Despite being the leading cause of death among people living with HIV, media coverage of tuberculosis remains minimal or non-existent.
A new Panos report, TB – What the papers aren't saying, argues that the main reasons behind the lack of coverage are the health sector's failure to engage with journalists adequately and the media's unwillingness to prioritise health stories.
"Health practitioners and activists either don't see the need or don't have the skills or resources to give journalists what they need to properly cover TB," says Anushree Mishra, co-author of the report. "And editors and media owners are reluctant to cover TB because they think the public aren't interested in these so-called 'softer' issues."
"But TB is not simply a medical issue," argues Mishra. "It reflects wider social inequalities linked to poor living conditions, immigration and access to healthcare. As such, stories about TB do not deserve to be confined to the health pages."
Panos argues that increasing mass media coverage of TB is crucial in helping to tackle the disease as it one of the main ways people receive health information and also keeps TB on the public agenda so that health policymakers take notice.
TB was almost under control worldwide a decade ago but has resurfaced because of increasing HIV prevalence, inadequate investment in public health systems and emerging TB drug resistance.
While one-third of the world's population is infected with the mycobacterium that can lead to TB, most do not become sick unless their immune system is compromised, which is what the HIV virus does. An estimated one-third of the 40 million people living with HIV worldwide are co-infected with TB. Without proper treatment, approximately 90 per cent of these people die within months of contracting TB.
The report also highlights other daily realities facing journalists that impede good reporting on health issues such as a lack of access to reliable information, tight deadlines that make in-depth investigation difficult and insufficient training for journalists in how to properly report TB.
"Our research showed that even when TB was covered, almost none of the articles went beyond the basic descriptions of TB to explore the links between TB, poverty and other socio-economic factors influencing health and access to healthcare," says Lucy Stackpool-Moore, who co-coordinated the research for Panos.
"In addition, most journalists tended to rely on official sources such as doctors and scientists to inform articles, with only a few including interviews with people actually affected by TB. And this is one obvious way to make stories more engaging for the public, giving people a real insight into what living with TB is like."
The report proposes a number of other practical initiatives to build stronger links between the health and media sectors such as journalist fellowships, sponsorship for specific health sections in newspapers, and even dedicated health news agencies.
It argues that TB activists, health practitioners and policymakers need to better understand what journalists need in order to report TB, which may mean appointing dedicated communication officers, translating available information into local languages, providing a free-call or local telephone number for journalists, and being available to respond to enquiries quickly when approached by the media.
Panos itself is trying to tackle the problem. It runs a journalist fellowship programme, undertaken in collaboration with the Stop TB Partnership, which supports print and photo journalists in selected high TB burden countries in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. The fellowships include' hands-on' training, provision for travel to remote areas to gather stories, and access to reference material including contacts of key NGOs or experts.
"These fellowships have proved extremely successful," says Ronald Kayanja, director of Panos' Global AIDS Programme. "And part of the success comes not only from giving the journalists the material resources necessary to report TB properly, but also from bringing them directly into contact with health practitioners and TB patients to discuss how they work together from now on to get TB a higher media profile."
"If newspapers continue to under-report TB," concludes Mishra, "this largely treatable infection will continue to make a deadly combination with HIV."
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Notes to editors
– Nearly 2 million people die of TB every year and another eight million become ill
– 98 per cent of these deaths occur in low-income countries
– 8.9 million cases were reported worldwide in 2004
– Multidrug-resistant TB was found in 74 of the 77 countries surveyed in the WHO Global Report (2006)
– An estimated one-third of the 40 million people living HIV worldwide are co-infected with TB, with more than two-thirds living in sub-Saharan Africa.
– Without proper treatment, approximately 90 per cent of those people die within months of contracting TB.
[*source: World Health Organisation (WHO) information on TB; information on TB and HIV]
TB is an airborne communicable disease that disproportionately affects people living in poorly ventilated spaces such as overcrowded housing, informal settlements or prisons. The poorest people in society are not only more vulnerable to TB, but also more likely to suffer its consequences as access to treatment and services is often limited. As such, TB magnifies underlying inequalities in society. Virtually all TB deaths are in the developing world.
The report draws on research conducted by Panos' Global AIDS Programme (GAP) into print media coverage of TB and HIV in 12 countries, seven of which ranked among the highest with TB burden in the world – Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, UK, USA, Uganda, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
About Panos' Global AIDS Programme (GAP):
The GAP is made up of a network of Panos offices in Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and Europe. Coordinated from Panos Southern Africa in Zambia, it works to inform and challenge the way in which the HIV/AIDS pandemic is addressed at the national, regional and global level.
Each office runs a series of activities with the media, civil society and national and regional policymakers, selecting methods tailored to each setting. Lessons learnt from these local activities are shared with international audiences through presentations, workshops and seminars, and by producing a range of reports and media resources.