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AIDS: A GLOBAL ASSESSMENT : AUSTRALIA : Signs of Success in Imaginative Campaign

August 09, 1987

Potential tricks are not the only people cruising for action in Sydney's male and female prostitution districts these days. A government-sponsored AIDS bus is making the rounds as well, dispensing condoms and AIDS advice to the city's thousands of streetwalkers.

The safe sex message appears to be widely accepted; Australian health officials believe few prostitutes in the city are AIDS virus carriers.

The government was willing to fund the enterprise because prostitution is legal in Sydney, unless it takes place near a church, school or hospital.

"This is money well spent on AIDS education," said Julie Bates, a spokeswoman for the Australian Prostitutes Collective, a streetwalkers support group. "The prostitutes themselves are educating 50,000 men in the community each week, imparting good sexual knowledge, safe sex advice and instruction in condom use."

Innovations such as Sydney's AIDS bus are one reason Australia's AIDS control program is often cited by World Health Organization officials as among the most imaginative and far-reaching in the world. The programs emphasize community-based education targeted at groups ranging from prostitutes and gay men to ethnic minorities and handicapped individuals.

Australia, the only South Pacific nation that has been hit hard by AIDS, has reported 523 AIDS cases, mostly in gay men, over the last five years. But despite the increasing number of AIDS patients, many Australians remained "fairly apathetic" about their personal risk of contracting the disease, according to Ita Buttrose, chairwoman of the country's National Advisory Committee on AIDS.

This apathy convinced Australia's federal Department of Health to sponsor a series of powerful anti-AIDS television commercials. They aired in the nation's 16 main ethnic languages in April.

The commercials pictured AIDS as a giant "grim reaper" who was bowling in a rather sepulchral-looking alley. But instead of felling pins, the "grim reaper" was bowling down "people who looked very horrified," according to Sarah Wells, a spokeswoman for the National Advisory Committee on AIDS.

A voice-over said the protections against AIDS were a monogamous sexual relationship, abstinence or the use of condoms.

The "grim reaper" advertisements were "one of the most powerful images ever seen on Australian television," Wells said in a telephone interview. "It was meant to portray the randomness of the infection, that it could affect anybody, not just gay men and intravenous drug users."

"I really make no apologies if we frightened people," Buttrose added. "We did a lot of research that showed that a lot of Australians thought that AIDS was everybody else's problem, but not their problem. . . . We had to alert them to the dangers AIDS represented to so many of us."

After the commercials were aired, opinion polls showed that 95% of Australians were aware of AIDS, Buttrose said. In addition, many Australians reported that they had changed their sexual behavior to decrease their risk of contracting the disease, including 11% of women, 22% of men and 61% of adolescents.

Buttrose credits federal Health Minister Neal Blewett with championing AIDS prevention measures after he returned from a visit to San Francisco in early 1985. In addition to creating the National Advisory Committee on AIDS to coordinate public education, Blewett established a parallel task force of researchers and physicians to alert the medical community to the disease.

Later this year, more AIDS television commercials are expected in Australia, as well as educational programs in many secondary and some elementary schools. AIDS radio advertisements are also planned in 58 of Australia's 80 spoken ethnic languages.

"While we can see there is some (AIDS-related) behavior change, it is still not high enough for us to be complacent," Buttrose said. "Governments are not used to talking to nations about their sexual behaviors. We are all sort of pioneering."

AIDS IN OCEANIA Australia . . 523 French Polynesia . . 1 New Zealand . . 45 TOTAL CASES 569

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