Stigma and HIV reporting – a lesson from the BBC

Zainab Deen wrote an article in BBC Magazine on ‘Sex workers using anti-HIV drugs instead of condoms’. However, her reporting is everything else but neutral.

Her first paragraph reeks with stigmatizing rhetoric:

 “In Kenya 1.5 million people are living with HIV, and there are about 100,000 new infections every year. Despite this, some sex workers are having unprotected sex – and taking antiretroviral drugs afterwards to cut the infection risk. How reckless is this?”

sex worker nairobi

Then she continues, telling the story of some of Nairobi’s sex workers.

“”Let me tell you the truth about why many of us don’t use condoms,” says Sheila who has been a prostitute in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum for six years.

“We don’t have money, and when you meet a client who offers to give you more money than you usually get, you have sex without protection even when you don’t know his HIV status.”

Sheila says she and other prostitutes can go to a clinic the next morning to get emergency antiretrovirals – drugs which suppress the virus, if taken within 72 hours of infection, and in many cases stop its progression.

“We use this medicine like condoms,” she says.”

While this paragraph acknowledges that the women use preventive treatment for economic reasons, the author fails to look at these structural drivers of HIV/AIDS – no mention of poverty levels, of women’s empowerment in society etc.

The following testimony shows more of this apparent ‘system abuse’.

“”I had unprotected sex when I was very drunk one night and the following morning I didn’t go to the same clinic where I got the first PEP tablets… I went to a different clinic where they don’t have my records, and lied that I was forced into unprotected sex,” she says.”

After the reader is appalled by the ‘reckless behaviour’ of these women, he gets another set of information that will really enrage him – that is the price of these preventive drugs.

“In the US, PrEP costs around $14,000 (£8,700) a year at the full price, although people on low incomes can get it much cheaper, or even free.”

I think and hope that the readers of BBC Magazine are smarter than this and know that the story told in this article is one in a million and does not reflect the situation in Kenya. 26 million people in the world need AIDS drugs, 9.7 million had access to treatment at the end of 2012. Sensationalist and moralizing reporting should not get in the way of how much funding goes into providing these life-saving drugs to those who need them!


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