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Two decades on the frontline against Aids

A 1988 "Stop Aids" poster.

The Swiss Aids Federation (SAF) has its 20th anniversary on June 2, but campaigners see little cause for celebration.

Since it was founded in 1985, millions of people around the world have died from the disease, including more than 5,000 in Switzerland.

“We’re not celebrating,” David Vuillaume, director of communications at the federation, told swissinfo.

“In an ideal world HIV and Aids would no longer be a subject and the Swiss Aids Federation wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately that’s not the case.”

The challenges facing those in the fight against HIV/Aids are considerable, but for two decades the SAF has worked tirelessly for the prevention of HIV/Aids and to fight discrimination against those affected.

The federation says a lot has been achieved during this time. Condom use in high-risk situations, for example, has risen from eight per cent in 1987 to over 60 per cent.

And the Swiss now talk more openly about sexuality, drugs and fringe groups as a result of the STOP AIDS campaigns, according to Vuillaume.

“But while it’s easier to talk openly about sexuality, people don’t speak so openly about HIV and Aids. Even today, it is still very hard for an individual to say ‘I am HIV positive’.

“So society has developed, but issues of discrimination haven’t gone away.”

Danger of complacency

Roger Staub, who was a founder of the SAF and is now head of the Aids unit at the Federal Health Office, says one of the big problems facing today’s campaigners is complacency.

“For the past ten years there have only been two stories in the media,” Staub told swissinfo. “First, the HIV/Aids catastrophe in the Third World, which our society reads as ‘it’s not a problem – it’s far away’.

“Second, the pharmaceutical industry repeatedly says ‘we’ve got new medicine, we’ve got new pills’. People then think that there’s a cure for HIV/Aids.

“These two messages are dangerous because people become complacent – there is still an HIV/Aids problem in Switzerland.”

The number of new HIV infections in Switzerland started rising again in 2001, after a having been in decline since 1992. Last year, 741 people tested positive for HIV, and 300 new cases of Aids were reported.

Infections among homosexual men – a major target group of Aids campaigners – began climbing again in 2002, by 37 per cent, and have since stabilised at that level.

Ceaseless campaigning

On April 29 the latest STOP AIDS campaign, “Love Life – Stop Aids”, featuring Hollywood actress Renée Zellweger and film director Marc Forster, was launched in partnership with the Federal Health Office. It aims to spread a positive message about sexuality.

Staub, who is programme manager for the national HIV/Aids programme 2004-2008, agrees with Vuillaume that society has become more open to sexuality.

He says the slogans produced today would have shocked people 20 years ago. Even so, posters continue to be torn down or covered with graffiti.

“But I still find these reactions a good thing as they create awareness and discussion,” said Staub.

“We focus very much on things people can do,” he added. “The French, for example, were telling people 20 years ago ‘You won’t catch Aids from me’. This is a nice slogan but it’s not a message you can do anything about.

“Our message for 18 years has been ‘Stop Aids – use condoms, Stop Aids – use condoms’: a simple, do-able message.”

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Since 1983 there have been 8,023 cases of Aids reported in Switzerland. Of those infected, 5,531 have died.
Since 1985 there have been 27,904 HIV positive test results in Switzerland.
In 2004, 300 new cases of Aids and 741 new cases of HIV were reported.
20 million people around the world have died from Aids since 1981.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR