BONELA commends Mmegi Monitor – Press Release

22 June 2007
BONELA commends Mmegi Monitor – Press Release

BONELA commends Mmegi Monitor for their efforts to provide the public with critical information, but cautions against sensationalism which may cause unnecessary panic.

There is an unfortunate irony in the possibility that The Mmegi Monitor’s front-page coverage of the Nelfinavir crisis (“Ministry Recalls Drugs”, June 11) might cause more harm than the drug itself.

When disseminating information on any crisis, especially one with such serious public health implications, accuracy and level-headed tact are essential. It is careless to write that a widely-used drug contains life-threatening cancer-causing impurities, without clarifying the actual risk posed by these impurities (which, according to laboratory investigations, is extremely low). One cannot deny the need to convey a sense of urgency regarding this undoubtedly serious contamination crisis. However, it is crucial to do this without causing unnecessary public panic that may have negative effects on adherence to ARV treatment as well as on patients’ general psychological wellbeing.

The tone of this article might be justified if adherence was not such a grave concern in ARV therapy, and/or if healthcare facilities and appropriate treatment were easily accessible to all. Unfortunately, that is far from the reality of our social health context. Considering this, the writer should have taken pains to explain that while it is essential to switch to an alternative treatment as soon as possible to minimize risk of developing cancer, this actual risk in the short-term is very low and as such does not outweigh the possible consequences of non-adherence. The Monitor should be commended on their efforts to provide the public with critical information, but the quality of this information cannot be compromised by sensationalism.

It was stated that the Ministry of Health has urged patients not to be tempted to discontinue therapy until they have seen a health care provider; but in the absence of complete information, this statement cannot strike a balance against the alarm evoked in most people by the mention of cancer and the article’s panicky tone. Reading it would leave patients who are unable to access alternative treatment immediately, for various possible reasons, in an unenviable dilemma – the outcome of which is quite likely to be treatment discontinuation.

Sensationalism that results in misleading information on public health matters – whether explicit or implicit – should not be tolerated. Journalists writing on health issues, especially HIV/AIDS, must be sensitized to the impact of their writing – which requires an understanding of the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and of the challenges faced in the response. The same principle applies to anyone whose work is related to any aspect of this pandemic.

From August 2007, the Botswana Treatment Literacy Coalition will be responding to this need through a long-term series of a nationwide trainings around HIV/AIDS treatment literacy and advocacy issues. These trainings will be available throughout the country not only to professionals but also to interested members of the community, especially people living with HIV/AIDS.