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HIV prevention When Switzerland put its hang-ups on hold

Several decades on, the effective HIV prevention strategies put in place in Switzerland in the 1980s are considered models of excellence. A new book describes how the road was paved by those who fought prevailing conditions to push for change.

In the 1980s fight against the HIV epidemic, none of the normal, if clichéd, Swiss reserve and modesty was on show. Using words of unusual clarity and suggestive imagery (see gallery), the contamination risks associated with HIV were laid out to citizens across the country.

Just as it was in the fight against drugs, Switzerland was a pioneer in the race to halt the aids epidemic. Not without success: thanks to prevention campaigns, the number of new infections plummeted.

The three rules of protected sex, developed by the Swiss alongside the slogan “Stop SIDA” were quickly taken up around the world, as Constantin Seibt outlines in his recently-published book ‘Positiv: Aids in der Schweizexternal link’.

Heidi and Polo join the fight

How was it done? For the first time in history, Swiss authorities sent a brochure about sex to every household and spoke publicly about prostitutes, drug addicts and condoms. Various images were used to hammer the message home, including one showing Heidi with a condom wrapped around her thumb, saying, “Without? Then you’re doing it without me.”

The Federal Office of Public Health also scored a coup in persuading iconic singer Polo Hofer to compose a songexternal link for the campaign. The record by the recently-deceased musician sold about 10,000 copies and was heard widely across the country.

But perhaps even more important were the battles waged by the activists that often had to overcome strong resistance.

Seibt describes how major pushback came from the health minister at the time, Chrisitan Democrat Flavio Cotti, who was only convinced to back the campaign when campaigners managed to make him aware that his political legacy would be tarnished by not acting to fight such a lethal disease.

Overall, Seibt writes, the campaign and ultimately efficient action was a hallmark of what marked the country at the time: pragmatism.

(Photos: Federal Office for Public Health)

Contact author @SibillaBondolfi on Facebookexternal link or Twitterexternal link.