The United States (US) Embassy under the Presidents’ Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), on Tuesday, held a virtual launch of a media training and presentation on HIV and COVID-19 Anti Stigma campaign.
The programme is being organized in partnership with the African Centre for Development Reporting and Media Healthlink for selected journalists across the country, to enhance their knowledge and capacities to report accurately on current HIV-related issues in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The training, with an ultimate focus on achieving the Test and Treat by 2030, through the Undetectable=Untransmitable (U=U) Campaign, journalists were urged to be frontline advocates by enhancing their reportage on HIV for better public understanding of the vision 95-95-95 vision.
Dr Michael Melchior, the PEPFAR Coordinator and Country Director, Centre for Disease Control (CDC-Ghana), underscored the importance of increased knowledge in HIV and its related issues, especially in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He explained that in moving towards achieving success, the current strategy for addressing HIV was to achieve 95 per cent testing, ensure these 95 percent were all put on treatment, to achieve 95 per cent viral load suppression by 2030, where these persons with undetectable viral load, could no longer infect their partners with the virus.
He recounted the huge investment made by the US government in previous years through PEPFAR in areas including capacity building, as well as in testing and treatment, and pledged to further support the work of the Ghana AIDS Commission and also partner the Ghana AIDS Control Programme in its activities.
Dr Melchior indicated that the journalists during the training would also learn more about the successes of PEPFAR and its future activities.
He stated that the Test and Treat programme was fully endorsed by the World Health Organisation in 2018, explaining that a person who tests positive to HIV and put on treatment that same day had a high chance of becoming healthy again, contrary to the reverse.
It was important, therefore, for people to appreciate the benefits of the U=U campaign and avail themselves for early testing, diagnosis and treatment, he said.
He said when people become aware of this, it would not only reduce stigma and discrimination but also increase testing and early treatment demands, as well as improve treatment adherence, due to the reduced side effects of current HIV medication.
Dr Stephen Ayisi Addo, the Programme Manager, National AIDS and STI Control Programme, advised the public to stop the stigma and discrimination against Persons Living with HIV (PLHIV).
According to him, stigma and discrimination against PLHIV made them coil into their shells out of fear instead of coming out to test for their status and seek treatment.
He also said currently, the COVID-19 pandemic already placed PLHIV at a very dire position, especially those with very low immune systems, putting them at high risk of the infection and death due to further complications.
Dr Addo said there were currently over 340,000 PLHIV in the country with a national prevalence of 1.7 per cent, with pregnant women accounting for two per cent of this number, and that without intensified efforts through sustained education, Ghana was unlikely to achieve the 2030 target.
All these people must be put on treatment as quickly as possible to suppress their viral loads and be able to withstand COVID-19, encouraged all health facilities across the country, to open up their services to PLHIV to access treatment even in the midst of the pandemic, or risk the record of high disease burden and deaths.
Mrs Linda Asante-Agyei, the Vice-President of the Ghana Journalist Association, commended PEPFAR and its partners for the training, saying acquiring further knowledge on HIV and COVID-19, was very key for producing evidenced-based write-ups, to eradicate stigma and discrimination, based on myths and misconceptions.
She said the role of the media was to avoid the use of negative language in their description of PLHIV or COVID-19, to intensify their plight, and advised them to adhere to the ethics of responsible journalism, avoiding rumour and speculations regarding the two diseases, and to stick to evidence-based sources to enrich their reportage.
She said stigma could drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination,prevent people from seeking health care immediately and discourage people from adopting healthy behaviours.
“As communicators, we help shape the minds and actions of many people by using innovative ways to surmount these health challenges.
Together we can help to destigmatize COVID-19, HIV and AIDS and that can also contribute significantly in curbing the spread of these diseases”, she added.