World Federation of Science Journalists

Kinga, urukingo, ijova: an injection against HIV


March 18, 2008

Lanky veteran science reporter Otula Owuor of Nairobi, Kenya is on his way to the beautiful Ugandan town of Entebbe, on the shores of the largest tropical lake in the world, Lake Victoria. Entebbe's got the green acres of the 110-year-old national botanical gardens, the orphaned chimpanzees and rhinos of the national zoo and near the shoreline, not far from the yachts and hotels, a jumble of white buildings which is the Uganda Virus Research Institute [http://www.iavi.org/viewfile.cfm?fid=36868].
 
Otula Owuor
That last item is important. So is the fact that down the coast from the Uganda Virus Research Institute are the fishing villages where the ''slim'' disease was first recognised in this part of the continent. Both facts are relevant because Owuor - a mentor in the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) two-year programme to kickstart up-and-coming young science journalists - is among the speakers at a vaccine media workshop for dozens of health reporters across the continent in March 2008, hosted by the African AIDS Vaccine Programme.

''When it comes to science, journalists are used to dealing with breakthroughs, results and products. This is fine,'' argues Owuor. ''But at times we also need to know how to keep important issues like the need for vaccines for HIV/AIDS and other illnesses such as malaria in the public domain despite setbacks, when there is as yet nothing to show coming out of the scientific struggle.''

''The media may need to know how to cover the slow but important research and development processes. These may seem doomed today but could result in important breakthoroughs in future.'' This is the focus of the workshop, a joint initiative of the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

But although workshop participants include fascinating people like immunologist Kaleebu Pontiano, one of the principal investigators for the first HIV vaccine trial in Africa, will a vaccine help if we don't test for the virus? After all, some researchers are thinking about the possibility of a yearly vaccine which may slow down the chances of men and women contracting HIV infection - which might only work if you don't (yet) have the virus. And there is a bit of debate about the possibility of a vaccine being designed - either separately, or part of the same package - to slow down the progress of the disease, rather like antiretrovirals, which would work for those who are already infected.

Either way, an eventual HIV vaccine may requires you to know your own status, unless we make it mandatory for everyone to have a shot. And while the continent of Africa is well known for the wave of HIV infection that has swept through many regions, it is less well known that very few people have tested to find out if they have the virus. The possibility is just too frightening for many - even doctors and nurses - to consider.

Owuor, the former health editor for The Nation newspaper media group [http://www.nationmedia.com], says he has had.two tests for HIV. Some five years ago, he went for a health check-up for insurance reasons. His company didn't see fit to tell him the blood tests included one for HIV/AIDS on the sly. ''Actually the doctor was a friend and told me it was a secret deal with the employer,'' he remembers wryly. His second test came when visiting an HIV laboratory at a research institute.

A 28-year-old science reporters who is also part of the WFSJ mentoring programme will be attending the workshop. From Nairobi comes Kimani Chege, editor of TechNews Africa magazine, the man who said that the common kiSwahili term for a shot or injection for something like a vaccine would be 'kinga' - which also means defence. An appropriate word for a vaccine!

Kimani, who is the Kenyan correspondent for the Science and Development Network website in London, has been reporting on failures from vaccines (and important lessons learnt) at least since 2004. That was when he co-authored a report on the failure of vaccines designed after sex workers in a Nairobi slum showed strong immune reactions to the virus - but only as long as they were continually exposed to the viral attack [http://www.scidev.net/en/news/african-aids-vaccines-disappoint-in-trials.html]. Now Kimani says - on his new blog on South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper's online site [http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/kimanichege] that he's working up the courage to take his first HIV test.

Kigali-based Aimable Twahirwa, who turned 28 in January, says the term for a vaccine shot in Kinyarwanda is 'urukingo' and he has had an HIV test, once, at the San Francisco centre, which is affiliated to Rwanda's Treatment and Research Center on AIDS (TRAC). Aimable is a talented jazz pianist who has also moonlighted as an actor in a a couple of films about the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

But he'd much rather you knew that he helps run the umbrella body for health communicators who use knowledge to fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic - known by its French acronym as ARCOSA (Association Rwandaise des Communicateurs en Santé) as well as ABASIRWA (Abanyamakuru Barwanya SIDA mu Rwanda, which in Kinyarwanda is Journalists Against Aids, Rwanda). Some of his most recent work on HIV/AIDS, in both French and English, has been for Plus News, an AIDS focus run by the United Nations' agency IRIN, like this http://www.plusnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=72179 and for the Inter Press Service, such as this, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41301.

Aimable is a senior reporter who travels the eight hours' drive north to Kampala on a regular base to use the printing facilities there for his newspaper, the ten-year-old Grand Lacs Hebdo (The Great Lakes Weekly, online at www.ari-rna.co.rw/grand.html ) but has never been to Entebbe or the Uganda Virus Research Institute. And soon, given his deep interest in all matters viral, he will also be going to Mexico City later this year for the International AIDS Society meeting (www.aids2008.org).

