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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.

I will write about the MDGs soon but I’m super busy with final reports for our donors and partners, in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a CNN interview with a dear friend Sandra Buffington from the Hollywood, Health and Society

Let me know your thoughts on using health related messages in entertainment programming.

I’m back in London and feeling quite energised after my trip to LA – not only because of the refreshing weather (which obviously did help), but because of the research agenda conference. I was quite hasty in my judgment of the ‘research’ people not being able to think outside the box, because by the end of the two days they had proved me wrong, with some really insightful approaches. It’s given me the desire to want to do something new.

The research stuff was also interesting – I was worried that they’d use jargon that I’d have no idea what they were talking about, but a lot of it was in layman’s terms. They also did a lot of stuff on social networking that was really interesting. One of the most interesting presentations revolved around the idea of social networks being associated with behaviour – ultimately people associate with others like themselves.

It seems obvious enough – and actually if you’ve ever been to any school with the cliques (or even in workplace settings coming to think of it), you’ll know how important the influences in these networks can be, and even the importance of your social networks. Such thinking helps you to target your efforts – think about it, the diffusers of change will be faster when led by popular opinion leaders (think Oprah).

Now I need to figure out how to identify the influencers for our audience… Though thinking about it, it’s probably the people we see in popular culture… hmmmm that might be a bit of a problem. Let me think about that one.

Yesterday I had the pleasure and honor to sit on a panel with Hollywood heavies – two co-executive producers and writers of Law and Order: SVU and a supervising producer of Grey’s Anatomy, as well as a woman who used to work on telenovas. We were at the Hollywood, Health and Society conference on setting the research agenda for entertainment education.
It was interesting to see how different we all work when it comes to incorporating global health messaging into our programmes. We all had the same challenge, the ability to add in the messages, but keep the show relevant, authentic and interesting to our audiences.
I think in that way we’re a bit luckier because we create original programming for each issue we tackle. But then that also means we don’t have a existing audience base to reach, so run the risk of poor ratings.
Because we don’t have characters we need to stay true to, we also allow our partners a lot more leeway with what goes into the programming, where for obvious reasons Greys and SVU simply can’t give global health agencies.
I understand the frustration of these agencies that want to ‘control’ the message, but I think that’s where blue sky thinking needs to come into play.
The key problem is not knowing in advance when global health messages will be airing on the shows when they’re broadcast in other countries. However, that doesn’t stop the agencies from using these storylines as a catalyst to encourage dialogue among their audience and in their outreach plans. If anything this introduction of global health messages into such globally successful programmes serves to support the in-country and even global campaigns on the issues.
This is just my observation, that these programmes are just one more tool in the arsenal to address global health issues especially to mainstream audiences.

I’m really excited that next week I’ll be participating in the Hollywood Health and Society research conference in LA. And not only because I’ll be in LA and getting away from this lovely British weather!
The conference aims to bring together top researchers to discuss the challenges and limitations and way forward with research on entertainment education and global health policy. Ok written down it does seem quite boring.
It is fascinating though. For some of us who have been doing entertainment education for well over 10 years (scary but true), this really is interesting. Instinctively you know it works (entertainment education that is), and you can do focus groups, and survey people on intentions/actions as a result of the programme or track feedback, calls to helplines, traffic to sites etc, but is that enough?
So what is the research you need to be doing and if its self-reported, how do you know its true? Other limitations are the obvious ones with focus groups – how do you know participants aren’t telling you what you want to hear? I’m not a researcher so those are the thoughts that come to my mind but I’m sure a good, qualified researcher knows how to combat this… I guess.

But when you work in a global environment where people are different, they receive and respond to messages differently, and indeed even the message delivery is different, how do you measure it in order to do effective comparisons? These are the questions I ask myself whenever we air a show globally. Is it ineffective if people in one part of the world didn’t like it, or if it didn’t move them to act or engage? Or is it all good as long as someone somewhere in the world got it?
The more I work in this sector – of entertainment education – the more I want to make sure we’re getting it right, so I’m excited to go to this conference, just at the thought of learning something that might positively impact my work – that and the fact that I’ll be near the beach!

I’ve been meaning to write about this for ages. Late last year – in December – Sandra Buffington from the Hollywood Health and Society Research came to London and visited with my team. Her work is so similar to what we do and I really admired the work that they do that I was so excited to have her share her work and results in the hope that the team could see how much potential there is in our field.

I love what they do, it is something I’d love to do more of, which is put social messages into popular mainstream programming like Law and Order, Greys Anatomy, ER, 90210. And it’s everything from HIV/AIDS to biopolar disorder. To top it off they have the stats to prove that this stuff works. People seem more likely to take in a message when it’s put into an entertaining format, or in a situation that they can relate to.

It’s what I aspire to do with Staying Alive and all other MTV SR programming and I think we’re on the right track, with Shuga, Tribes and Not to Me – if you don’t know, you better google it!

I also think it’s the way to go in Africa. To often Africa gets programming in the form of documentaries, newspieces and PSAs. Yes Africans are probably more into news type content than other young people in other continents, but its just information in a one dimensional way that sooner or later gets boring. Making the issue more three dimensional through holistic programming, especially through fictional characters and storylines to address ‘taboo’ subjects drives the message home.

This is way I’m especially proud of my brother, Fred Phiri, for using his talent to write and produce the drama series Club Risky Business in Zambia. To see the whole series go to the Club Risky Business Channel.

Enjoy