Health on the Front Page

Liberians went to the polls on 10 October 2017 to elect the President and House of Representatives. In the run-up to elections everywhere in the world, party politics, campaign trails and – more often than not –  character assassination drive the news agenda. Health stories don’t make the front page. In fact, health stories hardly make the front page, ever. But a group of Liberian journalists have changed that.

“Especially during election times, the thinking used to be that only politics sells. But there’s a new kind of story we are looking for, and it is about what is done for the health of people? So it combines politics and health,” says Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, Front Page Africa editor.

Alpha is also in the leadership of Local Voices, a network of community radio journalists working in Liberia’s 15 counties.

Two men sit talking, one has a notepad. Other men sit on a couch in the background.
Journalist Alpha Senkpeni (R) surveys health information needs.

Alpha was among the participants of two Internews health media projects in Liberia. The first, Information Saves Lives was introduced in response to the Ebola crisis.

The Ebola crisis is over. But Ebola had opened the window to insights on weaknesses in the Liberian health system. David Sanders, who is affiliated with the People’s Health Movement, a global network advocating for health equity, writes in The Conversation that the explosive Ebola and Zika outbreaks are an indication not in the pathology of disease, but in the pathology of society. “Unless the global public health community develops better health systems that provide for the poor, such viruses will continue to spread and have severe effects,” he writes.

I had the opportunity to interview Anthony Fauci on what he thought the world had learned from Ebola. Fauci is the head of the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. An immunologist, he mentions health systems before hard science.

“The thing that Ebola has told us very clearly is that avoiding things like this in the future really rest on building up a reasonable health care infrastructure, because one of the predominant reasons why we had the explosion – truly an explosion – of cases in the three countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, was the fact that the infrastructure there was marginal at best.”

Ebola put a spotlight on infrastructure weaknesses in Liberia, including flaws in the flow of information, and brought to the fore other low-level health emergencies, among them maternal and child health, measles and tuberculosis. With the riot of disease and death behind us, the international community and Liberian authorities said it would use lessons from Ebola and be proactive about building health infrastructure.

For Internews, accurate, trusted and compelling health information is a vital part of health infrastructure. Well-informed health journalists, through their stories, are watchdogs of health services. To help journalists apply the lessons learnt from Ebola, Internews launched Information Saves Lives II.  

“If we had been prepared as health reporters before, the way in which we reported the crisis at the beginning would have been different,” said Antoinette Sendolo, a journalist with The Inquirer.

Information Saves Lives II was the first dedicated health journalism fellowship for Liberian journalists. Antoinette was among 24 Liberian media fellows enrolled in the program of intensive training sessions in Monrovia. They interacted with and learned from Ministry of Health clinicians, patients, and international experts on topics such as maternal and reproductive health, mental health, health systems strengthening, infectious diseases and chronic diseases.

“If we have another outbreak that is not Ebola, we will be in a better position to report. The essence of journalism is not just reporting; it’s about making impact,” says Antoinette.

The politics of health

At one of the training forums, the group discussed how to connect health to politics. In the run-up to the Liberian election, health stories have in fact made the front pages. A community radio reporter for Radio Gbarnga, Moses Bailey, reported on Phebe Maternal Waiting Home in Bong County, where pregnant women wait for hours to be seen, often suffering from food scarcity and hunger. The story moved readers to donate food and money for supplies. In another story, Moses showed neglect at mental health facilities. The journalism fellows came to realize that health stories are not just about disease, science, or symptoms – they can also be about the services that government does or does not deliver.

Empty metal beds in a hospital room.
Beds at Phebe Maternal Waiting Home

A Front Page Africa story outlined how a desire for better roads and health care will affect election results. A voter says the only way to voice her concern about bad roads and lack of health care is at the ballot box. Another story looks at the readiness of health centers to deal with a future Ebola outbreak. There’s a report about the challenges at the Bong Mines Hospital in Bong County: hardly any drugs, no electricity and no pay for staff. And a story about a ramshackle clinic in Gbloseo Town read “As Election Day draws near, healthcare will be one of the issues on the minds of voters.”

Empty shelves in a small room
Empty containers on the shelves of the dispensary at Gbloseo. Photo: Eric Opa Doue

The journalism fellows are thrilled about their success in putting health on the news agenda. Because of the unique stories they are finding, many have found freelancing opportunities, opening their efforts to wider audiences. By the end of the Information Saves Lives program, seven front page articles on health issues had been published.

“I thought of writing an OpEd about the lessons that have come from Ebola, even though it has been tragic,” says Alpha. “We’ve learned how to be specialists in health journalism. And that a specialist is not just someone who reports on disease. We report to prevent disease.”

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Information saves Lives I and II were projects run in partnership with The Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3), funded by USAID.

(Banner photo: A community radio story about pregnant women waiting for health care moved readers to donate food.)