Education is the key
August 2, 2003
The recent media workshop on HIV and AIDS coordinated by the Government Information Agency and UNICEF called on journalists to be well-informed and passionate about the battle to combat the disease in order to ensure effective reporting. The fact is that journalists have to be passionate about their work, regardless of the subject they are covering, if they want their stories to have impact. How well-informed they are depends on the relationships they manage to forge with their contacts, and in the case of HIV, because it is mainly a sexually transmitted infection, this has not always been easy.
When the epidemic emerged some 22 years ago only homosexual men were being diagnosed with signs and symptoms of what eventually became known as AIDS. Because of the controversy and countless issues that surround homosexuality, people living with AIDS were shunned. This has only recently begun to change. However, the result was that AIDS was characterised as a disease of ‘others’. And even today, with the body of evidence that places it firmly in the heterosexual population, the individual externalisation of the threat of HIV still persists.
Over the years, while scientists toiled in laboratories to find a cure, a vaccine or to develop drugs that would lengthen and improve the quality of life of those infected with the virus, social scientists, educators and politicians have struggled with devising strategies, programmes and laws to prevent its spread. These have ranged from encouraging abstinence and promoting condom use to criminalizing the intentional or reckless transmission of HIV.
In the United Kingdom, the government published a draft Offences Against the Person Bill in 1998 proposing to limit the criminalization of transmission to cases in which a person “deliberately transmits a disease intending to cause a serious illness.” The bill has not yet been presented to Parliament and therefore the current position is uncertain. In the United States, the 1988 AIDS Omnibus Law permits public health officers to implement increasingly restrictive measures in order to prevent transmission of HIV. However, health officers in Washington reported a number of problems with pursuing detention and are unlikely to use this measure since evidence and experience have not shown that detention of HIV-infected persons is useful to preventing its spread.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) warns against the ‘big stick’ approach. And the truth is that the idea that the law can be used to control the spread of HIV is dangerous. Attempts to control the sexual practices of competent adults could only be seen as totalitarian and should be avoided. UNAIDS, in its Criminal Law, Public Health and HIV Transmission report published last year advocates the use of public health laws accompanied by appropriate safeguards for human and civil rights. And best practice projects around the world have shown that policies which focus on education and persuasion do work.
In their efforts to ease the suffering of the 42 million-odd HIV-infected people around the world, wealthy governments and funding agencies are putting more and more money into healthcare, drugs and other care and support programmes. The task of safeguarding the uninfected population falls to UNICEF and like agencies, the media, NGOs and the uninfected population. The best tool available is education, no matter how tedious it gets. The role of the media is crucial and cannot be overstressed. The message that every person is responsible for his or her own protection must continue to be vigorously promoted.