Accuracy in Media

There was so much praise for Nelson Mandela having the courage to announce that his son had died from AIDS that most journalists didn’t bother to examine whether his son had died from AIDS or not. However, the Washington Post put the cause of death differently, saying that Mandela’s son, Makgatho Mandela, had died of “illness related to AIDS.” This is not just a semantic difference, and the controversy raises concern once again about the nature of this disease and how to prevent and treat it.

The Post reported that, “A spokesman for the Mandela family, Isaac Amuah, said in a phone interview that the immediate cause of Makgatho’s death was complications from a gallbladder operation. But he said that AIDS was a contributing factor and that Mandela was determined to portray the death as resulting from AIDS to demystify the disease.”

A skeptic might say that Mandela is trying to use his son’s death to make a political or social point. But because the elder Mandela is held in such high esteem by the world community, nobody dares suggest that. Still, it’s not clear, from the press reports, that Mandela’s son was actually tested for AIDS. What exactly is an illness related to AIDS and how can AIDS be a contributing factor but not a cause of death? We’re shocked that the media would use these terms almost interchangeably and expect readers not to have any questions about them. This is bad journalism when it comes to a disease that is reported to be rampaging throughout the world, especially in Africa. 

Mandela’s announcement about his son took courage, we were told, because it is mostly a taboo subject in South Africa and people don’t want to admit to having the disease. The media said that his announcement would encourage others to come in for treatment and would usher in a new age of frank speaking and openness about AIDS. That sounds great, but what about some openness in talking about what actually killed Mandela’s son?

The hard fact–but unknown to most Americans–is that in Africa you don’t need to test positive for HIV or AIDS to be diagnosed with AIDS.  If you are thin, have pneumonia, are sweating, vomiting, or coughing, you can have AIDS. This is the Banqui definition of AIDS.  According to Anita Allen writing at Red Flags Weekly, there are 30-odd diseases under the Banqui definition. They include TB, malaria, leprosy, STD’s, dysentery, hepatitis, meningitis, pneumonia and even cervical cancer. That’s far different than a disease, AIDS, which we are constantly told is caused by a virus.

When the Washington Post breaks from the pack and says that Mandela’s son died from an illness related to AIDS, and that he had a gallbladder operation, that could have been an indication that he was on medications which caused organ failure and the need for his surgery. Were these anti-AIDS medications? When we’re talking about life and death, these questions are not academic or theoretical. We’re dealing with the critical questions about the nature of this disease and how to treat it. Stop the hero worship for Nelson Mandela and do some good, tough journalism into what actually happened to his son. He deserves the truth. So do we.

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