Media can have an impact on global diseases, not only by giving people important information, but by changing behaviors that spread illness, aid experts told a recent panel in Washington.
The panel was organized by the Voice of America and USAID, in an effort to advance health policy worldwide.
“Our ongoing partnerships with USAID, [the Centers for Disease Control], and the State Department have played an important role in our ability to cover this subject,” VOA Director David Ensor said. “Since 1997 for example, USAID has supported VOA in broadcasting health news across multiple platforms to hundreds of millions, literally, of listeners.”
Public health, maternal and child health, family planning, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, HIV and AIDS—all of these are reported on by the Voice of America’s myriad services, Ensor said. Along the way, the public is educated, but so are journalists on best practices for reporting on health issues, including avian influenza and other infectious diseases.
Elizabeth Fox, director of USAID’s Office of Health, Infectious Diseases and Nutrition, said the agency values the role of media, which can spread messages to save lives. Something as simple as washing your hands with soap: if everyone did that, it would save the lives of a million children under the age of five between now and 2020, she said.
Silvio Waisbord, a professor of media and public policy at George Washington University, said media can report on health issues, analyze them and help people change their behavior.
“So it’s not just the question of the information, but making certain norms public, sort of changing the perception about what is right,” he said. “And the media—we have evidence in this, actually showing that it plays an important role, not only informing people, but actually validating norm changes in reminding people about this new norm or this new trend underlining the behavior change.”
That gives the media certain responsibilities, as well.
Scott Ratzan, editor of the Journal of Health Communication, said media can help report on diseases before they become epidemics, such as the Ebola outbreak. Agencies like USAID and the Voice of America can do some of that work, he said. “But it has to be consistent, it has to be credible, and it has to be something that people can use and act upon and get deeper information on, if they are interested in that information.”
Marsha Vanderford, a representative of the Centers for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control, said policy communications about where allocations go and how they are used are also important.
“The CDC has about 60 country offices, and the programs in those offices vary from influenza to HIV, to global disease detection and many long ranges of those, many big ranges of different programs,” she said. “And I think it really is a policy question, to say, ‘Where do we work and why are we working there?’” In addition, reporting on global health can keep US travelers safe and healthy, she said.
In a country like Cambodia, health reporting not only informs the public, but public officials as well.
Ly Sovann, head of the Ministry of Health’s department of communicable diseases, said his health staff watches news closely every day, as part of its monitoring. “If we see it, we immediately discuss it, and our surveillance system is recognized by the WHO,” he said. Media can also help the ministry spread health messages to the public, he said.
Moeun Chhean Narridh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said that in Cambodia the media have played an important role in curbing diseases and have reported important health stories, such as the recent HIV outbreak in Battambang province, where the use of dirty needles by an unlicensed health practitioner infected more than 200 people.
“At the same time, we’re concerned that publications can cause discrimination in the community that transmitted the HIV/AIDS,” he said.