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Press Briefing on ‘three amigos’ hiv/aids prevention programme

One of the world’s largest safe-sex initiatives was officially launched at United Nations Headquarters in New York today with the release of a series of 20 funny, animated public service announcements aimed chiefly at 15- to 24-year-olds worldwide to entrench the use of condoms to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

At a press briefing sponsored by the Government of Canada, producer/director Fridaus Kharas showed six of the shorts included on the DVD “The Three Amigos”, which features three animated talking condom characters -– “Shaft”, “Stretch” and “Dick” -- who use light-hearted comedy to deliver a serious message.  The shorts are currently running in South Africa, the Netherlands and Canada, and were conceived to destigmatize condom use and encourage responsible sexual behaviour.

The groundbreaking project, which is available to interested health clinics, hospitals, broadcasters, civic groups and academic institutions in 41 languages, aims to reach 80 per cent of the world’s population in several languages.  The public service announcements (PSAs), meant to be used as commercials or teaching tools, are free and can be requested through:

Announcing the project’s international rollout, Mr. Kharas, who is the founder of an Ottawa-based production company specializing in television programmes, feature films and animation, said that, after South African scriptwriter Brent Quinn had come to him with the idea, he had pulled together a team of some 80 volunteers, with a creative team from Canada, South Africa and India, and including young people who spoke each language and voiced new versions of the original scripts, filling the skits with local humour.

The project has received widespread acclaim and since last year had won 25 international awards in competitions.  The shorts have been praised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a “powerful communicating tool” and “an outstanding contribution to the campaign against HIV infection in providing material that can be easily understood by most people irrespective of language or culture”.  The Nobel laureate has pleaded with broadcasters worldwide to use them to encourage people to change their behaviour.

Today, Mr. Kharas said that the use of humour was what made the shorts so different –- and what made them work so well.  Acknowledging that comedy did not necessarily “travel well”, he said that the collection provided a range of choices, some of the shorts were more dialogue-driven, while others were virtually silent films.  The PSAs, available only in English prior to today, differed in length, running 15, 20, 30 and 60 seconds each, and were skewed at different age groups.  He added that one of the most requested shorts was aimed at women and talked frankly about female condoms.

“All this stems from the firm belief that this is a preventable disease”, Mr. Kharas said, adding:  “It’s actually shocking that 5.3 million people got the HIV virus last year and probably more are going to get it this year.  We know what to do.  We know that mass prevention works and we need to engage the world in preventing the spread of AIDS.”

He gave the example of Thailand, where tremendous strides had been made in reducing the rate of infection considerably by engaging in pervasive mass education.  He said that “The Three Amigos” had been produced and translated into the languages of countries and regions identified as “high risk” by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), including India, Russian Federation, China and Indonesia, as well as Eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

Responding to several questions about the global response to the PSAs, Mr. Kharas said that there were some countries where the subject and the shorts had been “touchy subjects”, but that was why his team had produced 20 shorts in the various languages.  They were aware some of them would not be culturally effective in every single country and they had been designed to be mixed and matched to cultural specificities or educational needs.  It also helped that the Three Amigos were animated characters, presenting a non-threatening, non-authoritarian vehicle for communicating their important message.  “If I had used real condoms, there would have been much more reluctance to use them”, he said.

To queries about the response from conservative or Muslim countries such as India and Pakistan, or the United States, where the Government promoted abstinence over condom use, Mr. Kharas pointed out that in South Africa, which had 600,000 Indians and nearly 1 million Muslims, the PSAs had been running nearly continuously for more than two years and that only two complaints had been received.  In the United States, there seemed to be great interest from educators and civic groups.

“So I’m not worried about a massive number of complaints coming from conservative factions”, he said.  “I think broadcasters will make their decisions ... as to which ones were most appropriate for their language or situations.”

“We can’t, though, do nothing”, he continued, “with 5 to 6 million people contracting the virus every year, countries just can’t wait until the situation reaches crisis point and then act.”  Prevention meant that the response had to begin before a crisis began.

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For information media. Not an official record.