The three-letter plague

A couple of years ago I was among a group of editors taken to task by the Treatment Action Campaign's Zachie Achmat. Why, he demanded at an informal gathering, did we not go bigger on the Aids story, and give it more prominence in our publications?

As we all looked down and shuffled our feet, I was curious to hear how Achmat – who has given his life to the fight against Aids – might respond to what readers have indicated: they feel they've read everything about HIV/Aids, and they feel helpless. I know that, because I'm a reader too. We spoke about "Aids fatigue". "What more is there to say?" I asked. "We've said it all. We're telling the same story over and over, and nobody's reading it anymore."

Achmat was, as ever, gracious in conceding that the public's eyes were starting to glaze over at the mention of HIV, and the discussion took a constructive turn.

At that very moment, however, journalist Jonny Steinberg was on his way to proving all of us wrong: there are still untold stories around the plague sweeping South Africa, stories that make compelling reading.

Three-letter plagueis the most readable – and arguably the most important – book ever written about the HIV pandemic. It takes the black-and-white notion of a disease with a known and manageable cause of transmission, and a known and achievable treatment, and casts it right back into the space where, in many minds, it lives: a space that's emotional, superstitious, fearful. It wrestles with science and politics and prejudice, and the deep, deep sense that sex is forbidden, and Aids is a punishment for too much sex, or too much enjoyment of sex… and if you don't recognise yourself somewhere in this book, I'd be surprised.

Remember the war cry "fat is a feminist issue"? The point of that statement was: fat isn't just adipose tissue – fat is about self-image, social pressure, sexual politics. Now Three-letter plague makes it quite clear that HIV/Aids is a cultural issue. It's not just a virus, diagnosed and restrained (with considerable success) by science – it's about how traditional beliefs meet Western medicine, the social politics of tight-knit and jealous communities, about dreams and disappointment; it's about a community's deep-rooted mistrust, fed by generations of lousy treatment. And, mostly, it's about the power of stigma to destabilise a rational mind.

This is a really, really important book. HIV/Aids may be the most potent symbol of how the threat of disease can translate to a fear of knowing (and, hence, a fear of screening), but it's not the only fear that keeps people in ignorance. Prostate check, anyone?

By the way, Health24's news editor Marcus Low has been doing some reading of his own: he's found a theory about polygamy our leaders should take to heart…

Until next time,
(Heather Parker, Health24, April 2008)


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