Media role in fight against HIV/AIDS


When HIV/AIDS first emerged in the early 1980s, there was a veil of secrecy about it. People used to murmur about a new disease whose victims endured unspeakable suffering.

In the early days of the pandemic, little was known about the virus. There was a great deal of fear about how it was spread and many people died from HIV-related illnesses. People who suffered from HIV/AIDS had to go through episodes of suffering, including extreme weight loss and helplessness before they died.

And when the media started reporting on the pandemic, it did some damages by producing powerful images and metaphors that helped shape myths and misperceptions of HIV/AIDS. This according to UNESCO, later contributed to stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

This column looks at how the media, especially journalists, can address myths and misperceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS. Increasing knowledge levels is key to health promotion, HIV prevention and positive behaviour change. Joseph Ngome, reporting for BBC radio in Kisumu, Kenya, recently noted that in village communities the subject of HIV/AIDS is still regarded as taboo. People, instead term it “chira”, which is understood to be an ailment that strikes the body slowly and persistently until one is so wasted and tired-looking that no modern treatment can help.

Ngome said villagers do not admit that AIDS is real. “Illness is believed to strike a man or a woman who goes against communal norms. And the consequences of these transgressions can only be treated by village ‘medicine men’.”

This is not unique to Kenya, as in many rural communities ‑ in Namibia and elsewhere in the region – speaking about HIV/AIDS is still regarded as taboo and interacting with those infected with the virus is not encouraged because the disease is seen as a bad omen. HIV/AIDS remains a controversial subject not only in Namibia but also on the African continent in general.

Ngome noted that the science involved with understanding the disease, its prevention and treatment, is also quite complicated such that the public ‑ and even medical experts ‑ are often confused in terms of how to act.

This might explain the low level of news coverage on HIV/AIDS-related issues, which has decreased considerably.

Despite the fact that medical science has revolutionised the treatment of HIV, many journalists seem reluctant to take up the challenge of critical and accurate coverage of health issues, with particular focus on the HIV pandemic. Research conducted by the Media Observatory in South Africa showed that news on HIV and AIDS in the print media fell by 63 percent between 2003/4 and 2007/8. HIV is also less likely to make the front pages of newspapers, and specialist HIV reporters have declined from 50 in the first study period to seven in the second. Today, someone diagnosed early with HIV can be treated effectively, is unlikely to develop AIDS, and instead can live a long life, work, exercise, even have a family if they choose. Despite advances in treatment, social attitudes are changing much more slowly. Although evidence shows public knowledge of HIV in Africa is increasing, there is still lack of understanding about HIV.

Therefore, media need to play an important role in communicating to the public what exactly it means to live with HIV today. What journalists convey in their stories will be able to change the perceptions many have about HIV/AIDS. Understanding the advances in knowledge and treatment around HIV is vital to the journalists in order for them to be able to report accurately about the virus.

Accurate reporting benefits public health, dispels myths, undermines prejudice and increases understanding. It contributes positively to the way HIV is addressed around the world. For instance, media can help dispel the disturbing incidences where people are making claims that they have been cured of HIV/AIDS by prayers.

Journalists must step in to counter these dangerous claims made by some churches that there is still no cure for HIV infection. However, there are treatment options that can help people living with HIV experience long and productive lives. With development of effective HIV treatment, HIV infection does not necessarily lead to AIDS, but it is important to reflect this in our reporting that a person is not completely cured of the virus.

October 2013
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