AHCJ panelists discuss covering new HIV era

By Guimel Sibingo

A disease once thought to mean the end of person’s life is no longer and impediment to longevity. That means journalists have to get more sophisticated when it comes to news coverage of HIV, said Heather Boerner an independent journalist and author of Positively Negatively a book about advances in HIV treatment.

Boerner and three other panelists at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference urged journalists to explore the new breakthroughs and challenges in the fight against HIV at a session called “‘Not A Death Sentence’ is not enough: Covering the new HIV era.”

HIV specialists urge those at high-risk to undergo regular testing and to see if they are eligible for PrEP. Photo courtesy of Flickr.com. Labeled for Reuse.

HIV specialists urge those at high-risk to undergo regular testing. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The speakers discussed preventive measures against HIV, particularly pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a medication given to those with high risk of contracting the disease. PrEP usually is taken as a pill every day and can be used with other preventive measures such as a condom.

However, PrEP does not always reach the people who need it most, including those with low health literacy or from low income backgrounds. The session addressed issues of cost and access.

Treatment for HIV has changed drastically in the past few years, said Dr. Brad Hare, director of Kaiser Permanente HIV care and prevention in San Francisco.

The outlook for HIV patients went from a certain death in 1985, to decades long life expectancy in 2006, to normal life expectancy in 2015. Previously, patients had to take a handful of medications, today a single pill once a day is all that is needed to treat the disease.

Now the attention has geared towards prevention and decreasing the incidence of new infections. More than 1.2 million in the United States are living with HIV, with about 50,000 new cases each year.

Researchers like Sharon Hillier, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, are exploring new ways to get preventive treatment to women since they are twice as likely as men to get infected. Options under development are injections taken once every 2-3 months, vaginal rings, microbicides (compounds designed to prevent or reduce sexual transmission of STIs), and vaginal films.

Christopher Chauncey Watson, director of clinical research at George Washington University’s Milken institute of Public Heatlh, addressed the social disparities in access to care especially for black men who have sex with men . They are three times more likely than white men with male partners to contract HIV over time.

Watson said the majority of these black men at risk do not have economic resources or appropriate access to healthcare, and they experience other challenges such as not being able to leave work to get tested at the 9-5 clinics.

Watson also argued for increased health literacy. Many of the individuals at risk are not aware that they could be eligible for preventive treatment and decrease their chances of contracting the virus.

The panelists encouraged journalists to incorporate these new angles so that HIV coverage can be reflective of the new age.

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