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I just came back from Lagos, Nigeria. I was out there to support MTV’s Africa Award (MAMA) show which was amazing. I also went to Lagos to try to leverage resources for the production and campaign of Shuga 2, both through non-profit and commercial organisations, which led me to UNICEF.

Having a great global relationship with UNICEF, thought it would be good to meet with UNICEF in Lagos and give them first option to buy into Shuga. It was such an insightful meeting – maybe not necessarily for Shuga, but more insight of how HIV/AIDS is impacting people in Nigeria.

Like many places with low prevalence rates but large populations, Nigeria is still not taking HIV/AIDS as seriously as they should. Vulnerable people such as street children are significantly hard to reach – not only because they move around, but because programmes aren’t created for them with them. Policy papers and briefing notes aren’t truly capturing what these kids are going through, it’s the same issues that you read about but not really reflective of what is going on.

Sara, the head of UNICEF out there in Lagos, said she was not prepared for what she heard when she talked to street kids. Having previously served in Nepal, she was used to hearing shocking stories from the streets, but being told about kids selling kids for sex and their casual discussion of drug use, still upset her.

I can’t lie, it upset me too, and I wasn’t hearing it first hand. We talked about how to make sure that whatever we did was sustainable – these kids left home for a reason, we couldn’t be another group to let them down.

It’s not an easy project at all and one that will cost significant resources to undertake. I do get when Gates and others are saying that we’ve got to find cheaper solutions that are effective but I think the problem is everyone is now looking at the $ sign and not the actual project or innovative solution. Also I don’t get the idea of evidence base – evidence shows that peer education doesn’t work that well but people are still putting money into it. Evidence shows that media campaigns can and do work, but no one is investing in the right media initiatives. So… what’s really going on?

I think we could do something really good and rewarding, and informative for street kids and maybe even manage to create some sort of economic solution for them, but can we find the money for it? I hope so, I hope between UNICEF and MTV we have enough clout to make this project work, at least for the sake of those kids. Who knows, if it works in Nigeria, we could roll it out across other regions.

On the other side, the MAMAs were amazing – African music is set to take over the world. They have been in the shadows too long, but they are ready. The eclectic mix of artists from all over the continent – the best of the best – coupled with Eve, Rick Ross and T-Pain and the legendary Public Enemy gave an explosive experience that shows why MTV still is the best at what they do.

So nice to see something positive coming out of Africa again. When you live in the West, it’s easy to forget how much positive stuff is going on in Africa as all you ever hear about here is poverty, pain, civil strife, corruption and a host of other negative stories. If I for a moment wasn’t proud to be African, the MAMAs reminds me of everything that is right about Africa and makes me hold my head up just that much higher.

The good news is that new HIV infections have fallen by 20% over the past 10 years. 56 countries, including almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, have stablised or slowed down rate of new infections.

The bad news is, well, there were 2.6 million people newly infected with HIV in 2009, including 370,000 babies. And still over 7,000 people are newly infected with HIV every day, and that boils down to two new infections for every person that goes on treatment. It’s kind of scary that considering the great reduction, the numbers remain so high. There is still so much to be done, I guess that’s why UNAIDS is calling for a Prevention Revolution.

Prevention works. After the big insistence on everything having to be evidence based before it could be scaled up, there’s enough research out there that shows that prevention works – the 20% decrease for one. But more needs to be done on prevention, more money, more initiatives. The issue is the same, but the audience is different, they are more savvy, more wary, more complacent. The vehicles for spreading the message are different too. New technology has made the mode of communication more advanced, more interactive, and basically given us more opportunities to engage and innovate.

This is key for changing the course of the epidemic – to getting young people to actually pay attention and do something. You have to take risks, almost get banned. Something that unfortunately those holding the purse strings aren’t so sure about doing. I get it, risk and change is scary. Personally, change makes me really nervous, I’m one of those people, that is terrified of embracing change, I don’t like the unknown.

However, this isn’t an issue we can afford to stand still about and play it safe. Change is about evolving, it’s about constantly creating and diversfying and innovating and ultimately being successful, it’s the revolutionary approach that UNAIDS is advocating for…

We did that this year, it also helped that we had most of our own money to do the programme we truely believed in.

