“Let’s fight against HIV, not people living with HIV” – celebrities try on new roles for an educational campaign on HIV prevention in Armenia

On December 1 – the World AIDS Day, an educational campaign designed to debunk the most common stereotypes about HIV and people living with HIV was launched in Yerevan. Popular musicians, TV presenters and actors – Arusik Mkrtchyan (DJ Vakcina), Arman Margaryan, Narek Margaryan and Grisha Agaghanyan, supported the case. The media campaign was initiated by the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education in the framework of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV / AIDS (UNAIDS).

The official launch of the campaign took place on December 1 at the LOFT (Yerevan). Among the guests were celebrities who took part in the video, NGO representatives and young activists, as well as the Minister of Healthcare – Arsen Torosyan, Deputy Minister – Lena Nanushyan, UNAIDS Representative in Armenia – Roza Babayan and the Director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS Prevention – Samvel Grigoryan.

In the run of the project, the whole country will be able to learn more about the HIV and watch on various platforms a short video about a social experiment conducted by the project team in November 2018. In addition to the online campaign on news websites and social media, there was also a strong offline element: during the period of December 1-10, several cinemas in Yerevan will show this educational video before each film screening. And following the initial resonance of the online campaign, Arusik Mkrtchyan (DJ Vakcina), one of the producers of the video, was invited to the main TV channel of Armenia to talk about her experience of participating in a social experiment.

The project team decided to find out what is the relationship between HIV awareness and exposure to fear and prejudice about people living with the virus. Can HIV be transmitted by air or through casual contacts — shaking hands, hugs, common utensils or clothing? Does the population of Armenia really know enough about HIV and its transmission routes?

In the video, produced in the “reality show” style, celebrities, disguised beyond recognition, acted as people living with HIV. They went to several public places in Yerevan – a large shopping mall, a central street, a grocery store and a cafe. Through basic everyday situations, the participants were trying to test how people unaware of the experiment would behave if they found out about the HIV-positive status of a salesperson, a waiter, a customer or the mother of their child’s friend. In each location of the experiment, a hidden camera was placed to capture the reactions of people.

 “I was shocked by the results of our experiment – I felt how difficult it really is for people living with HIV. Our video is in some sense a provocation, but a very important and useful one. I hope that having looked at it, people will rethink their views and understand that the myths and prejudices about those who have already encountered the virus are feeding ungrounded fears and distort the truth,” – said Arusik Mkrtchyan.

The World AIDS Day is an opportunity to learn about the prevention of HIV and of its “side effect” – discrimination against people living with HIV. According to the project participants, the main reason of discrimination is lack of knowledge about how the virus is transmitted and what behavior puts us at risk. Due to the prejudices that exist in society, HIV infection is considered a natural consequence of marginal lifestyle and all people living with HIV are unconditionally placed in one of the “classic” risk groups. However, anyone may face HIV regardless their gender, age or social status.

Another reason for discriminatory practice is the outdated view of HIV as a death sentence, although nowadays this is not the case. Stigma and discrimination impede effective HIV control. The fear of condemnation keeps many people from timely testing and treatment. The social experiment has shown that in order to prevent the spread of HIV, it is necessary to change people’s behavior, to identify and eliminate errors and stereotypes as well as to give to wider public more information about the HIV.

Both full and short versions of the video are available on our YouTube page.