In northern Namibia, I met a Peace Corps volunteer. Her name was Coppelia and she was working with far-flung African tribes on HIV prevention. That day, things weren't going according to plan. Coppelia had just returned from a rural village where she'd found all the condoms she had previously distributed burned in a heap. Tribal healers, she said, had told everyone that whites were putting AIDS in condoms to wipe out the black population.
That's not all. These are the same 'healers' who perpetuate the terrible myth that AIDS can be cured by having sex with a virgin. 'Men are raping babies and young children,' Coppelia said. 'Exposing them to HIV/AIDS, in the hopes of getting rid of it.'
So how do you work against such destructive superstition? Coppelia believes the only answer is to develop culturally appropriate materials, so we can understand and work together with mystics. Work with them'not against them? 'With them,' she reiterated. 'It's the only way to effect change.' If you can't beat 'em, join 'em? That sounds like dangerous collusion. People are dying! Can't people trust empirical evidence? At least in the West we don't have witch doctors. Do we? I know an American who theorizes HIV is an 'over-toxification' from too much booze and pills. Allegedly, if you quit cheap vodka and eat organic, you can't get HIV, or (in his case, I suspect) you can cure it. He cooks up a daily diet of steamed kale, collards, and broccoli. Hey, leafy greens worked wonders for Popeye.
Recently, online, in the comment thread of an amateur bareback sex video, one viewer chastened, 'Don't you have any ethical qualms about spreading HIV/AIDS?' and was berated by a barrage of bareback backers. HIV is only a protein, one wrote. Another pitied the 'hater' because, sadly, he'd been indoctrinated to believe AIDS kills. Still another vigorously added, 'HIV is not an active virus. Get a FUCKING clue, and stop parroting what the gay-hating mainstream medical establishment wants you to think.'
AIDS may not be in the condoms, but everyone still hates us! Is that why the liberal media forgot to tell us AIDS was cured? That, in fact, AIDS is only an elaborate lie concocted by the pharmaceutical industry? The human mind has an uncanny ability to circumvent science, logic, and evidence in favor of blind belief. Virgins and veggies can cure AIDS. Praise the Lord! Faith can cure anything, really -- even death. So what's real?
I have an HIV-positive friend who knows the disease exists, but has only unprotected sex. He's not worried about reinfection because, he explains impatiently, your particular strain of HIV bonds tightly to your system, making it impossible to catch another strain. Is that true? I'd never heard that before, but he should know. HIV is'like a fingerprint?
We are inundated with so many sources of information that facts get watered down, or drowned out altogether. I consulted with doctors. HIV is not like a fingerprint. There are numerous genotypes, and previous infection does not prevent you from contracting another strain. Strains can mutate, making you medication-resistant. It is possible to have multiple infections, or a 'superinfection.' HIV exists. Plain and simple. AIDS still kills. And yes, I am parroting the gay-hating mainstream medical establishment. Who needs them? Much easier to parrot what's convenient. If the truth hurts, twist it. Put yourself and others at risk through bareback sex? You're uninhibited. Smoke meth and host boner-free orgies? You're not a drug addict -- you're a partier. Religious conservative? Maverick. Play semantics, everyone's doing it. Kool-Aid tastes great!
Myths may vary, but the misinformation spreads from Occident to Orient. Denial and delusion are not going to disappear. How, in this kind of world, can reasonable people work to reduce infection rates and erase the stigma for those living with this disease? Coppelia's solution may be not so much collusion as key cooperation. We cannot laugh away the pseudoscience, no matter how laughable. We cannot ignore it, no matter how fatuous. Either we find ways to advocate, educate, and inform within cultural myths, or we sit around and scratch our heads and wonder why nothing changes.