I spend a lot of time watching MTV – it could be slightly unhealthy, but hey, you need to know your product right? So last year when 16 and Pregnant premiered in the UK I was hooked. I watched the show each week and the impact it had on me – I decided pregnancy wasn’t for me – made me think how the format informs but also provokes. Observatory documentaries are the new reality shows. There is something grossly appealing about watching other people’s lives, people who aren’t famous, but still seem to be struggling with something. I’m guessing it’s the perverse nature in us that makes us think, ‘wow maybe my life isn’t that bad’, while still making for great, informative, TV.

So I pitched the idea, why not make a 16 and Pregnant style show, but using HIV/AIDS as the focal point? It took some pushing to get buy in but after working with my colleague on the idea, it was greenlit. I didn’t end up working on the show, but I’m glad that we did it. It was a shift from what the Staying Alive campaign has previously done – none of which was bad, but was current for that particular time – we embraced that change and we’re on to a winner. Me, Myself and HIV is a one hour self-narrated programme that follows two 20-something year olds who are HIV+, one in Zambia and one in Minneapolis, USA. It looks at their lives as they go about doing ordinary day to day things, like dating, trying to launch a career, get educated, while balancing living with HIV.

The website follows up with Slim and Angelikah after we finished filming with them. But also shares other stories from people infected with and affected by HIV, as well as providing information for people to get tested, and join our quest to get at least 10,000 people to pledge to get tested.

On the social media side we’re using Twitter to conduct twitterviews with celebs to talk about testing and spread the message on twitter using the hashtag #MTVgettested. We’re using formspring to enable our users to ask Slim, Angelikah and our resident doctor (provided through our partnership with the Hollywood Health and Society) questions. This is a comprehensive campaign that fully integrates analogue and digital. Though our plans for Shuga 2 are even more comprehensive!

The revolution starts here!

Please watch the show, December 1st, and let me know what you think about it. Have we got it right? I don’t know, you let me know. I will leave you with this thought though, enough is enough, in the words of Michel Sidebe, 7000 new infections a day is still unacceptable, we need to put our money where our mouth is and take some risks.

You always hear about celebrities having to be responsible role models, but is that fair? If you have a talent and enjoy using that talent to entertain and make a living out of it, is it then fair to pass judgement if you don’t ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to being a role model? After all, does the fine print to celebrity status say that you have to be a positive influence and give back to your community?

This was the predicament I found myself in a couple of weeks ago when two popular, black, personalities refused to take an HIV test to support a testing campaign I’ve been helping on. At first I was really angry. Our community is disproportionally affected by HIV/AIDS and they wouldn’t take a test to encourage young black (males) people know their status. Knowing them personally I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to see them and give them my opinion on their action, or lack of.

Once I calmed down, about a week later, I started questioning the responsibilities we place on celebrities to be role models and to promote good behaviour. Is this fair? Because you’re good at singing or acting, does that mean that you also need to be a perfect person, or indeed care about the community you live in, when so many others don’t?

My honest opinion on this is yes, you do. You have been blessed with an ability to reach people in ways no one else can. ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’: where is your true relevance or value on earth if you do nothing more than sing and dance to enrich your personal bank account, and don’t leave the world in a better place than you found it?

I think that we all, celebrities and normal citizens alike, have a role in bettering our community. Call me foolish or naive but I do think that if you do nothing to help the world you live in, then you may as well be irrelevant. And if you think that talking about safe sex and promoting responsible sexual decision-making might negatively impact your reputation then you really are lame. You don’t deserve the platform you’ve been given. So yes, they might never speak to me again, but the next time I do see those two, I will explain how I feel about their decision.

Do look out for our World AIDS Day campaign, and spread the word in your community, taking an HIV test is just the start of taking control of your sexual health.

Peace

The last few months have been rather intense, both personally and professionally. Change is always a difficult thing to go through, but sometimes you just have to embrace it and hold on.

With less than a month to go before World AIDS Day, we’re full steam ahead to deliver one of our most integrated campaigns yet – if all goes according to plan. It’s also a new programming format for us, mixing reality style with documentary type story lines. I wish I could say it’s an obs-doc, but it’s not quite, not yet…

Coupled with this one hour special is a dedicated website, which we hope will be a one-stop destination for young people needing to find out all they need about testing and/or living with HIV.

