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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention communications specialist Jo Ellen Stryker discussed the future of HIV prevention in a student workshop at the Harvard School of Public Health last Thursday.
Chief of the Prevention Communications Branch in the Division of HIV Prevention at the CDC, Stryker explored the evolution of the HIV prevention campaign over recent years, including efforts to combat the stigma around the disease and promote testing, treatment, and care. The school’s Center for Health Communication and the Health Communication Concentration co-sponsored Thursday’s event.
One of the major ways the HIV campaign has evolved is in its shift in framing and messaging to be more inclusive, according to Stryker.
“It includes gay, bisexual, other men who have sex with men, transgender people, particularly transgender women, cisgender black women, and people who inject drugs,” she said.
In recent years, the campaign has taken on a more positive tone from discussing the problem in combative terms to promoting collective resiliency. In line with these developments, the campaign changed its name from “Act Against Aids” to “Let’s Stop HIV Together.”
Stryker also said the campaign is taking an increasingly holistic approach. The campaign previously targeted specific audiences with distinct goals, like improving treatment and increasing the prevalence of testing.
“In the past, we had very discrete campaigns for discrete audiences,” Stryker said.
Rather than having the desired effect, the campaign found this approach “can be very stigmatizing to people, feeling like you are singling out a particular group.”
A communication scientist by training, Stryker focuses on taking public health data and applying it to communications campaigns.
“I was always a little bit on the fence as to whether I wanted to be in academia or not,” Stryker said.
Stryker’s passion has always fallen “where the science meets the practice,” a quality which drew her to the CDC.
“Not every place at CDC is fortunate enough to have the resources to have a very robust communication program, but HIV does,” Stryker said. “Having the opportunity to really adjust our communication practices and to be able to see the difference that it’s making in our campaign, in our communities, with individuals — it’s very rewarding.”
Throughout her time leading the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign, Stryker worked to expand the program’s outreach and communication initiatives. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Stryker spearheaded a self-testing pilot program for the CDC, offering HIV testing even during pandemic lockdowns.
Now, Stryker is working to launch a new testing initiative in partnership with Emory University. The program, called “Together Take Me Home,” uses the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign to market free HIV tests to areas that are disproportionately affected by HIV. Over the next five years, Stryker hopes the program will distribute more than a million free tests.
After outlining the campaign’s new initiative, Stryker told students at the School of Public Health that it is “impossible” to pursue a career in the field without honing communication skills.
“Be thoughtful and intentional about your messaging, your framing, and to be thinking always not just about the audience that you’re trying to reach, but the potential effects of your messaging on others who might see it,” Stryker said.
Beyond the field of public health, Stryker believes everyone can play a role in preventing HIV.
“Understanding the facts, talking openly about your sexual health with your sexual partners, and ensuring that you are supportive and caring for people living with HIV, those are things that we can all do,” she said.
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