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Friday, October 26, 2007

African Journalism and Health

Am in Cape Town for the biggest Cancer meet on African continent. The focus is finding solutions to a growing problem of cancer, worsned by HIV and Aids especially Kaposis Sarcoma which has been on the rise since Aids came into play. On average according to Dr. Albrecht, not the famous Gates Global Health fellow, but of CANSA Research unit, at least one thousand South Africans a reported to have cancer everyday. He estimates that 3,000 could be a daily figure in the Southern Africa region. Most men would develop the Kaposis Sarcoma, while women Breast and Cervical cancer are the highest common cancers among them. The statistics are frightening. And projections are that Cancer is back and rising fast that by 2020 it would be a leading cause of mortality even surpassing Aids, TB and Malaria. I learnt during my year at Harvard to be a skeptic of statistics. This was during my principles of epidemiology class with Dr. Elizabeth Buring. I am quite still a skeptic. But my mind wondered if at all there is a role Journalists can play, not only in fighting cancer which has a lot of oportunities to be controlled, but Health as a sector.
In the developed world, I know Journalists who were once medical doctors, Harro Albrecht my colleague in the Global Health Fellowship is a German who practiced as far as UK but now opted to go into writing. He sees Health Journalism from a totally different angle.
I equally know Health reporters across the globe who would muzzle out a medical scientist with the medical jargons. I have watched RX for Survival its is a piece of documentary that one needs to have on his shelf.
But my mind wasnt in the developed world. I am an African, coming from what is known as a third world country, whose health indicators range from 5 to 10 amongst the poorest in the world.
But the rest of Africa is the same story, poor health, absence of technology and lack of political will and other pressing issues that makes any attempt to improve the health of common man a joke.
Presidents, Ministers and other Influential people have rarely died in their countries. Micheal Wamalwa, a seating Kenyan Vice President died in London, Malawi's Speaker Rodwell Munyenyembe, former Vice President Chakufwa Chihana and Former President Kamuzu Banda all died in South Africa.
Add that to Former President Bakili Muluzi who had to go a spine operation in London while his Zambian equivalent is having his heart condition treated in South Africa.
While quality health care is not provided to ordinary citizens in our country's, the influential and rich have ready access to better health facilties. On average, ordinary Africans die largely from preventable causes such as Malaria, diahorrea and even pregnancy complications mainly because there has been a little interests on part of Governments to invest in the sector.
Brain drain is another issue, lack of equipment is another. But in my view lack of access to any health care especially in rural areas where accessibility in terms of roads and facilities simply does not exists.
However studies have proven that improving knowledge levels of mothers or women in general has long term health benefits as well as improving incomes of the same.
In case of improving knowledge, I believe the Health industry in Africa needs to find a way of developing its own Health Journalism sector where information provision would be a sustained activity at the same time public health communications will be covered extensively.
I have seen the excitment in covering Aids, I have read wonderful piece of Journalism highlighting successes and faliure in Healthcare systems, but Africa's story is told by mainly outside media than local media.
From internet doctors to newpaper columnists, Health solutions have been delivered in multi-media packages elsewhere in the world, while radio-the single largest source of information among Africans is underutilised by the continents health sector.
Very few Journalist are trained in the field of health and one time engagement of such Journalists without any sustained activity has resulted in irrational coverage of health news.
Africa needs to improve delivery of health information, not through advertsing agents or NGO's as it has been shown, but as news which most peopel listen to and have access.
Delivery of public health information by Journalists who have confidence of their audience especially in the case of independent media, would benefit the Public Health sector to fast track increase in knowledge by ordinary women.
You do not need to fly 400 people to campaign in an area to convince them to use mosiquito nets, neither do you need millions of dollars to issue high class awareness of the need for one to complete a TB treatment, real life stories covered by Journalists have shown to have a long lasting impact among the ordinary people that President's or Minister officiating public campaigns.
On a continent where people have other pressing priorities such as looking for food, looking for decent accomodation and living in poor environment, basic information on primary health care can reduce the prevalence of preventable diseases.
Journalists, especially radio and newspapers would make a meaningful contributiont to improving African health only if the sector opens up to the media and allows it to become a partner.
It is time to engage African Journalism to improve the health care systems in Africa. They have changed dictatorships to democracy, ended wars, brought down corrupt officials and bring awareness to climate change, why not improving the health of the continent.
Very soon the African Healthcare Journalists Network will be taking shape, I hope, it will be an equal partner in deliverign public health solutions!

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