Media to take more active role in fighting HIV/AIDS

The Djiboutian communication and culture ministry has said it plans to involve journalists more actively in fighting HIV/AIDS despite a relatively low prevalence of the virus in the country.

Speaking at a seminar for journalists in the capital, Djibouti, Minister for Communication and Culture Rifki Abdoulkader Bamakhrama said the seminar was the first step in his ministry's national programme to combat HIV/AIDS.

"You have challenged yourselves to evaluate the impact of your contributions to this battle," he said. "It is a sign of humility and proof of the greatest awareness of the importance of your role as journalists, and it is proof of your sense of responsibility in this collective enterprise and towards your fellow citizens."

According to national health authorities, 2.9 percent of Djibouti's 600,000 population is HIV-positive - a figure, they said, which was low by African standards, but represented a generalised epidemic. The country, however, has a high prevalence of tuberculosis (TB).

HIV and TB form a lethal combination, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), each speeding the other's progress. Someone who is HIV-positive and infected with TB is more likely to become sick with TB than someone infected with TB who is HIV-negative. In Africa, the WHO has found HIV to be the most important factor determining the increased incidence of TB.

Mohamed Ali Kamil, the director of the health ministry’s department for epidemiology and public hygiene, said TB prevalence was 600 per 100,000 people, which, he said, was the second highest in the world after Swaziland. Some 24 percent of TB patients were HIV positive. "You cannot control TB without controlling HIV. And you cannot control HIV without controlling TB," he said.

The HIV-prevalence rates among adults aged between 15 and 49 are higher in Djibouti District (3.4 percent) than in the rest of the country (1.1 percent). According to national statistics, 90 percent of the HIV-positive people are in the capital. Infection rates are also slightly higher among women than men.

A survey carried out in 2002, however, showed that less than half the population knew that condom use reduced the risk of transmission. Less than one percent rejected two false suggestions that mosquitoes and kissing could transmit HIV, or knew that somebody who did not show obvious signs of infection could still pass on the virus.

Each government ministry in Djibouti has its own programme to fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria. The programmes are coordinated by an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the prime minister who is deputised by the health minister - an approach hailed by the WHO.

"This is something where Djibouti is more advanced than other countries in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa," Jihane Tawilah, the WHO representative in Djibouti, said. "When we say multi-sectoral, we mean business."

The 27 May seminar attracted 60 journalists, who introduced themselves in French, Arabic, Somali, and Afar, reflecting the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. "Before this, the media just tried to help the Ministry of Health, but now it is different. Now we ask: What can we do ourselves, how can we [the media] prevent these infections?" Hasna Maki, a journalist at Radio et Télévision de Djibouti, told IRIN.

Mohamed said other efforts were also being made to contain HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria. In March, 40 patients began receiving anti-retroviral therapy at the Peltier Hospital. This is the main referral hospital in the capital.

The government, he added, was also awaiting a decision on its application for about US $19 million from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and malaria. "This is the third time we have applied to the Global Fund, and we are waiting for an answer," he said.

In May 2003, a grant of $12 million to support efforts to fight HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, TB and malaria in Djibouti was approved by the World Bank.