Journalists have a key role to play in informing the public about tuberculosis and bringing key issues to the attention of policymakers.
Fifty years ago, tuberculosis (TB) was disappearing from the developed world, largely thanks to the antibiotic streptomycin. The same treatment also promised to eliminate it from the developing world.
But today, new forms of TB have appeared in many developed countries. And in developing nations it is spreading even faster, with over one million people dying every year from the disease.
Two reasons are usually quoted for this worrying upsurge. First is the emergence of drug resistant strains of the disease, in particular the extremely drug-resistant varient (XDR-TB) that has proved so lethal in South Africa (see 'South Africa told: TB epidemic needs tough measures'). Second is the way that reduced immunity caused by HIV/AIDS has encouraged the spread of TB in infected individuals.
It would be wrong to claim that the biomedical community is ignoring either. Increasing attention has been paid to TB control by international agencies, such as the World Health Organization, and private foundations, particularly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This has resulted in a replenished pipeline of new drugs and vaccines that promise, at least in principle, to beat back the disease again.
A role for journalists
But much more needs to be done, as events taking place on World TB Day (24 March) hope to highlight. The most obvious is the need is for more money; there is still a large gap between the funding needed by TB programmes and the financial commitments made by Western aid agencies.
Equally important, however, is the need for greater awareness about TB in both public and political communities.
Journalists have an important role to play in informing people — in the developed and developing world alike — about the nature and extent of this disease, the shortcomings in current treatments and future possibilities for improved control.
Properly informed journalism can also create public pressure to spur politicians into action. In the United States, public lobbying through the media — by groups formed to support research into specific diseases — is known to play a key role in persuading congress to boost funding for biomedical research.
In the developing world, few such groups exist. Where they do, their leverage over politicians tends to be more limited. All the more reason for journalists to bring important issues — such as the need to combat the spread of TB, particularly in its more virulent forms, and the various ways in which this can be done — to the attention of policymakers.
Health reporting hurdles
This is not an easy task. Many journalists in Africa, for example, say they have difficulty in getting health-related stories accepted by news editors because these tend to make depressing reading that does not sell newspapers. Others point out that journalists often lack the training needed to handle such stories confidently.
An additional factor is that lesser known diseases like TB tend to be overshadowed by high-profile illnesses, in particular HIV/AIDS. One 2002 survey found that a prominent Kenyan newspaper devoted 10 per cent of its news coverage to HIV/AIDS, 2.8 per cent to malaria, and less then one per cent to TB.
Then there is the problem of language. In South Africa, for example, the medical research organisations and health departments involved in monitoring and responding to XDR-TB are only set up to communicate in English. As a result, there is a considerable amount of TB coverage in English-language newspapers but the average South African remains ignorant of the threat posed by XDR-TB. Until there is more science reporting in Zulu, Xhosa, or Sotho, this situation is unlikely to change.
Over the past few years, ways of combating these problems have been increasingly explored.
The Maisha Yetu project — carried out by the International Women's Media Foundation — started by analysing the media coverage of HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in five African countries in 2004, and went on to launch a programme to develop better health reporting within media organisations in Botswana, Kenya and Senegal.
In Senegal, this has led to an increase of 20-30 per cent in the number of stories written by provincial reporters on HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria.
Drawing on experiences gained from both its research and practical efforts, the initiative has come up with a list of eight best practices for health reporting:
- Persuade top editors and management to back health stories;
- Raise the professionalism of health journalists through customised training programmes;
- Build a professional niche for health journalists;
- Share resources amongst journalists;
- Diversify sources of information;
- Report from outside of the newsroom;
- Maintain regular contact with everyone involved in health projects at all levels; and
- Learn to manipulate newsroom politics.
This year is the 125th anniversary of Robert Koch's discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Hopefully, this will allow journalists and their editors to provide a few more column inches about this destructive disease. And perhaps they can also take the opportunity to reflect on why it is so difficult to achieve this during the rest of the year — and what they can do about it.