In 2003 the successful Scottish singer- songwriter Annie Lennox was invited to take part in the launch of Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS foundation in South Africa. Named 46664 after Mandela’s prisoner number, it aimed to use celebrity ambassadors to engage with young people throughout the world.
At the time of the launch Lennox was strongly affected by Mandela’s description of the virtual genocide taking place in South Africa, where 1000 people were dying daily from HIV related disease. As a woman and a mother, the vulnerability of women and children moved her to take action. Since she left South Africa, Lennox participated in every event she could with 46664. During this talk she wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, ‘HIV positive’, in an attempt to dispel the stigma surrounding the disease. She talks about her involvement with various organisations since becoming an ambassador for 46664; there’s ‘Treatment Action Campaign’, a grassroots organisation comprising 80% women which reaches out to the community of HIV sufferers; ‘SING”, a campaign started by Lennox using her music and film knowledge to raise awareness and money; UNAIDS, for which Lennox is an AIDS ambassador. She shows us photographs of ‘success stories’; a mother who has received treatment so her unborn child won’t grow up with HIV, an eight year old girl suffering from full blown AIDS who was given appropriate treatment.
Lennox ends with a final push encouraging her audience to stand up if they believed governments should commit to meeting articles 5 (improving maternal health) and 6 (combatting HIV, AIDS, malaria and other diseases) of the Millenium Development goals by 2015. Unsurprisingly, almost everybody in the room ends on their feet. Lennox is a humble yet stirring advocate for her cause.
I wondered if many people learned something new from Lennox’s talk. I’ve worked with HIV+/ AIDS sufferers in both developing and non-developing countries. Every day in the Ugandan hospital I volunteered in, young men, women and children were admitted with strange illness, tuberculosis, pneumonias; often classic signs that they were suffering from an underlying process such as HIV. Yet the cause of death is rarely reported as HIV/ AIDS. A Scandinavian woman shouts about HIV infection on television; huge billboards line the motorways. Yet sexually active teenagers in slums asked me if women with HIV could become pregnant. Nobody talks about it. The stigma is present in our own society also. It’s the funny sticker on the patient’s chart, the whispers about infection control (have a look at how difficult it is to contract HIV; it’s in the region of being about 10,000 times less communicable than Hepatitis) and most importantly, the LACK OF TALKING ABOUT IT. If somebody like Annie Lennox can reach out to her fans and encourage this, then we will be one step closer towards understanding.