A tragedy that deserves an intense investigation

Journalists must examine the status of HIV/AIDS in India

December 31, 2018 12:15 am | Updated January 03, 2019 05:59 pm IST

A few days ago, when I was preparing to write a light-hearted year-end column, I read a list of some significant media corrections this year, compiled by Alexios Mantzarlis, Director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. The list made for an interesting read because no one likes admitting to mistakes but everyone likes reading about them, as Mr. Mantzarlis points out. Two corrections especially stood out for me. The first was by a Brazilian news magazine, Veja , which read: “The candidate likes to spend his free time reading Tolstoy, and not watching Toy Story, as originally reported.” The second was by The Wall Street Journal : “Vladimir Putin is president of Russia. An editing mistake erroneously identified him as Vladimir Trump in an earlier version of this article.” However, a tragedy stuck on Sunday morning that forced me to change the subject and mood of this column from amusing corrections to the ethics of reporting on health issues, stigma, and public health governance.

An avoidable tragedy

In Tamil Nadu, a 19-year-old blood donor, whose HIV-infected blood was transfused to a pregnant woman, died after consuming poison. This was undoubtedly an avoidable tragedy. There were multiple failures in this case. The medical professionals in the State did not follow any of the protocols for blood transfusion. The donor was not aware of his HIV-positive status when he donated blood. It was reported that he was found to be HIV positive when he donated blood in 2016 at the government hospital in his home town, Sivakasi. However, he was not informed of this, nor was there any follow-up.

Tamil Nadu was one of the earliest States to come up with effective methods to deal with HIV/AIDS. Suniti Solomon and her team were at the forefront of this fight for decades. In 2015, when Solomon passed away, The New Yorker wrote: “As H.I.V. swept across the world, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, no country possessed a more menacing mix of conditions, predilections, and the kind of poverty likely to hasten an AIDS epidemic than India… Many researchers predicted a crisis unlike those in any other nation. But it never happened — in part because India had Suniti Solomon, the AIDS-treatment pioneer who died on Tuesday, at the age of seventy-six. In 1986, Solomon, a microbiologist then teaching at Madras Medical College, diagnosed the country’s first cases.” The National Aids Control Organisation, a division of the Health and Family Welfare Ministry, used to often cite examples from Tamil Nadu as the best practices in blood bank management and retroviral treatments. The Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society is one of the State bodies that controls and operates blood transfusion services, according to the ‘Tamil Nadu State Blood Policy and Implementation Framework 2017’. Every unit of blood donated is supposed to be tested for HIV, Hepatitis-B, Hepatitis-C, syphilis, and malaria. In terms of testing quality, the State is ranked among the best in the country.

Questions to be asked

Early this year, former Health Secretary Keshav Desiraju, along with Samiran Nundy and Sanjay Nagral, published an important book, Healers or Predators? Healthcare Corruption in India, a caustic study that showed the mirror to our society and, more specifically, to those associated with the health sector. It elaborated on how healers in many cases are becoming predators. Apart from the terrible personal cost paid by the donor and the recipient due to complete contempt for due process by those who are supposed to protect public health, there are some disturbing questions about how information travelled during this troubled time. Who informed the 19-year-old donor about his HIV status? Were sufficient precautions taken before informing him about the infection? What are the levels of preparedness in dealing with the stigma of HIV-infection in these hospitals? When was the last sensitisation programme held? These are all journalistic questions which need to be asked and probed thoroughly.

For nearly a decade, HIV/AIDS was covered extensively in the media and given due importance. Right from the methods of retroviral treatments to relapse, journalists followed the spread and control of the virus. The time has come to examine the status of HIV/AIDS in the country.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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