Sexually transmitted infection and public health in South Africa: Educational campaigns for prevention, 1935-1948 and 1999-2008

Alan Jeeves, Rosemary J. Jolly

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This contribution compares two educational campaigns for prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in South Africa: against syphilis in the decade before penicillin became widely available after World War II, and against HIV since 1999. The syphilis campaign was led by the South African Red Cross. The HIV/AIDS campaign is in the hands of loveLife, a well-financed health non-governmental organization. Widely separated in time, they nevertheless share basic characteristics that help to explain their limited effectiveness. Much public education for STI prevention assumes that accurate medical information, if delivered effectively, will promote necessary behaviour change to reduce risk of infection irrespective of the class, culture or education level of the target groups. Approaches based on that premise largely failed against syphilis in South Africa and have so far failed again against HIV/AIDS. The paper contends that the health propaganda generated in both campaigns took insufficient account of the socio-economic circumstances and beliefs that frequently constrain changes in behaviour even when self-preservation is at stake. As mass campaigns, they were unable to respond to regional and local differences that affected reception of their messages. Recipients of public funding and support, they each aligned themselves with prevailing political discourses in ways that also impacted on effectiveness. Despite these and other preventive efforts, syphilis in the 1940s, like HIV in the years since 1994, continued undiminished to take a heavy toll of people's lives and health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)264-283
Number of pages20
JournalSocial Theory and Health
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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