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Science communicators have an important role to play in helping to overcome the social prejudice and political short-sightedness that both form major barriers to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

A major disappointment of last week's international AIDS conference in Barcelona was the relative absence of major political leaders from those developing countries through which the disease is now spreading with such devastating effect. Their non-appearance only served to underline one of the most significant difficulties facing those attempting to stem this tide: securing the intensity of top-level political commitment required for adequate prevention and treatment strategies.

Such a lack of open political commitment obviously has practical consequences. These can range from inadequate sex education programmes, to difficulties in recruiting individuals for the clinical trials that are essential if a safe vaccine is to be developed.

Fortunately, some developing countries, including Uganda and Botswana, have been exemplary in their determination to take all the necessary steps to combat the disease; but their enlightened leadership only emphasises failure elsewhere. In countries where an open acceptance of AIDS is part of the political culture, the supportive attitude of political leaders tends to set the tone for equally open coverage of the issue in the mass media.

Conversely, where a political system is reluctant to acknowledge the magnitude of the AIDS problem that it faces, this reluctance can, unfortunately, be reflected in the attitudes of media "gatekeepers" unconvinced, for whatever reason, of the need to give the issue the intensity of coverage that it requires.

A responsibility to inform

Yet there can be few issues facing the world today — and in particular facing the developing world — where the press does not have a greater responsibility to inform, both authoritatively and comprehensively. In the continued absence either of effective, affordable treatment, or of preventative or therapeutic vaccines, the only viable short-term strategy to contain the spread of the disease depends on individuals taking the necessary precautions.

To do this effectively, however, requires knowing what precautions are needed, and why. And, although such information can in principle be communicated by propagating strict rules of how individuals should act, far more effective in the long-run are likely to be self-motivated changes based on an accurate understanding of the nature of HIV/AIDS.

The task here is a massive one. Last week's conference in Barcelona, for example, was told that in China, nearly three-quarters of the population is unaware that the disease is caused by a virus, or can describe what they need to do to avoid becoming infected (such as the proper use of condoms). As one of the sociologists who carried out this survey put it: "The level of knowledge we found shows that people don't know how to protect themselves".

The need for accurate information

Of course, public education on such a scale is not primarily the responsibility of the mass media; government backed information campaigns must remain the central focus. But journalists in general — and science and health journalists in particular — have their part to play in communicating accurate knowledge both about the mechanism of the disease, and what can be done to combat it.

Their responsibility is not a straightforward one. It includes, for example, not merely reporting on new scientific and medical developments (such as the identification of a potential new target for anti-HIV drugs, as described in Scientists discover new target for HIV drugs), but ensuring that, where possible, such developments are placed in a realistic perspective. Over-enthusiastic reporting of new drugs and vaccines can raise hopes cruelly when expectations ultimately fail to be met.

Even more challenging is the role that journalists can play in combating one of the major hurdles to effective prevention strategies, namely social stigma. As former South African president Nelson Mandela pointed out to last week's conference, the more that AIDS sufferers are treated as social outcasts by their families and communities, the greater is the temptation for individuals to deny the presence of the disease, and thus the greater is the challenge of preventing it from spreading.

Use of language

Journalists can help here at several levels. The most obvious is to ensure that the language used in reporting HIV/AIDS stories, whether focussed on individual cases or more general issues, remains value neutral. Some useful guidance has been provided by the Panos Institute in London, which suggests, for example, avoiding words such as 'scourge' or 'plague', referring to 'safer sex' (on the grounds that there is no such thing as 'safe sex'), and in general using "vocabulary drawn from peace and human development rather than war".

Equally necessary is responsible, critical reporting of instances in which social stigmatisation raises its ugly head. When those treating HIV-infected sex workers in India are physically attacked, some having pepper rubbed into their eyes, or when workers are sacked as soon as their HIV-positive status becomes known, journalists have a responsibility to seek out and present the full background to such instances so that the perpetrators can be identified and held accountable for their actions.

Thirdly, there is an equal need to expose shortcomings (and implicit tendencies towards stigmatisation) in government policies. This may be easier said than done in countries that lack a strong tradition of a free press. But a case can be made that it is precisely because of the difficulties faced by the media in reporting on sensitive topics such as HIV/AIDS, and hence the lack of public pressure on politicians to act urgently, that the disease is spreading as rapidly as it is, and with such fatal consequences.

In order to fulfil these functions effectively, science and health journalists have several needs. They include easy access to reliable information, the knowledge to place such information in its appropriate context (knowing how peer review works, for example, is one line of protection against the spurious claims of 'science by press conference', particularly in the HIV/AIDS field), and the professional skills to communicate this information and knowledge in an easily accessible form.

The need for resources and transparency

Yet journalists cannot operate in a vacuum. Equally important is that they are provided firstly with the resources and information needed to exercise their skills effectively. To a significant extent, the Internet can help with both tasks.

Firstly, it provides relatively easy access to reliable scientific and medical information (at least for those who know where to look for it). The more challenging aspect is the potential that the Internet creates for greater in-depth reporting on the social dynamics of political decision-making. The need for this task was dramatically highlighted by the bizarre attitudes shown by the South African President, Thabo Mbeki.

Governments need to realise that, whatever the short-term dangers to themselves, it is in the long-term interests of the people they serve to encourage a greater openness and transparency around their decisions on controversial topics such as HIV/AIDS.

One of the key factors that lead to the collapse of communism in Russia, was the Soviet government's refusal to come clean over the full impact of the Chernobyl disaster.

It is a lesson that should be taken on board by those governments facing a health crisis that is already several orders of magnitude larger.

© SciDev.Net 2002

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