Is health all about drugs and hospitals? Is the Ministry of Health only responsible for diseases? Who is responsible for our health or well-being? Why does the health sector seem to crumble, with no drugs in hospitals or mortuaries malfunctioning resulting in dead bodies being kept on the floor? Why are Malawians dying young?
These are tough life giving questions with no easy answers. But someone has to ask and dig them out. Questions such as which is better, for government to put in more money into preventive measures or in treating illnesses of its citizenry?
These are some of the many questions the Support for Service Delivery Integration (SSDI) Communication through the Ministry of Health together with the media industry have been aiming at cracking in order to bring behavioural change among Malawians.
SSDI-Communication, a social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) project that promotes normative and behaviour change in several health areas, has been engaging the media through the Media for Life Project with Association of Malawi Media Owners (Ammo), Malawi Editors Forum and training of individual journalists on health reporting in the country. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Centre for Communication Programs (JHU.CCP) implements the project in partnership with Save the Children in Malawi, Ministry of Health and several local organisations with funding from Usaid.
During a recent interface meeting with editors from a wide section of the media fraternity in Blantyre, under the Malawi Editors Forum, the information gatekeepers were challenged to “go-deeper” in their coverage of health issues.
Currently, research has shown that out of every 100 people that go to the hospital in Malawi because of sickness, 40 of them (40 percent of all hospital visits) are due to malaria.
“And yet malaria is a preventable ailment. Imagine if we successfully prevented 50 percent of malaria cases, how much resources in both funds and human, would we save as a nation?” argued Dr Ben Chirwa, an SSDI Communication health expert based at Ministry of Health, during the editors’ meeting.
Malaria can easily be prevented through the consistent and correct use of a treated mosquito net and hygiene practices around the homestead, according to health experts.
Of late, cases of abuse and outright misuse of treated mosquito nets have been reported with people advancing different arguments for their behaviour or actions.
For example, one Mangochi resident, Yamikani Sipokolo said: “I don’t like using a mosquito net because it does not offer comfortable sleep, it disturbs when one wants to have quality time with a partner.”
Malnutrition is another preventable but huge problem affecting Malawi with the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (Mics) showing that one in every five children under-five years of age were underweight (21 percent) and almost two in every five children under the age of five years (46 percent) being stunted, while almost half of these (21 percent) were severely stunted.
Mics figures further indicate that stunting prevalence in under-five years in rural areas was 48 percent and significantly higher than in urban areas at 38 percent.
This is where, according to SSDI Communication and Ministry of Health, a good working partnership with the media is needed to sensitise and offer accurate information to the general public.
Speaking at the editors interface workshop, Ministry of Health spokesperson Henry Chimbali emphasised how his ministry values the media.
“The media are our strategic partners and we cherish these moments where we come together to share the various developments taking place across the board in as far as health issues are concerned,” he said.
“The social and economic burdens that come with illnesses do not only impact on the sick person or their immediate family, but they also affect the whole community as well as the whole nation. If much was done to influence behaviour changes among Malawians, the economic burden on drugs could have been eased.”
Making a presentation on behalf of the editors, Gracian Tukula, a media manager with Nation Publications Limited (NPL) and secretary general for Malawi Editors Forum, pleaded with his colleagues to use the editorial powers responsibly towards promoting a healthy Malawi.
“Health stories must be given a better treatment. As editors, we must commit ourselves to do more on health stories, beginning with allocating required resources as well as assigning best reporters to do such important stories,” Tukula said.
At the end of the meeting, the editors vowed to support the Ministry of Health in promoting health living by covering more issues on health than was previously the case.
“We are very encouraged that the Ministry of Health and SSDI Communication consider us as a very strategic partner towards promotion of good health. We are open to further engagements and we are assuring you that this meeting has added more responsibilities on our tables,” said Edyth Kambalame, vice president of the Malawi Editors Forum in her closing remarks.
Malawi government spends more money and other resources towards the health sector alone but the situation on the ground shows that even that is not enough. There is general poor health service delivery, marked by shortages of drugs and other medical supplies and long distances that people, especially in rural areas, travel to the nearest health facility.
For example, in the 2013/14 National Budget, over K20 billion was set aside for drugs alone but still there were reported cases of shortages owing to massive theft of drugs by health personnel and lack of funds to procure enough drugs or in good time.
There are also reported cases of citizens from neighbouring countries, especially Tanzania and Mozambique seeking medication in Malawian health centres that are closer to the countries’ borders.
Experts argue that some of the drugs procured are for diseases that can be prevented by simply adopting good health styles that do not expose one to such kind of infections, such as use of mosquito nets to prevent malaria; clean water to avoid waterborne infections, and condoms as a shield from sexually transmitted infections, among other preventive measures.
This, the experts argue, is a waste of resources and poor approach to case management as prevention has proved to be more cost effective than cure.
The Malawi Editors Forum is an elite media grouping for editors from all media houses across the country.
Being a forum that draws membership from a cross-section of media houses, it is a powerful body for advocacy, community sensitisation and behavioural change communication strategies.
The understanding in the health circles is that most of the health-related problems only require change in behaviour to minimise them, an area where the media in general, and editors in particular, can make the difference, according to SSDI Communication.
By the end of the SSDI Communication project in 2016, it is the vision of JHU-CCP and all the collaborating partners to reach a situation where Malawian families will be better able to advocate for their own health, will be practising positive health behaviours, including timely use of essential health package (EHP) services, and will be engaging with a responsive health care system.