Media should be objective and factual when reporting on HIV/AIDS

Jun 18, 2016

By Lahja Nashuuta

The United Nations, through the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNAIDS and other international agencies, has been calling on countries all over the world to develop a multi-sectional approach to fighting HIV/AIDS by ensuring that all stakeholders play their part in this relentless battle.

One of the main stakeholders in this war is, of course, the media. It is a well-known fact that media can play a crucial role in creating an enabling and supportive environment by addressing negative issues around the pandemic that are likely to scuttle the fight.

Apart from that journalists are in a position to create greater public awareness of HIV/AIDS, which in the end helps people make informed decisions to help prevent infections, protect themselves, and ensure proper care and treatment of people living with HIV.

But this can only happen when media houses are carrying stories that are objective, factual and sensitive.

Besides, it is part of media ethics to seek truth and report it in a balanced manner. Journalists should hold all decision makers accountable, from government to the pharmaceutical industry and advocacy groups.

They should be engaged with, but not captive to, any interest group.

Telling the whole story also means giving it a human face. The voices of people with HIV and AIDS must be heard more strongly and they must include the vulnerable and marginalised people. The focus should be on facts. Distortion of facts in any manner to make the story salacious and therefore “more saleable” is unacceptable. Censorship of relevant information too is unethical.

False news will definitely have a negative impact on people’s lives. There is a media house that carries misleading stories when it comes to HIV treatment and care. For example, there was a story that appeared in the Telegraph claiming that scientists may be just three years away from developing a cure for HIV.  The article was referring to a report that scientists have succeeded in editing HIV’s genetic code out of immune cells in a laboratory setting. Although posted on April 1, not everybody will consider that the article was no April Fools’ Day prank.

Apart from that the article fanned across the Internet, parroted by Fortune, Fox News, AOL News and various others. The body of the Telegraph piece cites the position among researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University that they can move their research, which employed the cutting-edge CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing method to cut HIV from immune cells, into human trials within three years.

This was misrepresentation of information because according to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this was just a first clinical trial and that there are three clinical trial phases required before a medical treatment can qualify for FDA approval.

According to FDA, each successive phase of this process entails a larger population of participants, a longer study period and greater overall complexity. The entire process typically takes many years.

The director of the Center for Neurovirology & Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at Temple University and the lead author of the HIV gene-editing study, Kamel Khalili, was later quoted by New York online magazine known as POZ magazine denying the allegations. “We have made no claim that our technology will cure HIV in three years,” says  Khalili.

“We hope to begin initial clinical trials within the next three years, and this will depend on our results from animal studies for safety and efficacy and the availability of funding.”

Khalili says that in early human research of this cure therapy, researchers will give the gene-editing treatment for “some period of time” to HIV-positive people who are on ARV treatment.

Then, after taking the participants off their ARVs, the scientists will determine whether the gene therapy has eradicated HIV from the body and thus prevented the virus from rebounding.

Therefore, media people should avoid such incidents by correctly quoting data and information about the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is still the leading cause of death in many countries.

Until then . . .

2 Responses

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