Sunday, July 18, 2010

But the Media Doesn't Want to be Free

It's odd how countries that have a 'free' press seem content to publish whatever is put in front of them. Coming up to the Vienna Aids Conference, UNAIDS puts out a press release about their new 'platform', called 'Treatment 2.0', with which they are going to conquer the virus that they have, so far, failed to influence in any way since the UN spawned this curious agency. And the world's press simply echoes what UNAIDS says. You can search for any of their expensively honed terminology and you'll find the same thing, repeated like a fart in a whispering gallery, until it's overtaken by their next performance. And the world's busy dung beetles do what their species does best, rolling out articles as indistinguishable as balls of shit. It's not (yet) as if the global media is entirely owned by the likes of that arch dung-heap master, Rupert Murdoch. But out they come, without thought, comment or criticism. Of course they roll, they're spherical!

Before the World Cup, which apparently involved football and sex, the busy creatures were set to work on UNAIDS' predictable offering. This involved making the connection between football supporters away from home drinking a lot and the possibility of their availing of some of the personal services said to be on offer in South Africa. Every news agency did the usual and warned people to avoid having sex with anyone and if they had to have sex, to make sure they used a condom.

Now that the World Cup is over, news agencies can still churn out articles with the popular mixture of football and sex in the form of warnings to those who may have indulged in any kind of unprotected sex while in South Africa, to go for a HIV test. If their pre-World Cup messages had any effect, many football fans probably used condoms and should be ok. For those who were not reading or heeding the articles, it is a good idea to get tested for HIV and all other sexually transmitted infections.

But one thing these guardians of our health and wellbeing never mentioned is that HIV is not only sexually transmitted. In fact, they have been trotting out the sex message for so long, people have probably heard it by now. UNAIDS and therefore the world's press, meanwhile, have kept what they know about non-sexually transmitted HIV to themselves. UNAIDS are quite explicit in the advice they give to their own employees who may be working in African countries: avoid using health facilities that are not approved or provided by the UN. If the risks are high for UN employees, they may be higher for football supporters and even higher still for Africans.

Football fans visiting South Africa probably had a far greater likelihood of contracting HIV, hepatitis B or C, when visiting a clinic, dentist or tattoo parlor. UNAIDS are well aware of this. But they do not tell Africans, who have no option but to use any facilities they can afford. And they didn't bother to tell football fans. And now, when the press are doing their duty by wallowing through the latest releases, they too are neglecting to mention this risk. People who had unsafe sex may go and get tested, but people who had medical or cosmetic treatment are far more likely to transmit HIV or anything else to their partner before discovering, probably some years from now, that they picked up something during the World Cup.

The BBC runs a typical article, mainly targeting men, despite the fact that women who had medical or cosmetic treatment in South Africa could be just as much at risk. The article is about a campaign being run in the UK, which trots out the half-truth about HIV being sexually transmitted, even though it has always been known that HIV can be transmitted in other ways. Although the article mentions holiday makers in general, many of whom may be visiting developing countries, there is still no acknowledgement of the risks people face in health and cosmetic facilities.

One commentator referred to the campaign as "amusing and engaging". It may well be, but what's the point in amusing people and engaging their attention when the message has been mangled, for whatever perverse reason? South Africa is not just the country with the highest number of HIV positive people in the world. In common with most other African countries, South Africa also has appalling health conditions and run down facilities which are barely accessible to most people. Holiday makers may not have to use the facilities that ordinary Africans have to use. But there is as much of a risk to holiday makers from unsafe medical and cosmetic practices as there is from unsafe sex, perhaps more. So why the failure to mention this?

The media seems to need a reminder that they are allowed, they are even encouraged, to analyse, criticize and comment on what they write about. They are even permitted to disagree. If UN agencies like UNAIDS spew out dung, there is no reason why the media should passively roll it up and pass it on to their readers. If every news agency carries the same story, word for word, as they do in the case of HIV and sexual transmission, without ever mentioning non-sexual transmission, there is only need for one news agency. Right now, it almost seems as if there is only one news agency, run entirely by dung beetles.


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