How paper improves our lives: The HIV-positive poster

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There is a very moving video on YouTube which it’s well worth spending just over three minutes of your life viewing

Search on “the HIV positive” poster, and it will be at the top of your results.

When HIV/AIDS first became part of our consciousness in the early 1980s, it was easy to follow the path of fear and ignorance that the news of a new and fatal disease caused. So little was known in those early days about how HIV was transmitted that the rumours that you could catch it from a toilet seat or even by shaking hands with someone who was infected weren’t quickly dispelled.

Modern drug treatments mean that those carrying the disease can expect a normal or near-normal lifespan if they respond well, and the virus can also reduce to undetectable levels in their blood with continued therapy, meaning that their partners are at very minimal risk of contracting HIV themselves.

However, the myths of those early, frightening years when even medics were at a loss to recommend how to limit infection risk remain.

That’s where a poster that is quite literally HIV-positive comes in.

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are some 35 million people living with HIV/AIDs around the world. Although they now enjoy normal lives, they still suffer abnormal and unnecessary stigma. As one woman remembering her schooldays in the video explains, “I felt like a bomb. If my nose started to bleed, my whole school stopped”.

The poster with HIV hopes to change all that, even if a paper-based campaign might seem outdated nowadays. However, there is one very important reason that the campaign needs to be a physical rather than digital one. Every single one of the posters for the NGO Life Support Group (GIV) has a single drop of blood on it from someone living with HIV. The posters, designed by Ogilvy Brazil, tell you themselves exactly what they are: their measurements, the fact that they are high brightness paper, their weight, their similarity to every other poster, and their one major difference – they are HIV-positive.

And it’s just that rather unusual HIV-positive status of the poster that is doing much to make people reassess their prejudices. The co-ordinator of the São Paulo AIDS program, Dr. Artur Kalichman, says that this is precisely why the poster campaign is so important. He explains that as HIV can’t survive long outside the human body, and the poster is therefore completely harmless.

The way that people began to interact with the posters was even more surprising

People touched the poster, often directly on the spot of dried blood, and one man went a step further, kissing the poster, saying that on reading it he felt love in that moment “for this person I don’t even know”.

However, the impact of the posters didn’t stop there – when they were first put up, those looking at them got to meet some of the HIV-positive people who had donated blood to the campaign. Hugs were exchanged, with the realisation – as one woman said – “you’re just like everyone else”.

Although it’s impossible to wipe out all misconceptions and prejudices in the space of one campaign, the posters are putting an important fact out there – those living with HIV/AIDS are just like us, and deserving of our support. There may now be adequate therapy for those living with the virus, but our knowledge still needs to catch up.

The HIV-positive poster is an important forward step.