I have to admit this format and indeed this website has been a goal of mine for awhile. When I first lost my brother in 2006, a change started in me, regarding the type of messages I thought we should be communicating to the audience, yes putting across the use the condom message was still important but it wasn’t enough (and I’m simplifying the messages we put across, it was more than just use a condom).

In 2009 when I lost my other brother, I knew it was time to change things up.

I still believe it’s important to put across the more positive, inclusive message of you can live a healthy, productive life with HIV, but I also think we can’t shy away from some of the more negative aspects of living with HIV. Like with any terminal illness there are good and bad days. And with the bad times, it affects everyone who loves you. Never before did the saying ‘if you’re not infected, you’re affected’ resonate with me than when I lost my brother. And even now, as I watch other relatives battling with the virus.

And so the process to tell the real stories of young people living with HIV began earlier this year. Do I think we’ve got it right? Well, I’ll let you guys be the judge of that, come December 1st.

I think there are so many stories to be told that what we’ve started is just the tip of the iceberg and it shouldn’t end here. Ultimately Me, Myself and HIV, should resonate with young people already living with the virus, but also give an opportunity for someone to walk in the shoes of one of these kids (they’re early 20s, hardly kids I suppose), for just one day. It’s not about pity, it’s not about differences, it’s much more about similarities, with that extra layer of HIV to complicate some things.

Look out for it – coming to a screen near you – on December 1st.

With less than two months to go until World AIDS Day, the department has been focussing all our efforts on what is going to be one of our biggest collaborative effort between online and linear TV. It’s always great to have the entire team working towards one goal and getting everyone engaged and on message.

This year is going to be interesting as there’s a lot we haven’t done before, including the TV show, which has taken on a reality style look to it – so it’s going to be exciting.

But I can’t get into it, don’t want to give anything away just yet. Watch this space and I’ll keep you updated.

Oh and I’m no longer on twitter – seems twitter brings way more drama than I ever thought possible 🙂 Oh well, guess you’ll just have to keep up with what’s going on with me here!

I’ll try and not leave it too long for my next post – though I have recurring pharyngitis so have to get lots of rest. I’ll be back real soon though. Until next time – take care of you

I’ve been back in the office for two days and I already feel like another holiday is needed! I have report after report to do and then back to writing funding proposals. Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t more to my job? Of course there is, it’s just that time of the year.

Speaking of that time of the year, it is MTV award season. The only real award show I get a tiny little bit involved in is the MAMAs – the MTV Africa Music Awards. Because I work so closely with the Africa team, I nag (they call it nagging it, I call it consistent pressure) them to include more social responsibility stuff in it. To be fair, most of the MTV award shows do, i.e. the Free Your Mind award for the Europe Music Awards – and Africa has something to, I forget what though…

This year the award show will be held in Lagos in December. On one hand I’m excited about this – because I love the Africa award show and the Nigerian music scene is so buzzing at the moment. But on the other hand, it’s Lagos! Hectic.

Still it’s an opportunity not to be missed, so while I’m writing all these reports, I’ll get the chance to brainstorm with the Africa team about how we can incorporate Shuga and/or other Staying Alive messaging into the MAMAs. That will be fun!

Also filming for the Zambia segment of our World AIDS Day programme has been completed. I’m looking forward to seeing what they got as I hear it went really well. I’m very excited about this programme. While it uses a well known MTV format, it’s still a first for us and fingers crossed it will work so hopefully we can turn it into a series. Oh that reminds me, it’s time to start brainstorming what we to mark 30 years of HIV/AIDS next year. Actually scary to think that this virus has been around for pretty much all my life.

Last night I watched this documentary about Zimbabwe’s lost children, it really could have been the story of so many kids in pretty much any country across Africa. Was heartbreaking. HIV/AIDS can be a manageable disease, but only when you’re in the right situation i.e. you can get treatment – including basic medication for opportunistic diseases and other illnesses – you can get proper nutrition, sometimes these kids went without food the whole day – and just decent sanitation.

There’s still so much to be done, and watching that programme really highlighted how HIV/AIDS is not something that can or should be addressed alone. HIV/AIDS exacerbates existing problems, certainly ones dealing with poverty. We have to do more.

Still exhausted from Vienna, I boarded a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa to meet with the MTV Networks Africa team to start talking about Shuga 2 – some meetings you can’t do any other way, but face to face.

