIDS teaching aids for the countries of the region. By November 1992, the booklet, called All about AIDS, had already been translated into 17 Oceanic languages and more translations are coming out.

With 'commitment from communities' being the theme of the 1992 World AIDS Day, SPC AIDS project staff called on all their partners to try out or translate the All about AIDS booklet.

Some churches criticise, others applaud

'There were problems, obviously,' Mrs Courte says. 'As has happened in other countries, we have been criticised by people who maintain that talking about sex is going against the values of Oceania. Some churches even complain that the very mention of using condoms is encouraging too much sexual freedom. We have backing from leaders of other denominational groups, very fortunately, and they tell those of their colleagues who do not support us that, while the Church opposes talk of sex in general, it certainly does not do so when it is a matter of promoting health and saving lives.' The SPC AIDS project is now planning to join with the Conference of Pacific Churches and the Catholic Commission for Justice to set up a meeting to help churches in the region come up with a joint approach to the epidemic.

To encourage parents to talk to their children about these diseases more openly, the AIDS Project has made Charlotte's Story, a video of a moving and thought-provoking interview with Charlotte Frankovich, a Samoan, whose son died of AIDS. In December, it was presented at the 12th International Film Festival in Hawaii, where many Oceanians live. Charlotte knew that they would be readier to listen to someone who had lived through this tragedy and react to what she had to say and so she agreed to take part in the Festival and discuss questions the video raised. 'We were very lucky to find an Oceanian who was brave enough to talk about these things in public so that other people could benefit from her experience,' Mrs Courte says.

The SPC AIDS project distributes videos on AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases widely in support of the education and prevention campaign in the region. The video of a play, a joint AIDS project-Wan Smolbag Theatre of Vanuatu production, was to be premiered on 1 December 1992, World AIDS Day.