“How many of you are over 50?” asked Christina Scott, South African journalist and broadcaster.
Half a dozen hands went up.
“Come on, now – be honest,” Christina urged. One more hand joined.
“In South African terms, chances are that you’re already dead,” she declared.
Christina was talking about stark realities of living and dying in today’s South Africa, which is one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.
We were at a session on ‘Life and Death in 2020: How will science respond?’ during the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists, currently underway in Melbourne.
Christina then asked how many in her audience were aged between 30 and 35. This time, four hands shot up.
“If you were in South Africa, you’re probably infected with HIV, and don’t know it yet — and go around giving it to others,” she told them.
After getting her audience shocked and hooked, Christina talked about how HIV is cutting across social hierarchies and colour barriers in her country.
Many intervention strategies to contain HIV have been based on the premise that when people know more, they are more likely to change risky behaviour. “We now see that greater wealth or higher levels of access to information alone do not change people’s behaviour. In fact, the middle classes lull themselves into thinking that HIV is a poor people’s disease, when it’s not,” she said.
In other words, it’s not a linear process and is much nuanced.
Christina was doubtful if Internet, PCs and online communications could make much headway in reaching out a majority of South Africans. It’s not just a lack of connectivity and computers, but a more basic absence of electricity in many areas.
To her, old fashioned radio was still the most cost-effective way to reach more people quickly.
One new ICT that has taken sub-Saharan African by storm is mobile phones. “They are everywhere, and people are using them for all sorts of things — including sexual transactions.”
She was cautiously optimistic about prospects for combating HIV. “AIDS is like a war: it’s very nasty, and causes a lot of damage. But as in war, it also spurs innovation and responses,” she said.
An AIDS vaccine is not the answer, as the virus keeps mutating and in any case distributing the vaccine to all those who need it will be a huge challenge.
Her personal wish: her daughter of 15 to get through college without contracting HIV.
Note: Christina works as Africa consultant for the Science and Development Network.