In Intersexions — yep, that X is intentional — a South African soap opera, a popular radio DJ admits on-air that he’s HIV positive… causing his ex-lover, who’s just about to get married, to freak out. So what, exactly, does this have to do with public health, and why is Johns Hopkins producing it?
Johns Hopkins has been pioneering HIV prevention work in South Africa for nearly a decade at this point, and its newest technique is an entertainment-education blend that’s meant to capture viewers’ attention with steamy stories, while educating them about the potential consequences of risky behaviors. “As we look at our research, we find that people talking about things is one of the predictors of actually practicing a behavior or having a positive attitude toward practicing a behavior,” says Susan Krenn, director of the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Communication Programs. “Entertainment education enables you to get a consistent message out to millions and millions of people in a way that a poster simply won’t do.” The show’s popular website includes an “ask the doctor” section with articles about health relationships and HIV transmission.
And the show is catching on: it won 11 of the 12 categories it was nominated for in this year’s South African Film And Television Awards, sweeping the best drama/actor/actress/director/writing categories. Closer to home, the program also won a Peabody Award for international achievement in broadcast media.
The soap opera is the perfect medium for illustrating how infectious diseases like HIV can spread. According to Krenn, “There was a big push in many African countries, South Africa included, to look at multiple and concurrent partnerships and their impact on driving the epidemic. So the team came up with the idea of this intertwined series, with each episode being its own story and the link between the stories being the sexual network that ties them all together.”
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