The language of HIV a reflection of its history
Date Posted : Thursday, 05 Jul 2012
In 1981 a new disease was diagnosed, first presenting as a rare form of pneumonia in young gay men. Doctors (and the media) called it GRID – Gay Related Immuno Deficiency. By 1982 however, the Center for Disease Control formally established the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS. During the same time, the journal, Lancet, reported on a disease striking people in Africa, known colloquially as “slim” – so called because of the weight loss that accompanied falling ill from this unknown disease.
In the three decades since people were first overwhelmed by the disease, the science and language related to the disease has completely evolved. No longer a death sentence as a result of anti-retroviral treatment (ART), the words used to describe what we know as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) have also been modified over the years, the most significant which is the move away from using HIV/AIDS as though one and the same.
“This is because HIV and AIDS are no longer synonymous”, explains Internews in Kenya country director, Ida Jooste, adding that as a result of ART, many people who live with the disease no longer progress to Stage III or IV of HIV disease, in other words, the stage known as AIDS. “Stopping the use of HIV/AIDS is a way of acknowledging that AIDS no longer necessarily follows HIV automatically.”
For Jooste and other Internews staff supporting the local Kenyan media in health journalism, taking journalists through the preferred terminology of HIV is in many ways like taking a walk through the history of the epidemic. “It’s one of my favourite exercises, because we pause to think about the words we use – something journalists should do all the time”, says Jooste.
Internews believes that it is important to sensitize journalists to the shifts in science, social perception, and attendant shifts in language. Where possible, the media should lead the trend towards more appropriate language, always using the correct scientific language.
“This does not mean that we should not be sensitive to culturally specific terminology, as sometimes a recommended phrase can seem pretentious in one part of the world, or not even understood correctly” notes Jooste. “However, we should not forget that language related to disease can shape public opinion, perception and attitudes. Rather, the words we use should be constructive, dispel myths and stereotypes, and certainly not contribute to prejudice.”
Jooste’s advice to journalists is to write about HIV, using straightforward non-judgmental language. “Choose your words carefully.”
For appropriate language related to HIV and AIDS, read more
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