The Media and the HIV/AIDS fight

While HIV/AIDS has traditionally been a health story – it is, in fact, much bigger because it is also political, economic, social and cultural.
There are new developments surrounding HIV/AIDS every day – new trends regarding the epidemic like in research, prevention programmes, or how the virus is affecting people and their communities.
UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that by the end of 2010 nearly 40 million adults and children were living with HIV/AIDS worldwide and that 28.1 million of those people were living in Africa.
This means that after more than three decades – HIV/AIDS continues making headlines, it remains newsworthy.
Since HIV/AIDS was recognised as a world crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, media took the leading role in educating the public on how the virus spread and how it can be prevented.
To date, the majority of the world population knows that HIV can be contracted through unprotected sex and the sure way to protect oneself from the virus is to abstain from sex or use protection such as condom.
It is unfortunate that there are still new cases of HIV infection especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite available information through the media regarding HIV/AIDS.
The media remains a key tool in disseminating the right information to the public.
The power of the media is that it can reach a large number of people at the same time and its power of influence cannot be matched.
The media influence public opinion and attitudes about HIV/AIDS, including attitudes towards people with HIV/AIDS.
Media play an important role in raising public awareness about the pandemic by reporting stories that promote prevention of the virus and reduce the stigma associated with those infected.
The media can generate public and policy discussion surrounding HIV/AIDS, which further encourages public awareness and leads to action by political, financial and civil groups.
When the media focus on a particular issue, there is a higher degree of public awareness and support to tackle that issue.
Attitudes affect how people respond to HIV/AIDS and how people with HIV/AIDS are treated or cared for by their peers, employers, families, communities, the health care system, and the justice system.
Similarly, the media influence the language of HIV/AIDS, which in turn helps shape how people think about and deal with the pandemic.
The media can also point to healthy behaviours – for the prevention of HIV/AIDS, the protection of those who are most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, and for the care of people affected by HIV/AIDS.
Some commentators pointed out that the media has also dispelled a lot of myths about how you can get HIV, like being able to catch it from a toilet seat.
However, I have noticed some disturbing trends about local media regarding the coverage of HIV/AIDS.
I believe it is not unique to Namibia that somehow media has in recent years taken a backseat in driving the onslaught against HIV/AIDS.
It would, therefore, not be surprising to hear media practitioners making remarks that the HIV/AIDS story has already been told, and that it is not news anymore.
The triumph over HIV/AIDS is dependent on the media role in informing the public about the pandemic.
In the last edition – I looked at how a mere whisper of the word HIV/AIDS sends shivers down the spines of the majority of people.
That after three decades of public information campaigns – most people continue to shiver at the mere mention of HIV/AIDS because they have witnessed what has happened to people living with the virus because of stigma.
Therefore, it is premature for the media to take a backseat – to conclude that the HIV/AIDS story has already been told, and that it is no more newsworthy.
The power of the media can assist raise awareness among the youth and help reduce stigma and discrimination towards people living with the virus, including their immediate families.
It is important for media houses to have one or two reporters in their newsrooms, who understand the public policy implications and the facts of HIV/AIDS, and who are aware of the myths surrounding the disease and will produce better stories.
The stories they write will assist hold governments and communities accountable for their programmes, educate the public about prevention, offer methods for coping with the disease, and discredit stereotypes surrounding HIV/AIDS.

June 2013
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