The idea was to go through the evaluation and lessons learnt to do even better – hard, but there’s always ways to do better. In true MTV style the meeting was done in less than three hours and we have a plan.

The evaluation results for Shuga were good – really good, actually they were good for all our programmes. So the problem became, how do you top something so good?

The results from the evaluation weren’t enough to answer this question, so we looked at the lessons learnt from the campaign – and boy were there lessons! And then we said if money wasn’t a factor, what would we do?

We had a great conversation about the digital side of it. One of the things that came out strong in the evaluation was the need to integrate social networking and mobile. Dina, the lead evaluation professor from Johns Hopkins threw out the idea of us capitalising on the ‘next’ big thing in technology – I tried not to laugh when Richard said that VOD was the next big thing for the continent. His point was that Africa is moving fast with digital media, but not that fast. What’s big in the west now, can still be adapted and be big for Africa. But realistically, for our audience, what’s bigger than facebook right now?

We discussed the parameters of our work. Dina and the Hopkins team had some great ideas on reaching rural areas, health workers and parents, but that’s not our primary work and I don’t believe we should be doing more than our core competence or we’ll be doing a disservice to our audience, the campaign and even our partners.

After the meeting Chris Torline (my go to man in the team) and I went to catch up and discuss work and life on a rooftop sushi bar in Hyde Park – it really was such a relaxing moment – why don’t I work in Africa, I thought to myself.

But as I boarded the plane back to London, I realised we’d forgotten the biggest part to all of this – what is it that our partners want? What are their objectives? We’re really good at making these programmes, but if our partners and others don’t use them, then what’s the point? There’s only so much a broadcaster can do, the rest is up to the implementing partners on the ground.

While I guess that will be figured out in planning meeting two in Nairobi. Unfortunately, or not, I’ll be sunning myself on a beach in Cancun, followed by some more sun in sin city!

Oh and I’m now on Twitter – finally caved, follow me @cathyphiri

A year ago I tried everything to get out of going to the AIDS conference. I’ve been to every AIDS Conference since Durban (2000) bar Bangkok and I’ve just been feeling the AIDS fatigue bug myself. So when it was decided that I was leading our initiatives at this year’s conference in Vienna, I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy.

Technically I should have been. I knew before we even saw the results, that we’d be announcing the impact evaluation results from our multi-country study of the Ignite project – which I led – and there was the Viacom initiatives as part of the HIV/AIDS sub-committe that I co-chair, so technically it made sense that I should lead our involvement. I still wasn’t jumping for joy.

The results from our programming are worth going to Vienna for. And in true MTV style we’ve made it a bit of an event (on a budget). Viacom isn’t scaling back either, we’re having our biggest booth, therefore presence, than ever before, and we’re aiming to top our Mexico party (hard to do, but I’m feeling our leadership in action theme). Today I saw the remaining artwork for the signage and I’m actually excited about going to Vienna.

I’m excited because we’re showing that we do care. As a company we could just pay lip-service, but with the presence of the senior executives attending as well as our investment in these events, I think we are saying, we care, we matter, and we want to keep being involved.

And somewhere along the line I hope to learn a lot, but not get information overload. I was actually looking at the new UNAIDS report and was glad to see that it was in an easy to digest format, and with a decent number of pages that didn’t make me have to put aside too much time to go through it. I like the fact that UNAIDS is prioritising youth leadership – as I’ve always had a problem with tokenism but also with youth thinking they’re entitled to Lord knows what – but to have them meaningfully engaged, that’s what matters. As long as they know that they too have to put the work in. Leadership is a huge responsibility. As I say, great leaders are born, but anyone can learn to be a leader, as long as they take up the challenge themselves.

But I’ll also be glad when the conference is over – so I can get some sleep. Going to bed at 2am two nights in a row is no fun. Today, I had to give in and attempt to go to bed early – I should hit my usual 11ish bed time. Though when I get back from Vienna, I’m in London for like two days before I jet off to Joburg for a planning meeting with the base Africa team. Happy days.

Anyway look out for my blogs while in Vienna, I’ll keep you posted.

My brother died a year ago – 29th June 2009, we buried him on the 2nd of July 2009. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year, in fact it feels like it was just yesterday when I got the call that he was dead.

