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Radio In West Africa May Be The Key To Lower Mortality Rates

Erik Neumann

Interview Highlights

Lewis: In West Africa, one reason the current Ebola epidemic has been so hard to control is that basic health services such as sanitation and access to health clinics are much harder to come by than they are in the U.S. One organization is working with the West African nation of Burkina Faso to try to figure out if the radio can be used to solve some of these basic health problems.  Independent producer Erik Neumann visited Burkina Faso to learn more.

Neumann: At “Voice of the Farmer,” a radio station in rural BF, four actors sit at a table inside a dingy sound studio. They’re wearing headphones and wearing mismatched microphones…The four actors welcome listeners to the show. It’s a program called Between Us and it airs each night in this area. But this show isn’t quite like radio dramas in the U.S. like Prairie Home Companion. The actors here are talking about things that don’t usually make it on the airwaves.

Credit Erik Neumann

Neumann: Today on the show, they’re talking about pregnancy and the importance of birth-spacing. Basically, the idea that it’s healthier for a woman to wait awhile to get pregnant after she’s already given birth. It’s just one topic that’s a health concern in this part of West Africa. Matthew Lavoie is the country director for Development Media International, the organization that works with radio stations like Voice of the Farmer.

Lavoie: We message on the proper use of a mosquito net. Your child has got acute diarrhea, you need to give them more liquids not less. Rapid and difficult breathing? Take them to a health center. Our goal as an organization is to reduce mortality.

Neumann: To do this, Lavoie works with scriptwriters in the capital of BF. They write skits for actors to read and send them to stations around the country. BF is a very diverse place. There are about six different languages spoken here. So those skits get translated into different languages and adapted for different cultures. All of this, the skits, the actors, the messages, is part of a big study Development Media is doing with the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine. Levoy says that even with all the public service announcements that have done over the years, people still don’t really know how well they work. So to do a test, they’ve set up towns where they broadcast these messages and towns where they don’t. After three years, they’ll compare the mortality numbers of both places. If they can prove that radio shows like these ones can save lives, it could open the door for more a lot more shows like them, especially in Africa. 

Lavoie: Simply said, it is a lot cheaper to run a mass media campaign than to run a vaccination campaign. It is cheaper to run a mass media campaign than it is to build health centers. We think we can have a stronger impact.