Media Viewpoint: Journalists must cure themselves of this Aids madness

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The Independent Online
THE AIDS agenda set by the media is changing. Rather than helping people to achieve proper perspective in the face of a complex and emotional issue, there is instead expose after expose of health-care staff who are HIV-positive or have contracted Aids.

The press seems to have lost its sense of balance on this subject. It has returned to its 'Aids plague' mentality of 10 years ago, helped by hefty doses of ignorance, prejudice and a story with such taboo attractions as sex and death. Ironically, the self-same media were once a source of education and calming perspective.

Why is this happening? Why is reason not being heard amid the clamour for exposure, the sensation and scapegoating? The risk involved for the patient is negligible; indeed there are greater risks for the health-care worker.

The appearance of Aids has led nurses to look at their infection- control procedures and avoid some of the short cuts that can creep into routine during a hard-pressed day of nursing. This is probably the only healthy benefit to have come from Aids.

The danger for the public is one created by some sections of the press: panic. Especially from those sections that encourage heterosexual people to feel that HIV cannot touch them.

Unfortunately, those journalists and news editors who aim for a balanced story find themselves working with news values already set by their more sensationalist colleagues. This makes it almost impossible for them to write against the grain of these stories.

All last week the Royal College of Nursing's press office was offering expert nursing opinion to journalists. All that the callers wanted, however, were HIV-positive nurses for anonymous interviews. Even journalists searching for facts found themselves treading the same path.

This question of news values and how they are set is one that editors surely must address in the light of some of the coverage we have seen on this issue.

As to the facts, it is valuable to remind people just how difficult it is to catch HIV - unless you have unprotected sex with someone or mix your blood and theirs. You cannot catch HIV by ordinary contact. HIV is a weak organism that dies quickly outside the body and is easily destroyed, unlike hepatitis B - a virulent organism that has killed health-care workers who have caught it from patients.

Mass compulsory HIV testing of health-care workers is futile, ineffective and expensive. Calls for it are a dramatic diversion from the more effective and simple solution of calling on everyone to adhere to strict infection-control procedures.

It is worth remembering that probably the single most effective action that reduced infant mortality in the 19th century was when midwives and physicians started to wash their hands between cases.

If these facts are accepted, then we can start to create a greater understanding of the real risks involved and also a climate in which people who are HIV-positive can be more open. And the risk of frightened staff carrying on working in the few roles where they may be a real risk - those involved with invasive surgical procedures - will be reduced.

In such a climate, health-care workers who were HIV-positive would be prepared to seek occupational health advice much earlier and would feel able to place greater trust in employers, in the knowledge that if it became necessary to reassign duties - as in the case of invasive surgical work - arrangements for such a move would be made with a positive approach.

Yet, this approach will work only if health workers who are HIV-positive can be sure that their names will not be dragged through the press. In such a caring, considerate and helpful world we could turn our attention to finding real solutions to Aids.

QED. Or is it? I support press freedom. I do not support the freedom of the press to destroy an individual who is facing illness. I do not believe that anyone should ever be blamed for being ill. Go down that road and we would soon have to decide if smokers, drinkers, boxers and stunt actors should be blamed for their ill-health.

Perhaps caring and consideration do not make good polemic. There is an element of revenge tied up with the idea that Aids is 'their' problem. And guess who 'they' are?

Aids is everyone's problem. The sooner we all face that fact, the better. When young heterosexual people in the UK start to die in greater numbers in five to 10 years' time, will we feel the same about marginalising, categorising and exposing?

We all need to rethink our attitudes to HIV and Aids. People who live with the threat or reality of Aids for years after contracting

HIV need rehabilitation - not

disapprobation.

Jane Gordon's article in Today was a breath of fresh air last week after so much crass and opportunistic journalism. She spoke of 'Aids madness' and said: 'Now, I don't know about you, but I have certainly never exchanged bodily fluids with my GP.' She added: 'In truth, you and I are about as likely to contract Aids from our doctors as previous generations were to become pregnant from holding hands in the dark.'

Simply put, factual, readable and helpful. I couldn't have done better myself. What I did not find helpful was this opening paragraph in one of the 'quality' newspapers: 'A GP in Bolton, Greater Manchester, who died of Aids last summer had been allowed to carry on working after advising colleagues he had contracted the disease, it was disclosed yesterday.'

Journalists keen to improve their coverage of Aids may find the help they need at a conference tomorrow at the Connaught Rooms in London. Its theme is 'Sexual Health Education: Breaking Down the Barriers'. It does, of course, assume that we want to.

The author is general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

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