30 July 2005
 
Editors Voice:
One Article at a Time: Egyptian Media Work to De-stigmatize AIDS

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 statistics.

APN: How effective do you think your story was in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS?
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.