Sowetan doesn’t cut corners on circumcision story

  • Melissa Meyer - 30 April 2013

Report draws on a range of sources to provide necessary context and additional information in response to the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church’s call for its members to circumcise against HIV.

A great deal of enthusiasm has been edging on the recent national rollout of medical male circumcision (MMC) as a HIV prevention tool. Soon after the WHO granted its official stamp of approval to the procedure, billboards, pamphlets, SMS services, facebook groups, radio programmes and advertorials all announced MMC as a viable and safe way for men to reduce their HIV risk.

But perhaps the most zealous endorsement came last week when a religious leader decreed that all men in his 3 million strong congregation consider the procedure.

“We believe that circumcision is the only way we can stop the prevalence of this disease in our church and elsewhere in the country,” said Pat Dooms, spokesperson for Inkosi Phakama Shembe, at a gathering of the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church in Gauteng last week.

Whilst the MMC drive would certainly stand to benefit from this endorsement, the procedure is not the panacea the church makes it out to be. MMC offers up to 60% reduced risk of contracting HIV. Whilst the benefit is significant, the probability that remains of acquiring the virus cannot be ignored either.

In its coverage of the gathering the Sowetan identified the risk inherent in the church’s message and took clear steps to provide readers with more information.

To many this counterbalancing may seem inherent to good journalism thus not warranting special mention. But with some of the country’s most widely read publications often writing simply what the people say, balanced, contextualised and accurate coverage by contrast is worthy of some recognition.

The Sowetan coverage includes comment from the Department of Health, warning that circumcision alone cannot provide complete protection from HIV. The article is supplemented with a box detailing the promotion of MMC and providing further information on the health benefits of the procedure.

As a result, readers are given a means of verifying the accuracy of the church’s statement and are able to form sound views and opinions that will go on to inform their actions.

What remains lamentable, however, is that a church feels its only recourse to addressing HIV among its congregation is to advocate a medical intervention. One would think an appeal to values or a promotion of respect for oneself and others would be useful tools for encouraging a following to take responsibility for their own sexual health.

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“Sowetan identified the risk inherent in the church’s message and took clear steps to provide readers with more information”