Jennifer Atieno, 54, has been living with HIV for the last 12 years.
Ever since she tested positive to the virus and was enrolled for antiretroviral therapy (ART), Atieno has been taking her medication without failure.
When we, a group of journalists from the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) met her last week, she was in a group of other women and men who are also living with HIV in a homestead in Rarieda, Siaya County, in western Kenya.
They formed the group to encourage and advise each other to live positively with the virus. Their group known as Nyakongo Group has 12 members, who meet once every three months.
“In this group we discuss how best we can live and protect ourselves with regard to drugs we all take,” she said.
Before the group was established, Atieno got her medicine from a health facility after every three months. However, since last year when they formed the group she has been able to limit the number of hospital visits and save on transport.
“Each of us contributes Ksh10 and we give to one of us who goes to the facility and bring medicine for the 12 of us. We then agree on whose home we meet then each of us takes their drugs for the three months,” she said.
Nyakongo is one of the Community ART Groups (CAGs) under a programme supported by the Centre for Health Solutions (CHS), a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). The NGO has trained peer educators working under the programme.
“The groups should only visit hospitals twice a year because clients are supposed to take home drugs meant for six months,” said Millicent Kanyala, a peer educator at Madiany Sub-county Hospital in Siaya County.
“But they cannot go with the whole six months’ drugs, so they are given drugs for the first three months, then the refills are done after three months.”
CHS allows clients to voluntarily choose a community group they want to belong to. Members of each group has members who are familiar with each other to allow openness and peer interaction without fear of being stigmatised. Each group has a leader and the names and contacts of members are contained in the CAGs’ diary book.
“The diary informs me of when each group is supposed to visit the facility. So, I prepare the drugs well in advance and call their peer leader and tell them the date they will be taking drugs in their community,” said Kanyala.
CAGs are a model for ART distribution, where groups of people living with HIV rotate for clinic visits and drug refills while dispensing drugs to their peers in the community and ensuring peer support.
“The uptake is steadily good and every member wants to join community groups. So far, we have 90 community groups with a total of 822 members. In 2017 we only had 22 groups,” said George Nyakora, adherence counsellor at Madiany Sub-county Hospital.
In 2017 when Madiany Sub-county Hospital launched the programme, viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) suppression was at 84 per cent. Mr Nyakora says this model has since helped the facility to achieve a viral load suppression of 96 per cent as at November 2021.
“Initially in 2017 the suppression cut off point was 1,000 copies/mL, currently it is 400 copies/mL. Anyone who achieves viral load suppression of below 400 copies/mL is considered to be doing well in terms of ART uptake,” said Nyakora.
He said viral load that is more than 400 copies/mL means the immunity level has dropped or is dropping and the likelihood of contracting opportunistic infections is very high.
Science journalism is increasingly gaining traction in Africa but remains disadvantaged compared to other fields of journalism like politics and business, which receive more prominence and coverage in newsrooms.
The good news is that the sector is undergoing a rejuvenation, after decades characterized by inadequate coverage, poor reporting and weak scientists-journalists relationships.
Today, having interacted with and trained a number of journalists in Africa, the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) is happy to see renewed interest and commitment to science journalism by a specialized team of journalists who are able to think outside the box and innovatively create platforms that are transforming science journalism.
One such journalist, having interacted with MESHA for nearly three years now, is Christophe Hitayezu, a Rwandese journalist who has been hit by the bug of networking and bringing science journalists together.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having captured the imagination and minds of many people in the continent, Hitayezu went soul searching for a way of reaching out to the masses. His answer lay in founding a simple WhatsApp group to bring health journalists together.
As a journalist and media mentor with interest in health, agriculture and development reporting, Hitayezu has been trained by Internews in different aspects of journalism. He is a Thomson Foundation Alumnus for Access to Information and Investigative Journalism and the International Women’s Media Foundation Alumnus for African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
Hitayezu contributes to Down To Earth, a magazine published by Centre for Science and Environment, India.
Born in 1988, in Southern Province of Rwanda, young Hitayezu studied Rural Development and Agribusiness at the University of Rwanda, though his love and passion for journalism started since his high school days.
His first and only story at the time was published in 2008 in Huguka Newspaper, currently turned into Huguka Radio station.
“Although I couldn’t find right connections with radio stations to volunteer my time– as online media was in its formative stage in the country – I did not give up. In 2011, I created a blog using my name, hitayezu.wordpress.com through which I published my first article in January 2012, I was convinced that this could help me practise journalism,” he told this writer. At this time, online media in Rwanda was gaining visibility, and he started contributing to the then newly created websites.
Sadly, most of them are no longer operational. Close to the end of his undergraduate studies, Hitayezu volunteered with IGIHE.com (Igihe means time in Kinyarwanda), one of the best performing news websites in Rwanda.
After his university studies, he founded a media outlet, Nonaha, for which he is the chief editor. Operational since 2014, the website is among a few that have survived for long without external financial support.
From the fellowships and study tours in Africa, Asia and Europe, Hitayezu has earned his networks and media skills. He singles out the trainings organized by MESHA as having turned around his way of looking at networking for science journalism. Supporting COVID-19 media response.
In March 2020, Hitayezu set up an information and training WhatsApp group that has brought together over 100 health journalists and communicators from over 20 African countries. Named COVID19 Updates, the group also has a few health journalism experts and humanitarian workers.
“Journalists in this part of the world had not been trained about covering the novel coronavirus unlike other infectious diseases like Ebola and HIV, so we needed a forum to provide timely and accurate scientifically sound messages to the masses,” he says.
With the formation of the WhatsApp group, Hitayezu hoped to reach health workers whom he felt needed to be provided with information on new diseases and so to him, the bearers of that information would be the media who in turn needed fresh and up to date information on a regular basis.
