MEXICO CITY – The failure of complex and expensive vaccine trials in the fight against HIV/AIDS is, at the same time, an endorsement of the importance of the work of journalists. When there is no magic medical bullet against a disease, the “cure” is, naturally enough, avoiding the disease in the first place. That's what we can help people do.
That involves prevention, and prevention involves education. Education is what journalists do – conveying the latest information about how the virus is transmitted, and what techniques individuals and communities can do to avoid it, etc.
We discovered anew the importance of our work as journalists and journalist-educators at the Mexico City AIDS conference, just concluded here At the Clinicia Condessa, the brand new, $2.5 million medical and out-patient facility in Mexico City, we met with a group of five HIV+ people, some on the margins of life, some quite middle-class: a former hospital worker infected through an accidental needle stick; a young woman infected by a sexual partner; a man who used drugs and had sex with other men in prison, a former alcoholic infected after a night of drinking, etc.
It’s pompous and stupid to say they could have avoided infection if they’d read more newspapers or watched more TV. That implies helpful information could have been found in those media, and even today that is doubtful. But the optimistic thing about journalism and journalism education (especially what we do through our Journalist to Journalist program), is that if you can figure out how to get people the information, at least they’ll have a chance to use it.
The group from the Clinicia Condessa showed us the face of HIV/AIDS as looking like people we know, rather than as an enraged moral or bloodless scientific issue.
Later we had discussions with a group of sex workers called, Brigada Callejera (contact Pedro Cote at email@example.com). I was particularly moved by women in the group who talked about their inability to find employment in their home towns, and turned to sex work as their only alternative. The sound of their voices told you this was a very reluctant, last choice decision.
We had invited sex workers in as speakers in Sydney, at last year’s smaller scientific AIDS conference, and we will continue the custom next year in Cape Town, at the scientific meeting there. It is an eye-opening experience to listen to people in that field.
At its height, the Mexico City AIDS Conference hosted 25,000 people. They filled Banamex Centro, the gleaming convention center that wraps around a race track. The question is invariably asked – is such an event too large?
I’ve never understood the question, which has also been raised in connection with the Barcelona IAC (2002), Bangkok (2004) and Toronto (2006). HIV/AIDS is a profound and so far unsolved disease. Dealing with it are medical researchers, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, advocacy groups, political figures (former president Bill Clinton dropped by), government officials – and thousands of journalists. Attendance is a matter of self-selection; no one forces anyone to attend. If people want to learn all they can about this topic, isn’t it rather elitist to tell them they can’t?
As for our J2J sessions, we added a “refresher” on the science, medical and behavior issues that served as a level-the-playing-field intro for everyone. Several people told me it was in fact their first introduction to the science of HIV/AIDS, something we were happy to provide. There is lots of information from Mexico City, all other AIDS conference, and other sources, on our main website, here. Go to the J2J icon and click through.
Our J2J group was focused and committed. Once all the visa issues were sorted out, we had 55 journalists from 40 countries. The cohesion during our four-day pre-conference training was very good and almost everyone contributed in some way. I thought the speakers were almost uniformly excellent. It was moving for me to realize that outgoing UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot has spoken to journalists at every J2J program we have ever done, starting in 2002. This year he told us, “What you do can mean the difference between life and death.” His energy, organizational skills and compassion will be nearly impossible hard to replace.
Earlier Blog Posts
One Woman’s Hero
August 12, 2008
FROM THE MEXICO CITY AIDS CONFERENCE: You Want a Condom?
August 6, 2008
Our Gal in Hong Kong
August 6, 2008
WHAT I SAW: National Security or National Disgrace?
August 5, 2008
WHAT I SAW: Tony Snow’s Outreach to a Woman With…
July 14, 2008