In April 2003 a
story appeared in the Cairo Times that highlighted the need for frank
discussion about HIV/AIDS in Egypt. The article, entitled "Running a
Silent Risk", uncovered troubling misconceptions about the disease and
exposed the stigma attached to those infected with HIV in Egypt.
In an interview with APN on 30 July 2003, the article’s author,
Ursula Lindsey, spoke about AIDS awareness in Egypt, stigmatization of
the disease and the role of the Egyptian media in the fight against
AIDS in the country.
APN: Why did the Cairo Times feel the need to publish this article? Was
there any internal resistance/hesitance to its being published?
Ursula Lindsey: Although there had been several events/conferences
regarding AIDS in the region recently, we hadn't done an in-depth AIDS
story yet, so it seemed like a good time. We've covered sensitive
topics before, so we didn't really hesitate.
APN: How do you think that this article has changed people’s perceptions of HIV/AIDS?
Ursula Lindsey: I think that it has drilled home the fact that just
because you live in Egypt, doesn't mean you're safe from AIDS; that
nowhere is safe. I had one colleague tell me he had read the story and
that it really scared him. This is a healthy fear: it's what compels
people to get tested and to use protection.
APN: Social stigma attached to the disease and its sufferers often
leads to biased stories that do not reveal the true scope of the AIDS
epidemic. These accounts then perpetuate the rumor and innuendo that
surround the public’s perception of the disease, reinforcing
misinformation and stereotypes. As Lindsey’s article recounts, one girl
interviewed believed it possible to contract AIDS from a manicure, and
an 18-year-old student explains the prevailing cultural attitude toward
infection: "If they know it was because of a blood transfusion it’s
okay, but otherwise they don’t accept it". The article also provides
pertinent data and statistics, such as information from one study
suggesting that condom use in the country is around 0.2 per cent.
APN: How do you think the article has changed people’s perceptions of those who carry the disease?
Ursula Lindsey: As far as the perception of AIDS victims, one of the
things that was missing from the story was a first-hand account from an
AIDS patient. This was one very serious hurdle, getting someone with
AIDS to talk to me; I think that having the story and words of such a
person would have really helped to challenge the prevailing perception
of AIDS sufferers.
Those who have the disease are also reluctant to share their
stories. Knowing the media’s tendency toward sensationalism, and
fearing personal repercussions, many HIV positive men and women prefer
to remain silent. The combination of these two factors can form a high
hurdle for media professionals trying to present an honest portrayal of
the disease to clear.
APN: Your article discusses HIV and AIDS quite frankly. What was the
reaction to such a candid approach to a normally taboo issue?
Ursula Lindsey: There actually wasn't much of a reaction. Our print
readership is either foreigners or well-educated and English-speaking
Egyptians. They're not going to be shocked by a story like this. We've
done stories on many other sensitive topics, like drugs, adultery, etc.
To my knowledge, AIDS is talked about in the Egyptian press - the
difference is that it's done so in a very sensationalistic manner,
either pitying or blaming the victim, and presenting the person as a
very unusual case.
APN: Was this article part of a larger initiative or strategy to
combat AIDS in Egypt? If so, what are your goals from this initiative?
Ursula Lindsey: Obviously, the Cairo Times would like to see
Egypt avoid an AIDS epidemic (we've been running AIDS prevention ads
for years). It is not one of our publication's stated goals to combat
AIDS, but it is our goal to give interesting and relevant information
about social, political and cultural developments in Egypt. AIDS is one
of many health issues we've covered over the years.
APN: Lindsey’s article notes that the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases
in Egypt is still relatively low, but there are certain risk factors
that suggest the region may be prone to higher rates of infection in
the future. One important risk factor is the lack of available and
accurate information on the disease. Articles like this one that
provide readers with statistics and facts are essential for fostering
public awareness. The article also provides pertinent data and
APN: How effective do you think your story was in raising awareness
Ursula Lindsey: It's hard to gauge the
effectiveness of stories. I'm really not sure. One thing to note,
though, is that Egypt may really be on the cusp of expanding its AIDS
awareness drive. In particular, the use of celebrity spokespeople is
about to be tried (I'm actually researching this for a story). When
famous people are willing to associate themselves with a disease, that
suggests that the disease is not so terribly stigmatized anymore.
APN: Do you think that media can play a useful role in informing the public about the realities of AIDS?
Ursula Lindsey: Of course the media can impact public opinion about
AIDS. Just look at what mass media campaigns did to perceptions of the
disease in the West. The media can be very, very effective, but for
that to happen, the government has to be clear on its position and
committed to its message. The next step would be for people who
actually have the disease to go public.