Indonesia sorry over HIV sneezing link posters
Social media was flooded with angry comments after the ministry’s attempt to launch a campaign to debunk myths about HIV backfired badly in a country where people with the virus are much stigmatised.
The controversy came as the virus was hitting the headlines globally after US actor Charlie Sheen revealed he was HIV-positive — and had paid millions of dollars in hush money to people who knew about his infection to keep them quiet.
The Indonesian plan involved putting up posters on commuter trains in the capital Jakarta stating that HIV cannot be transmitted through mosquito bites, swimming and sneezing, as well as human saliva and sweat.
But the printing company managed to miss out the word “not” from the posters and then failed to get final approval from officials, meaning the banners reinforced the very beliefs they were meant to challenge.
Hundreds of posters were plastered on trains at the weekend, but have now been removed following an outcry.
“The ministry has to carry out a massive and systematic awareness campaign to undo this blunder,” said Aditya Wardhana, an activist from Indonesia AIDS Coalition.
Prominent HIV activist Fajar Jasmin tweeted that the botched campaign was a “stupid, fatal mistake”.
Senior health ministry official Muhammad Subuh admitted the mistake was due to a “printing error”.
“We have made a public apology and now the banners are being removed and will be replaced with the correct ones,” he told AFP.
“They omitted the word ‘not’, it was an honest mistake.”
– ‘Blessing in disguise’ –
Subuh said the printing company failed to show the ministry the final version of the posters before issuing them as they were supposed to.
The company has also apologised for the error.
However Subuh insisted the controversy was a “blessing in disguise” as many people recognised immediately it was a mistake, showing progress had made in spreading awareness about the true causes of transmission.
Activists dismissed his claim, with Wardhana saying that HIV campaigners would now have to be sent to train stations to inform people of the error.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to AIDS, is mainly transmitted via sexual intercourse or needle sharing.
Awareness about HIV in Indonesia remains poor despite the fact that more than 660,000 people are estimated to be living with the virus, according to the United Nations.
Ignorance about the virus has come from the highest echelons of government — in February, then trade minister Rachmat Gobel sparked outrage by claiming that second-hand clothes could spread HIV as he campaigned to stop the import of used garments.
He has since been removed from his job.
US actor Sheen’s dramatic revelation on NBC on Tuesday that he was HIV-positive came after years of controversy over his drug and alcohol use as well as a penchant for hiring prostitutes.
“It’s a hard three letters to absorb, you know?,” said the 50-year-old. “It’s a turning point in one’s life.”
Sheen’s stint as a middle-aged, womanising bachelor on the sitcom “Two and a Half Men” made him America’s highest paid TV actor.
South Africa has the world’s greatest number of HIV-positive citizens and its leaders have in the past come under fire for failing to tackle the problem
Former president Thabo Mbeki’s government even questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and promoted garlic and beetroot instead of medication.
Since 1981, about 78 million people have been infected by HIV worldwide, according to UN figures.