26 February 2009

So if you'll serve I'll be on my way

The Irish tubes are this morning clogged with posts of outrage from poor unfortunate Irish bloggers (blog-Eirs?) who were cruelly tricked into attending a free lecture by Obama webguru Joe Rospars last night, that turned out to be the launch event for Fianna Fail's new website, designed in part by Rospars' Blue State Digital. Scarcely had Sean Dorgan, FF General Secretary, stepped up to welcome people along before the twittering thumbs began to exclaim their displeasure at being used by the PR company for dastardly political ends. "The tubes won't stand for this", their massed fingers twitched.

I was not at the event, despite reading the same release from Strawberry Media (with Fianna Fail's name curiously absent) as everyone else, which was too much a case of "and how much would this free weekend be?" for me, no PR company organises something out of the goodness of their heart*. Instead I spent my evening out in the wilds of Maynooth learning about stuff that matters slightly more in the grander scheme of things than what clogs the tubes, with noticeably fewer Fianna Fail flacks.

The Combat Diseases of Poverty Consortium in NUI Maynooth hosted a talk by Dr Elizabeth Pisani, epidemiologist, advisor to UNAIDS, WHO, the CDC and the World Bank, and the author of "the Wisdom of Whores", a book that's always fun to ask for in busy bookshops with slow computer systems and a slightly deaf sales assistant. I first heard of Dr Pisani and her book via a large colorful promo poster adorning the wall of a US sex workers' advocacy group's stand at the World Aids Forum in Mexico City last year. Its funny how what seems completely normal in an environment surrounded by Zapatista transexuals demanding housing rights for HIV+ intravenous drug users can seem altogether more embarrassing at 10:30am on a Wednesday morning in Waterstone's with a nun standing behind me trying to buy Daniel O'Donnell's autobiography.

In her lecture last night Dr Pisani tried to break apart some of the "sacred cows" (as she put it) of the war on AIDS, and although I didn't agree with everything she said it was certainly compelling and eye-opening. She explored the way in which HIV has been marketed as universal disease that could affect anyone in society as a way of overcoming public stigma against fund raising for treatment of those actually most at risk (gay men, sex workers and intravenous drug users). She disagreed with the labeling of HIV as a disease of poverty, with some interesting data from Southern and Eastern Africa that seemed to suggest that infection rates were highest amongst the middle class and well educated. She also had data from Asia that showed that during an economic crises infection rates go down, as although more people might be forced into sex work, clients also have less money to spend on sex; fewer clients are sleeping with a wider range of sex workers, so the number of opportunities for cross-infection between multiple partners are reduced.

She looked at the business of treatment, that there was more money to be made by pharmaceutical companies and corrupt government officials in treating HIV than actually running prevention programs, and she exploded the fallacy loved by the Bush administration but condemned by anyone that actually works in the field that Abstinence-only programs worked. She ruffled a lot of feathers in the audience by suggesting that HIV should be treated by governments and health workers as an infectious disease, similar to other STDs that require mandatory notification of previous sexual partners (something gay activists in the early days of the epidemic fought hard to prevent for fear of stigmatization), and to be honest most of what she said, though uncomfortable to hear, started to make a good bit of sense.

I walked away from the talk realizing that like so many other topics I have a little knowledge on this subject, enough to be dangerous as it causes me to make assumptions based on not enough data, and skewed in an odd direction as a result of sitting in on too many medium-level workshops without ever going through the basics. I've posted a few pictures of Dr Pisani and her slides here, you can check out her blog for more info and its well worth reading her book to get a different view of the epidemic than is normally presented in the mainstream media.

Maybe don't buy it on Amazonthough, it could really mess up your future Personalized Recommendations.

* as your average PR company has less heart than the lovechild of the Tin Man and Louis Washkansky.

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