The world faces a bigger threat from AIDS than Osama bin Laden says AIDS activist and Hollywood heart-throb Richard Gere. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports
Gered for battle
A hush descends as he begins to speak. Every ear strains to catch his words. Earlier where there had been noise and fidgeting now there is sudden concentration.

The focus is on him, though the panel is eminent. He is playing a different role - a role far removed from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. And it is no act, for his words come from the heart. "A vicious terrorist is out there. It is not Osama bin Laden, it is AIDS. The biggest threat to our livelihood, our happiness is AIDS," stresses prematurely grey Richard Gere with passion.

We are at a media briefing with a difference on Tuesday, July 13. The subject is 'Global Media AIDS Initiative'. The 20-30 seat room is packed to capacity long before the briefing is scheduled to start. The panel of speakers trickles in, but the large contingent of journalists gathered for the 15th World AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand hardly give them a second glance. Until in walks actor and activist Richard Gere. For 15 minutes or more cameras click and flash.

Gere, former husband of supermodel Cindy Crawford, famed for movies such as 'An Officer and a Gentleman', 'Pretty Woman', and 'Primal Fear' was among the celebrities and high-profile attendees at the main AIDS Conference which drew 19,000 people from all over the world. South African freedom fighter and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, his wife Graca Machel, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,India’s Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and actresses Ashley Judd and Shabana Azmi were some of the others who graced the occasion.

Though indications of age catching up are evident in the form of thinning hair at the top of his head, the charisma and flamboyance of this idol of the silver screen is evident when he speaks emotionally about India, our giant neighbour across the Palk Straits, where he is involved in anti-AIDS work.

At the press briefing Gere, the humanitarian who has embraced Buddhism is talking about his involvement with the media in spreading the message – AIDS awareness and prevention. Under the UN-supported Global Media AIDS Initiative, a collective of media companies from around the globe have committed resources to the fight against AIDS.

The journalists heard from the other speakers how they have mustered support not only of the media but also celebrities such as cricketers, specially in South Asia, to act as role models. Some of the messages already beamed into homes include 'Protect yourself and others', 'Help stop AIDS before it stops the world' and 'Resist sex until you have a condom'.

In a world struggling to deal with a pandemic that has 38-40 million people in its vicious grip, the Asian notion is that prevention is not important. Information can save lives and journalists are as important or even more important as doctors, because they can help stop the transmission of AIDS.

In India, the Gere Foundation India Trust in partnership with Avahan-India AIDS Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation and STAR India has launched the Heroes Project, a three-year campaign to combat HIV/AIDS. Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid will feature in the first message to be televised this month.

For Gere, there is a "window of opportunity" in India. Though India has 5.1 million people living with HIV, in terms of its population of more than a billion, it is considered a low-prevalence country.

"Something can be done to correct the situation," stresses Gere. According to him media coverage should not be limited to AIDS Day. Continuous insertions in magazines and radio and TV programmes are essential. Then people can keep clippings and refer to them whenever they want.Explaining that one out of seven people infected with HIV is in India and the fact that it has the highest prevalence in Asia, Gere says that the problem here is that there is a multitude of languages and cultures. Under their customs talking about sex is taboo.

"Basic information is low. Education status in some areas is at ground zero," he says. When a visibly shaken journalist announced that she was HIV positive and asked him what prompted him to take to anti-AIDS work, Gere said, "It started vaguely when our friends in the entertainment gay community were the first to go. I was highly emotional in my heart…..teary."

"Young people have to be embraced by us. It's a lonely death. No one should live with AIDS and not be able to talk about it," he said adding that working in a media company the aim should not be to get rich. "The ability to get into the homes of people is really important."

As Gere attempts to leave the room after the briefing, he is mobbed by journalists who detain him for a while longer and just outside the Media Centre, some protesters distribute scurrilous leaflets about Gere's role in 'American Gigolo'.

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