A public service announcement produced by the New York City Health Department promoting condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS has horrified advocacy groups, who say it demonizes and frightens gays and those living with the disease.
The video, which aired on such cable networks as the gay and lesbian channel Logo, Bravo and the Travel Channel, chides, "When you get HIV, it's never just HIV. You're at a higher risk for dozens of diseases even if you take medications, like osteoporosis, dementia, and anal cancer."
Gay advocacy groups and blogs were barraged by complaints after viewing the video on YouTube.
"This video bothers me," wrote JT, a reader on Steve Rothaus' Gay South Florida on the Miami Herald's website.
"Not in the way that it's supposed to though," he wrote. "I think they are trying to alienate people who already have HIV... I don't think this will help anyone to remember to wear a condom, but it will maybe get them to look down at HIV+ people as a lost cause."
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York (GMHC) are demanding the video be withdrawn, saying that "scare tactics" do not work and that the PSA is stigmatizing.
"While it's extremely important that we continue to educate New Yorkers about HIV/AIDS prevention, the sensationalized nature of the commercial, including its tabloid-like fear tactics, misses the mark in fairly and accurately representing what it's like to live with HIV/AIDS," said GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios.
"It's our hope that the department will work with us to create a PSA that promotes safety and solutions, rather than stigma and stereotype."
Some described the ad as "gross," as the voice-over warns that those who get HIV/AIDS -- even those who are being treated -- are at higher risk for bone loss through osteoporosis, and "permanent memory loss" because of dementia. It says HIV carriers are 28 times more likely to get anal cancer.
"Always use a condom," said the PSA, with scary music in the background.
GMHC, which has in the past worked with New York's health department, said it was not consulted and was "surprised" and "alarmed" to see the ad.
The agency received numerous calls from the public, objecting to the PSA.
But the city health department is standing its ground, insisting it "has no intention of pulling the ad or dropping the campaign."
"The PSA is meant to raise awareness that HIV/AIDS no longer a death sentence, but it's a serious disease with serious consequences, even with medication," said Dr. Monica Sweeney, assistant commissioner for New York's Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control.
The ad was modeled on successful anti-smoking PSAs that depict sensational images of sick patients. One shows a man with lung cancer with a hole in his neck, who died shortly after filming. Another reveals a woman's hand with blackened fingers that were amputated after years of smoking.
The campaigns were lauded for being hard-hitting and had prompted hundreds of people wanting to quit to call the health department and ask for nicotine patches.
"Whatever it takes to use condoms and to prevent HIV infections is a good thing," said Sweeney, a physician who has worked with the AIDS community since the disease was first identified in New York City in 1979.