Monday October 8 5:29 PM ET

World AIDS Campaign Targets Masculine Stereotypes

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - This year's World AIDS Campaign will focus on challenging cultural perceptions of masculinity that contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS worldwide, according to the United Nations.

The primary goals of the World AIDS Campaign are to include men in HIV prevention efforts, encouraging them to value their own health and that of their families and sexual partners, and to inspire world leaders to focus on men in their national responses to AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), discussed this year's campaign at the 6th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, being held this week in Melbourne, Australia.

"Part of the effort to curb the AIDS epidemic must include challenging negative beliefs and behaviors, including the way men view risk and how boys are socialized to become men,'' Piot said in a statement. "Men are expected to be strong, robust and virile--but these very expectations may translate into behaviors that can endanger both men and their partners.''

Men are key to reducing the spread of HIV, Piot said. On every continent except sub-Saharan Africa, more men than women contract HIV and die from AIDS. Furthermore, men tend to have more sexual partners than women, including extramarital sex, and may turn to prostitutes for sex if they have to leave home to find work, all of which increase the risk of spreading HIV.

In fact, according to UNAIDS, more than 70% of HIV infections worldwide happen during sex between men and women. And millions of men each year are involved in sexual assaults, including rape.

In addition, UNAIDS notes, men make up the majority of injection drug users, who may acquire HIV from sharing needles with other drug users.

One of the most important ways to reduce HIV infection is to challenge the negative stereotypes about masculinity that endanger the health of men and their partners, Piot said. For example, boys are often told "real men don't get sick,'' and, according to Piot, men are less likely than women to seek medical attention when they are ill, which may prevent men from knowing they are infected.

This year's World AIDS Campaign also plans to encourage men to take an active role in their health and that of their families. This includes talking to partners and children about sex and HIV, and caring for family members who are infected.

"World AIDS Campaign advocates for change with those in positions to effect it, from leaders to community elders to individuals,'' Andrew Doupe, World AIDS Campaign coordinator, told Reuters Health. "The idea is to get issues on the agenda.''

Organizers of the World AIDS Campaign hope that challenging masculine stereotypes about dominance and virility will enable women to take more control of their sexual and reproductive lives. They say the campaign is designed to complement existing HIV prevention programs that focus on women and girls.

In addition, this year's campaign will encourage national leaders, the majority of whom are men, to focus on men in their countries' efforts to prevent HIV.