world faces a bigger threat from AIDS than Osama bin Laden says
AIDS activist and Hollywood heart-throb Richard Gere. Kumudini Hettiarachchi
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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'.