Public figures often achieve celebrity status that not only gives them access to the media, but also allows the possibility of influencing public behaviour.
But not much attention has been given to the power they could exercise in disclosing personal information about a sensitive health issue like HIV/AIDS.
No wonder then that a slow emergence of high-profile HIV disclosures in South Africa has prompted discussion about whether celebrities could, in fact, influence public perception about the disease.
If so, should there be a set time to disclose their status, and would it be fair to make them choose between the limelight and social responsibility?
Having just finished reading a book on the life of Fana ‘Khabzela’ Khaba, a hugely popular DJ at a local radio station, now deceased, I realised that while everybody loves a hero, stardom does not an individual a superhuman make.
Despite the tardy truth about his life with AIDS, his scepticism about antiretrovirals, and the possibility that he might have infected a number of his female groupies, it’s safe to assume that Khabzela’s story does ultimately serve as a warning about the importance of early HIV testing and antiretroviral treatment.
So, although giving credit where credit is due, I still cannot decide on whether to applaud the tenor just for clearing his throat.
With the impact of AIDS on South Africa, and the shroud of secrecy that still covers the issue of being positive, we could definitely use more prominent people in our battle against the pandemic, however delayed they might be in stepping up to the plate.
I remember, during my teens, when I first saw the headline: “FREDDY MERCURY DIES OF AIDS!” how disappointed I felt that my hero could keep his infection secret. After all, did he not have a moral obligation to say something to prevent many of his fans from meeting the same fate?
For the first time since I had heard about AIDS, I actually knew someone – albeit only in that distant but somehow ‘personal’ way that only a die-hard fan could know an idol – who had died of the disease, and I suddenly realised that it was no longer a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Disappointment aside, I took my cue from my idol to curb my enthusiasm when it came to multiple sex partners and unprotected sexual intercourse – not an easy task for a 17-year-old struggling with sexual identity and raging hormones.
“…before we start forcing HIV-positive celebs to ‘out’ themselves, we could start by carrying some of that social responsibilty ourselves…”
Freddy’s death, I would imagine, was proof of the impact of celebrities on the public perception of AIDS prevention and treatment. But don’t take my word for it.
One instance of celebrity disclosure of a health-related issue, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV-positive, got enough attention to produce a body of research on the nature and influence of celebrity disclosure of AIDS.
Johnson, an African-American widely regarded as one of the surest passers and best point guards in basketball history, publicly declared his status in 1991, and since then has continually worked to educate people about the disease and raise their awareness of it.
Various studies examined the impact of Johnson’s announcement on the behaviour, attitudes and knowledge of individuals regarding HIV/AIDS.
A summary of the research, published in the US Journal of Sex Research, found that after his announcement, the level of accurate knowledge about HIV increased, as did the number of persons tested for HIV and the desire to obtain more information.
Some South African critics have been quick to accuse public figures like Khabzela, Freddy Mercury and former president Nelson Mandela of not having done enough to reduce the stigma often associated with HIV/AIDS by keeping their own, or the status of deceased relatives, under wraps.
But before we start forcing HIV-positive celebs to ‘out’ themselves for the ‘greater good’, we could perhaps start by carrying some of that social responsibilty ourselves.
There is a theory that we are all connected by six degrees of separation, meaning that anyone on earth could be linked to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than four intermediaries.
The concept is based on the idea that the number of acquaintances grows exponentially with the number of links in the chain, so only a small number of links is required for the set of acquaintances to become the whole human population.
Maybe it would be fair to assume that if we all pulled together, rather than lazily expecting our celebrities to claim ownership of the disease as penance for their hard-earned fame and fortune, we might just be able to follow in the footsteps of nations like Uganda, whose collective efforts are starting to pay dividends.
Criselda Kananda, a South African AIDS activist and motivational speaker, might have just hit the nail on the head by proposing that A.I.D.S. should be an acronym for ‘Am I Doing Something?’
(Hayden’s Diary is originally published on PlusNews.)
ABOUT HAYDEN HORNER
I am Hayden Horner, a journalist with the United Nations news agency (IRIN) Integrated Regional Information Network. I write primarily for their HIV/AIDS news service, PlusNews, and cover issues on AIDS from around the continent. I am HIV-positive, though I’ve been told that I don’t look like someone who may eventually die of an AIDS-related illness. I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of that. Unlike many of the “accidental victims” of this disease, I can’t blame anyone for my infection because, while I did not know it at the time, I chose the path that I am currently on. The diagnosis only helped to encourage me to go on searching for what I was needing to heal. While my search was still for love and happiness, the source would be somewhere else. From within. It took a lot of searching, but I think I am finally at peace with my situation. I am now 30 years old and single, but I have a fulfilling career, a roof over my head, good friends and a sober mother who has become a pillar of strength for me. So everything turned out okay in the end. I’ve heard that life is a journey, and I plan on enjoying what’s left of the ride.