Because we’re split across continents and with my other brother getting married next year, we’re going to do the proper memorial next year. So I spent the day at home, doing some quiet reflection, my sister sent me some Bible passages to read and I spoke to my mum – to make sure she was ok. Like a true African woman, she was being strong, more worried about everyone else, then allowing herself to publicly mourn. I’m not good with emotions, so I played along with her, and talked about other things – like the birth of two calves at the farm.

Everyone in the family is dealing in their own way, though it is difficult for all of us. I think it’s always difficult to lose someone in your family because you feel like you lose a part of yourself. For me, it’s been even more difficult because my brother and I fell out. His drinking made me ashamed of him. He was extremely intelligent but he’d become an alcoholic, who roamed the farm area with the local farm hands – and I was embarrassed. It never occurred to me that he felt comfortable with him because they never judged him. Whereas I was just worried about what everyone else thought (Zambia is a classist society). We never seemed to connect after that. For that I feel the most sad.

Even when he was diagnosed with HIV, I never wanted that to be the reason for us to patch up our differences, but now I wish I had. I just didn’t want him to think that the HIV made him a different person. I didn’t want it to define him. I thought we’d have more time.

And sometimes I feel like I’m a fake because my job requires that I push out messages of hope, but I worry that we don’t tell the complete truth. Maybe we need to start talking to the families of people living with HIV too, HIV doesn’t only affect the person living with the virus in their body. Sure HIV doesn’t define who a person is, but it is something that makes us realise that we are mortal, that life is short. HIV shouldn’t be a reason to mend bridges with your loved ones, but helps push you in the right direction. Otherwise you live with the pain of, ‘i wish i had…’.

It’s easy to be angry with the virus, but anger keeps you stuck, especially when you internalise that anger. My brother’s death has helped bring my family closer together and made us more aware of what is going on in each others lives. It’s also made me realise how important my family is to me, they drive me insane, but they are my first priority and I’ll do what it takes to make sure we’re ok.

The experience has changed me. I’d already lost a best friend to this virus, and that hurt, but losing family, that’s a lot to bear. In my case two brothers. Enough is enough. So it’s strengthened my resolve with my work. It’s not enough to have the most creative and visually arresting programme, it’s got to have an impact, even if the impact is getting people to talk. HIV is not something we should be ashamed of, but it’s not something we need to pretend is a virus that is even remotely easy to deal with.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to the gym to work out my internal struggles. Thanks for listening, I needed to get this off my chest.

Our office really can be a fun place to work, especially because so much of what we do revolves around sex. Sometimes I don’t even know how the conversations come up but I do worry about the poor emerging markets team hearing our rather graphic conversations – hmmm surely there’s an HR policy that goes against sexually inappropriate conversations? But of course it’s not inappropriate, it’s work related!

So the masturbation one came up … actually I have no idea how that one came up think it was from our fans on facebook discussing it. It was interesting to see the comments! People still believe that masturbation can make you blind because it’s some great sin from God. Hmmm ok.

Then it was that women don’t masturbate, only men do… hmmm ok. And then my personal favourite, normal people don’t masturbate.

I did like the woman who then said, but it was good for relaxation because you really shouldn’t have your body all tense. Interesting that no one said that it was a good method of safer sex!

Today was more fun, my colleague Julie Allen, has been asked to sit on a panel during the International AIDS Conference to discuss how you can make the female condom more appealing to men. Our response was, ‘surely you should make it more appealing to women first?’

We discussed who had ever tried using one – no one and who was willing to try one – to help give Julie some first hand research to use for her panel – no one. Finally someone admitted having tried it once. The downside, it sounded like shagging a plastic bag (heard that one before). The merits? Well, ‘as a guy, you don’t have to use a condom, what’s better than that?’

We decided to put it to the fb fans. Wow, shock, wow.

Mainly women responded – not that many but still – and pretty much all of them said that they didn’t think it was safe! Interesting.

So back to my point – how do you make it more appealing to women? Seriously have you seen it? Nothing is sexy about it. At least get the packaging to a sexy point like most male condoms. And can it not be easier to insert? Well maybe it is easy to use, but the instructional graphics on the pack seem quite complicated…
Anyway maybe the second generation female condoms (creatively titled FC2) are more sexy and less noisy (they claim this at least). Funnily enough, think i’ll stick to the male condoms for now.