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Utah AIDS Foundation Rejects Federal Prevention Funding Over Condoms Ads: sees link between dull ads and rise in Utah HIV rate
  By Heather May
The Salt Lake Tribune
06/02/2008 12:19:09 AM MDT
The Utah AIDS Foundation used to pass out beer coasters with pictures of condoms and messages such as "Thank you and come again."
But its latest federally funded HIV-prevention messages have been blander. One ad now in weekly newspapers shows a haggard man in women's clothing smoking a cigarette, with the line "STDS are a total drag," and urges readers to get tested.
Meanwhile, Utah's HIV-infection rate has been rising; it's up 32 percent so far this year in Salt Lake County compared with the same time last year.
The nonprofit foundation sees a connection - and it has decided to pay the cost of getting blunter with Utah's gay men, rejecting government funding and its censorship.
HIV infections are on the rise
The number of HIV infections in Salt Lake County increased 32 percent, from 19 in the first quarter of 2007 to 25 this year.
The Utah AIDS Foundation attributes the jump to:
-- Improvements in anti-retroviral drugs that have extended the lives of the infected but also lead youth to falsely believe the disease is curable
-- Young men who grew up after the 1980s AIDS epidemic think of AIDS as a problem in Africa, not America
-- The use of methamphetamine and alcohol that contribute to risky behavior.
State-approved ads, notes Stan Penfold, the foundation's executive director, focus on testing.
"We weren't talking about using condoms. We weren't being blunt [about] what behaviors put you at risk for HIV," Penfold said. "...It just felt like we were compromising our mission and compromising the population we're trying to serve."
The foundation has accepted about $500,000 in HIV-prevention money from the Centers for Disease Control since 2002, to produce ads and provide other prevention programs approved by the Utah Department of Health. The state has rejected some sexually suggestive ads aimed at gay men.
This year's rejected grant: $87,000. Instead, the foundation is seeking donors to cover the costs of its new campaign and prevention programs.
Talking condoms. The upcoming slogan: "Unleash the Power of the 'C.' "
While the ads, designed with Wilkinson Ferrari of Salt Lake City, are still being refined, they are aimed at normalizing condom use. One idea: a typical coffee scene, but with a lamp shade or pillow made of condoms.
Printed materials - handed out with condoms at bars and clubs - will have the theme "Condom-sutra" - a play off the ancient Indian sexuality text Kama Sutra.
A focus group of gay men applauded the ideas Thursday night, Penfold said, especially the versions that included gay couples.
They're an important audience because men having sex with men make up the majority of HIV infection cases. Of the 25 new cases in the first quarter of 2008, 83 percent were among men who have sex with men. And it's younger men - ages 20 to 39 - who are at higher risk, comprising a majority of infection cases in 2007.
"Heat of the moment"
HIV isn't a big concern among young gay men because those who have it are living longer on anti-retroviral drugs, and there's a feeling that it's difficult to contract, said a Salt Lake City man who was infected a couple of years ago. He had unprotected sex with a man who lied about being infected, he said.
"It's not like I had never used condoms before or I was against using condoms, or didn't have access to condoms," said the man, who is in his 20s and requested anonymity. "It's very, very difficult when you're in the heat of the moment to sit and recognize, 'I should do this and take the time and have that discussion.' "
He applauds the idea of an upfront campaign.
"The prevention messages we're using in our nation in general, they're not working. If we can make [condoms] less of a stigma by making it more fun or more easy to talk about, it will do a great deal in reducing the spread of this."
"Love yourself!"
The state health department, which doles out about $1 million a year of federal HIV prevention dollars to community groups, has been promoting HIV and STD testing, which, along with counseling, is considered an effective prevention method.
Penfold said the health department would "absolutely not" approve the foundation's new campaign, and contends it hasn't supported promoting condoms. He provided an e-mail sent to his office by a state health official earlier this year, which said the department's public information office in the past "has denied approval of any reference to condoms. We're hoping they might reconsider their policy."
But public information officer Tom Hudachko said the department, unlike publics schools, is not forbidden to promote condoms and does not have rules referring to contraception.
"Condoms, when combined with testing, are an efficient public health tool," he said. "It'd be pretty silly on our part to have a policy that would restrict anyone from using the word 'condom.' "
He pointed to a Valentine's Day campaign the department approved that showed two men kissing and the text: "Before you love him ... love yourself! Condoms protect against HIV."
"Clearly," added Hudachko, "there's no bias against homosexuality there."
The state does object to ads, he said, when content "detracts" from the prevention message. One rejected example: A tea kettle with the text "Whether you're a little teapot or a big one ... protect your spout."
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