Aids message on the A-train

NEW YORKERS are becoming hooked on a new 'soap opera' with a deadly serious message. Decision is a strip cartoon on the Subway about a group of Hispanic youngsters confronted with the big decisions about Aids: what protection to take, whether to be tested - and how to tell your lover you're HIV positive.

Produced by New York's health department, the cartoon (above), in Spanish and English, is targeted mainly at the city's Spanish-speaking population because officials felt the Aids message wasn't getting across the language barrier.

So far Julio, the ignorant macho man, and Marisol, the sensible, sensitive young woman, are trying to get back together after Julio walked out because Marisol insisted he wear a condom. Their friend Raul has Aids and is in hospital being visited by Rosa, who confesses she is HIV positive. Raul asks her is she has told Julio, who has been to bed with all the girls and seems to think he will never get the virus . . .

The strip is a welcome relief from the endless Subway advertisements offering remedies for haemorrhoids, hernias, headaches and foot complaints.

The producer of the ads, Ann Sternberg, used to work in television and now worries just as much about the story line and the need to maintain reader interest in Decision as she used to be concerned about such things when she was presenting news documentaries.

Reader response is part of the marketing package. Among the suggestions: either kill off the horny Julio, or have him go to a prostitute, become infected with Aids, confess to Marisol, who shoots him and hangs herself, claiming that love was worth dying for after all.

At the health department they take it more seriously. Raul's girlfriend has already died of Aids. The question is how Rosa is going to tell Julio about her own infection. 'We need to show how difficult partner identification really is,' said an official.