Eighteen journalists from Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe attended the two-week training course, which started on 19 September and ended last Friday.
The course covered a number of topics on HIV/AIDS including the use of the correct language when reporting on the subject, HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care, its science, the role of the media to mitigate its effects and the rollout of anti-retroviral drugs in the region.
In their deliberations, the scribes also agreed to personalise the epidemic by not writing stories that tended to distance themselves from HIV/AIDS.
They urged authorities in the region to come up with and implement workable HIV/AIDS policies.
A journalist from the Swaziland Observer, Muzie Yenda said his country did not have a policy to counter the pandemic.
It is sad that in my country there are many cases of HIV/AIDS and people are suffering but we do not have a policy. The governments are sleeping, he said.
Southern Africa is grappling with the world's highest infection and prevalence rates.
According to the AVERT, an international AIDS charity organisation, Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst affected by the pandemic. An estimated 25.4 million people are living with HIV and approximately 3.1 million new infections occurred last year alone.
In 2004 the epidemic claimed the lives of an estimated 2.3 million people in the region, AVERT adds.
Around two million children under the age of 15 are living with HIV and more than 12 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in recent years.
A prominent Zambian medical practitioner, Dr Mannasseh Phiri said political leaders in southern Africa must prioritise programmes to mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS.
He said governments must develop strategies to counter HIV/AIDS in the same way they are fighting corruption.
Journalists have a great role to play to remove the stigma and fear associated with the disease and to change peoples' behaviour. They also have a role to play in promoting prevention, treatment and care programmes that are being undertaken in their countries. Use the pen to do so. Politicians too must redouble their efforts into research and investment to find a cure for AIDS. I have seen some governments fighting corruption as if it is the only challenge that the region is facing. Although it needs attention, corruption does not kill about 2 000 people per week in, for example, Zambia or Zimbabwe, yet HIV/AIDS does, said Dr Phiri, one of Zambia's most vocal HIV/AIDS activists.
The course was meant to enhance HIV/AIDS reporting skills among the participants and also to explore the anti-retroviral rollout programmes in the region.
Dr Phiri, who is based in Kitwe, north of Lusaka told the scribes that more than 90 percent of all infections in Africa resulted from unprotected sex adding that the generally poor health delivery systems on the continent contributed significantly to the high transmission of HIV.
He said research and investment to find effective AIDS vaccines was poor in Africa because of lack of funds.
Although South Africa is researching to find a vaccine targeted at the HIV One 'C' virus that is afflicting southern Africa, research elsewhere on the continent is still very poor because of lack of funding and moral considerations. Moral concerns are very important because the research involves, among other things, the deliberate infection of an HIV-negative volunteer with a weaker HIV to find the effectiveness of the vaccines. The fear is that the volunteer could be infected permanently, he explained.
In addition to political paralysis, other factors identified as resulting in constant infections are low condom use high prevalence of sexually transmitted infections, low voluntary counselling and testing and fear.
A South African journalist Hayden Horner who has been living positively with HIV for more than seven years gave an account of how his life and health had changed, since he started taking ARVs two years ago. He urged journalists not to distance themselves from the pandemic since it also affects them.
He said society must not stigmatise or discriminate against people living with HIV/AIDS.
I was diagnosed HIV-positive seven years ago and started taking ARVs two years ago and I am living positively. I do not see myself as someone who is waiting to die I am healthy like everyone else. I think if I had not taken up ARVs I should be dead now.
Participants at the workshop said the ARV rollout schemes in their countries were still in their infancy and as such, have not yet spread to cover all the people in need.
In Zimbabwe for, example, the Government is leading the way in providing free ARVs to the infected.
When they were introduced a few months ago, the ARVs were obtainable at Mpilo and Parirenyatwa central hospitals in Bulawayo and Harare respectively.
However, now, more people can access them since the Government has decentralised their distribution to other public health institutions.
To complement Government programmes, some companies are also providing ARVs to workers.
At least 15 000 patients are on ARVs in the country while about 60 000 are taking the drugs in Zambia and another 61 000 in South Africa.
Botswana was criticised for its programme under which foreigners in that country are unable to access free ARVs.
However, ARVs are not the panacea to counter HIV/AIDS. They must be part of a whole package that involves prevention, awareness, voluntary testing and counselling, treatment of opportunistic infections and home-based care programmes, said Dr Phiri.
Home-based care schemes, he said were important in southern Africa because of the high bed-to-patient ratio, low staffing levels and lack of equipment at most public health institutions in the region.
Journalists attending the workshop were also implored not to use words and phrases borrowed from the military such as fighting the scourge, disaster or catastrophe saying they are disempowering and hastened stigma.
Editors and owners of media houses were also urged to prioritise stories on HIV/AIDS and not to disregard them for monetary gain.
On the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom use) approach to alleviate the effects of HIV/AIDS that is used in many SADC countries, Dr Phiri said, the initiatives must be further developed to incorporate drugs for an ABCD method.
Commenting on the challenges that journalists in the SADC region faced in reporting on HIV/AIDS, Ms Natalie Ridgard, a journalism lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa said, the practitioners lacked access to accurate information, resources to discharge their duties and had a generally limited understanding of issues and trends about the disease.
Accuracy of HIV/AIDS information is very important because the subject is a question of life and death. Every detail that you write as journalists must be accurate because institutions and the government rely on the information that you disseminate to develop programmes to counter HIV/AIDS.
(Source: Chronicle 5 October 2005).