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Why Young People Will Help Us Defeat AIDS

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When UNAIDS released their latest report on young people last week, in advance of the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, I was thrilled to see their headline "Young People Leading the Way in the HIV Prevention Revolution." For those of us who work in HIV, there is too often doom and gloom, especially as we face up to a future of a shortage of funding -- the economic crisis affected the AIDS response, with many countries facing cuts for treatment and prevention services. 
 
But the mood in Vienna is a mixture of positivity -- around advances in prevention and a "wonder-gel" for women that could protect them from HIV -- and the concern around the future of funding support.  MTV is keen to promote a younger voice in this debate and I hope we'll hear many others at the Vienna conference this week. But I take heart from the UNAIDS report -- because it clearly shows that the investment in fighting HIV is working -- finally, nearly 30 years since it began to slowly devastate the most vulnerable areas and populations of the world.  ‬  ‬
 
The report states that 16 out of 25 countries have seen a reduction in HIV infection among young people. Prevention campaigns are bearing fruit: young people are using condoms; they're delaying the age when they first have sex; and they're reducing their number of sexual partners. All of these are crucial factors in reducing infection.
 
We are seeing a sea change, a turning point in attitudes -- and here at MTV, having run the Staying Alive campaign for over a decade, it's what I've aimed for and believed in ever since we started it -- young people are not "the future"; they are living in the here and now, and when given access to information, education and services, are able to direct the course of their lives and make informed choices about their sexual health.
 
MTV's Staying Alive is an HIV and AIDS awareness campaign, and our longest-running and most established pro-social venture which has gone on to become the world's largest mass media HIV and AIDS prevention campaign for young people. Parallel to the campaign, we also fund grassroots HIV prevention projects run by young people in their local communities, via the Staying Alive Foundation. But fundamentally, at the core of what we do, is to stimulate awareness among young people, put a spotlight on their sexual behavior, lessen the stigma and ultimately aim to reduce the rate of new HIV infections among young people under 25. 
 
At the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, we're releasing independent evaluation by Johns Hopkins University, the first multi-country study of its kind to be commissioned by a broadcaster, which clearly shows that our campaign is driving the intention of young people to change their attitudes and behavior to HIV and AIDS: they are more likely to get tested, have fewer multiple concurrent partners and think more positively of people living with HIV having watched Shuga, a drama set in Nairobi, part of our Staying Alive campaign. With our partners UNICEF and PEPFAR we are also now developing a second series of Shuga to expand our campaign further still.
 
In a world where technology can often be seen to be leapfrogging social development (in Nairobi 78% of young people have mobile phones, yet only 54% have indoor toilets), there is a crucial opportunity for campaigns such as Shuga to get under the skins of our audience. And when layered with a comprehensive campaign that includes radio, social media, marketing, training and access to testing, we're enabling our audience to take charge of their own actions.
 
Here at MTV, we don't have all the answers, but part of our uniqueness is our global brand. People watch MTV in 162 countries -- a potential 1.5 billion of them. And in addition to MTV's reach, everything produced for Staying Alive is given away free-of-charge and rights-cleared to other broadcasters (and individuals, youth groups, and schools). So if there's one thing we've got, it's reach -- and if there's one thing we should be able to use that reach for, it's change.