Then there's WFSJ mentees Onche Odeh and Michael Ohioze Simire, both from the Daily Independent newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria. Onche is a father for the first time, of a young son, so he has a vested interest in reporting on all aspects of HIV, including vaccine research, in an effort to make the world his son grows up in a better place. Onche is a member of the Nigerian Business Coalition Against AIDS and has written about Africa's most populous nation's efforts to deal with (or deny) the illness online, including at ScienceinAfrica.com - see http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2007/april/nigeriahiv.htm.

While Michael is more of an environmental reporter, he points out that HIV/AIDS is such a big issue that it affects every aspect of society, including the environment. Both Michael and Onche are members of the Journalists Afainst AIDS (JAAIDS) in Nigeria (see www.nigeria-aids.org). But Nigeria is a troubling nation, where legitimate doctors are exposed for peddling HIV vaccine cures - and continue to take advantage of a gullible public - see www.scidev.net/en/news/hiv-cure-doctor-sues-science-academy.html.

And it doesn't stop there - Nigeria's health minister recently made approving noises about the highly dodgy Vanhivax vaccine, which is making its originator a lot of money, but hasn't passed the scrutiny of a single peer-reviewed journal. The claim has been made (and the money goes to) retired surgeon Dr Anomah Ngu, a leading member of the Cameroon Academy of Science, which has given him the space to promote his nonsensical claims, and as a formal science body should really know better.

Onche's mentor Christina Scott, Africa news editor of the Science and Development Network website, mother of three and winner of the inaugural TWAS prize for popularising science in Africa, is coming up from Cape Town on the west coast of South Africa, while from Durban on the east coast comes her freelance photojournalist colleague Sharon Davis, who is a mother of two, a t'ai chi teacher and studies the traditional sword art of the Japanese samurai warriors, called Katori Shinto Ryu as well as being an avid blogger [http://sharondavis.co.za/content/category/7/39/47].

If you go to this SciDev.Net article, done while Christina was at the National Press Foundation's journalist-to-journalist programme at the 2007 IAS conference in Sydney, Australia, you will see how she and Sharon jointly exposed the South African government's deliberate efforts to block desperately-needed tests of antiretroviral drugs on the children of HIV-infected mothers. And both take HIV tests in a roundabout sort of way - they're both blood donors. Christina has also had yearly mandatory HIV tests as part of her company medical aid, when she was science editor at the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Ijova, by the way, is Zulu for a vaccine.

From Francophone Africa comes WFSJ mentee and electronic media worker Dora Shey (although technically speaking, she's from the English side of Cameroon) of Mount Cameroon FM 98 in Buea, the capital of the southwest province of Cameroon, a radio station which forms part of the CRT (Cameroon Radio Television) public broadcaster. Dora, who won a laptop in the fiercely-fought story-writing competition at the WFSJ meeting last month in Qatar, has joined the US Embassy HIV Task Force, known as EUSATAF.

There's also David Koffi Ya from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, where health workers are using mobile technology to fight the illness, inputting data on handheld devices and improving their turnaround time in treating patients. And last - but certainly not least - Mame Aly Konté of Dakar, Sénégal, a senior journalist with the Sud Quotidien (Daily South) newspaper who has been responsible for the science section since 1994.

Mame Aly Konte, who turned 48 in February, is married to Madeleine and has one daughter. Of course he's tested for HIV, he said on Skype. ''Oui, j'ai été testé il y a quelques années pour le Sida. Il y a des gens qui ont le sida. Mais au sénégal, le sida n'a pas connu une grosse évolution contrairement à d' autres pays. Le Sida aussi y fait beaucoup de dégâts. D'où l'importance du développement des médicaments génériques pour les malades pauvres.''

Which translates along the lines of ''Yes, I was tested for HIV some years ago. There are people that have AIDS. But to the Senegalese, Aids has not evolved to be as big as it is other countries, where Aids does a lot of damages, from which can be seen the importance of the development of the generic medicines for the poor patients.''

Perhaps it is time to say that HIV is no longer a disease of ignorance; it is a disease of denial. We will find out more from researchers such as Professors Jeckoniah Ndinya-Achol and Walter Jaokoa, both from the University of Nairobi.

Journalists have a major role to play in combatting that diseased denial. But it may be that we have to start by recognising our own ignorance - and our own denial!

By the way, Entebbe in the local Luganda language means a "seat," presumably because a Baganda chief sat there to adjudicate legal cases prior to British colonisation. Let us hope that Entebbe also becomes a seat for new discoveries about HIV, and how to fight it.

* The workshop runs March 19 and 20 at the Imperial Botanic Beach Hotel, Entebbe.

Christina Scott