KUALA LUMPUR, August 17 – Malaysia’s goal to eradicate AIDS by 2030 hinges on factual and evidence-based media reporting, a lesson evident from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking at the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) Red Ribbon Media Award 2023 here last Tuesday, MAF chairwoman Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman highlighted the impact of misinformation on health outcomes and policy implementation, drawing parallels from the Covid-19 misinformation crisis.
Dr Adeeba cited a recently published study in the United States that found a higher excess mortality rate for Republican than Democratic voters in Florida and Ohio after Covid-19 vaccines were made available.
The study, conducted by researchers at Yale University, indicated a more pronounced gap in counties with lower vaccination rates, particularly among Ohio voters.
The findings imply that differences in vaccination attitudes among Republicans and Democrats could have influenced the pandemic’s severity and trajectory in the US, which reinforces the dangers of intertwining partisan politics with medical advice and health policy.
Excess mortality refers to the overall rate of deaths exceeding what would be expected from historical trends. The study does not directly attribute the deaths to Covid-19.
“This shows how important the media is because in the US, they are constantly fed with fake news, and this had real, serious implications in the form of deaths because there were many more Republicans who refused to be vaccinated as a result of them believing in the fake news and misinformation that was fed to them by certain news outlets in the US,” Dr Adeeba said.
“This is a clear example of how important accurate messages from the media – whatever form of media it is – that we put forward.”
Dr Adeeba highlighted obstacles encountered in Malaysia while promoting efforts like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for HIV/AIDS prevention.
“If we are going to move forward with evidence-based policies – for instance, PrEP, which encountered pushback due to media being employed to undermine the evidence-based approach that the Ministry of Health (MOH) was trying to put forward, and unfortunately, even by so-called scientists – it hampers all our efforts to end AIDS in Malaysia,” said the HIV and infectious disease expert.
Dr Norhayati Roslan, MOH’s deputy director general of public health, who delivered a speech on behalf of Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa at the event, described the role of the media as “crucial” in Malaysia’s goal to end AIDS by 2030.
“As we work collectively to combat this epidemic, the media holds immense power to shape perceptions, disseminate accurate information, and mobilise communities towards effective prevention, treatment, and support measures.
“In an era where information travels swiftly and widely, the media serves as a bridge between the experts, policymakers, healthcare providers, and the general public.
“By delivering well-researched and factual content, the media can dispel myths, misconceptions, and stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS.
“Accurate reporting and compelling storytelling can break down barriers to understanding and create empathy, fostering an environment of compassion and acceptance,” Dr Norhayati said.
Over the last two decades, Malaysia successfully reduced new HIV cases from 6,978 in 2002 to 3,177 in 2022, as per MOH records.
However, sexual contact remains the primary HIV transmission mode, with its rate increasing from 48 per cent in 2019 to 84 per cent in 2016, peaking at 96 per cent in 2021. The elevated prevalence of HIV among the youth is especially worrying.
“In light of these circumstances, we firmly acknowledge the pivotal role that media plays in disseminating crucial awareness to the public, especially the youth, regarding HIV. Educating them about the virus and guiding them on necessary actions is paramount,” Dr Adeeba said.