It came out the other day that Jenna Bush is writing a book about HIV for teenagers. The blonde half of the Bush twins was serving as a UNICEF intern in Panama when she was inspired to write the story of a young woman "living with HIV." "Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope" should be hitting bookstores this fall, proving once and for all how easy it is to write about AIDS.
Explaining AIDS isn't really rocket science, even though only "HIV scientists" can understand the complexities of whether it binds to T-cells with a "loop or a glue". And most AIDS information for the masses is processed into a kind of science-babble Spam.
According to the Big Note Songbook of AIDS, AIDS came from monkeys in Africa, got spread all over North America by a gay French-Canadian flight attendant, and happens to people who have sex without condoms. People who get it will die unless they take the latest drugs that help them live longer, defined as not dying the day before yesterday.
So why not recruit writers from among rock guitarists (Bono) or group homes for the mentally retarded? A mental deficiency would explain Randy Shilts writing of CDC investigators wondering if the new gay disease came from a "bad batch of poppers" (assuming the rest of them were good) and following the history of "Patient Zero," the famous flight attendant. "The schmuck didn't even know that 'Patient O' meant 'Out of California,'" says Michael Ellner of HEAL-New York.
Slowness very nearly explains Laurie Garrett, if we add insanity to the job description. Wire service reporter Lauran Neergaard just last year broke the story of final proof that monkeys caused AIDS -- researchers found HIV in monkey poop in Cameroon. I once asked her for the source of HIV's "famous ability to reproduce," to which she replied, "Everybody knows that." Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. It is technically true that HIV is "famous" for an "ability to reproduce," even if it doesn't actually reproduce. "Famous" is something everybody knows.
Public Health is best communicated at the audience's level. We draw it in bright Crayola colors. It's the "Julio and Marisol" cartoon, a continuing telenovela on the subway wall about a young Hispanic man who refuses to use a condom, loses the lovely Marisol, visits a compadre dying of AIDS, doesn't know an old girlfriend is HIV positive, and so on. (Something tells me I'll never see a "Muffy and Biff" version for upper class white kids.)
We talk slowly and use plenty of pictures. We call an antibody test an "AIDS test", and a "viral load" must mean a load of virus And AIDS is what you die from if you 'have' HIV and don't take your meds.
And everybody, except a handful of "denialists", knows that!
Elizabeth Ely is a freelance writer and public speaker based in New York City, who has learned all the wrong lessons from being thrown out of a major Protestant church. She is working on a book about the religious nature of AIDS-think.