“As the disease is new, journalists need customized reporting strategies and approaches to help prevent the spread of the virus in an ethical and responsible manner. I felt concerned and started to think of how I could connect with other like-minded journalists from across the continent,” he told Sayansi. Although he had an idea, the next challenge was to find and persuade experts to provide the new skills pro bono.
The other big question was, how would the platform remain active till the disease is gone? Besides, how would it be sustained and maintained? He therefore thought of bringing on board media experts.
“Luckily, the webinar with International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), World Health Organisation (WHO), British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Media Action and Internews on March 4, 2020 about the role of media in containing COVID 19 and saving lives, inspired and helped me get connected with the right people. I seized the moment and started by putting my request to the webinar organizer at International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,” says Hitayezu.
In no time he had been connected to Internews’ humanitarian expert who told him of his joy to help as he loved the initiative. He told Hitayezu how they had worked a lot around rumours and misinformation.
“They finally connected me with Internews health journalism expert based in the Africa region who applauded the initiative and helped bring more experts,” Hitayezu says.
The platform is a success “The platform, to me, is a huge success as it is specific and narrow on COVID-19, different from other groups which divert from the intended objective to delve into irrelevances. From the group, I have made some new connections that are beneficial in my writing career. Besides, I have acquired more knowledge on the virus itself and how to treat every information on social media on the virus without first fact checking,” says Lavie Mutanganshuro, a Rwandan journalist.
“The group is a conduit to understanding some of the complications of COVID-19. It serves as the bridge to journos across the continent and discovering details about COVID-19.
Even though the pandemic is still on in Africa and globally, Hitayezu hopes it will end soon. He however says the WhatsApp group will continue to empower its members with right information, resources and by acting as an announcement board on what is happening in the space of COVID-19.
A leading HIV investigator in Kenya has urged journalists to be at the forefront in dispelling the existing myths and misconceptions on vaccine trials among people living in African countries.
Prof Omu Anzala described as a “fallacy” allegations by some unscrupulous people — especially on social media — who are peddling claims that Africans are being targeted as “guinea pigs” by the West during such trials.
The virologist-cum-immunologist was speaking during a webinar held in May titled “Understanding the Role of Africa in COVID-19 Vaccine Research.”
The virtual meeting, which was co-organized by IAVI; Media for Environment, Science, Health, and Agriculture (MESHA), and Internews attracted African-based journalists and scientists and was moderated by MESHA’s secretary, Aghan Daniel.
“As a professional, I feel sad when people make such wild, unsubstantiated claims and allegations when diseases such as cervical cancer, malaria, and Ebola continue killing a majority of our people in the continent,” Prof Anzala observed.
“I have been conducting HIV clinical trials for over 20 years and I reassure you that vaccines are highly regulated and cannot, therefore, cause major adverse effects (to recipients). As Africans, we should steer away from such negativity,” he noted.
Prof Anzala is one of the founders of the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI)—Institute of Clinical Research (KAVI-ICR) which was established in 2001 where he serves as the current director. He was Co-Principal Investigator (PI) of the first HIV vaccine trial in Kenya—the second in Africa—using a DNA plasmid.
According to the virologist, a recent study shows that 90 percent of health workers in Kenya are ready to be enrolled in testing for a COVID-19 vaccine safety if such a request was made to them. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation— which is the biggest funder of vaccines in the world—says that by April 9, 2020, 115 different COVID19 vaccine candidates were in the development pipeline “with eight to 10 of those looking particularly promising.”
Prof Anzala says as the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, African scientists also have a role to play in searching for solutions against the global pandemic which by July 6, 2020, had infected 11.6m people, killed nearly 537,000 with 6.27m others recovering.
“The current precautionary measures to avoid COVID-19 infection through washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks in public places is just a stop-gap measure,” he warned.
“The only viable solution for the control of the virus is a vaccine as we are all susceptible to COVID-19,” added the Professor.
Vaccines offer protection from disease or infection by eliciting a long-lasting immune response. Fielding questions from journalists, Prof Anzala urged African countries to combat coronavirus by establishing mechanisms and actions that will respond to the outbreak; establishing teams that will monitor the outbreak and fund research to understand COVID-19/SARS-COV2 evolution (by using locally gathered data to inform the response to the outbreak).
Prof Anzala observed: “We are all learning as we go along. There are no experts (on the pandemic) as its only five months old”.
At the same time, the virologist announced that Kenya will be among 70 countries that will participate in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Solidarity clinical trial for COVID-19 treatments. Solidarity Trial is an international clinical trial to help find an effective treatment for COVID-19, launched by WHO and partners. It will compare for treatment options against the standard of care, to assess their relative effectiveness against COVID-19.
University of Nairobi students have developed a mobile phone app through which they can access relevant information to address their challenges.
The app dubbed RADA was developed by 12 students with the help of the university’s Centre for HIV Prevention and Research (CHIVPR), UNESCO, and Sexual and Reproductive Health Alliance (SRHRA).
The app guarantees privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity for the users and tackles issues such as mental health, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortion, substance and alcohol abuse, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV and Aids.
The students noted that these issues have led to school dropouts and needed to be addressed urgently. After designing and developing the app prototype, the students, who had little or no knowledge in IT, were trained to code by UNESCO.
The content was developed with the assistance of CHIVPR, UNESCO, and SRHRA, and validated by relevant stakeholder s, including the Ministry of Health through the Department of Reproductive Health, the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA), JHPIEGO and the National AIDS and STI Control Council (NASCOP), among others.
During this process, it was apparent that the app needed to address other relevant issues beyond the health domain, and therefore content on security, socio-economic matters, including job opportunities, were added.
The final android phone app was launched on June 13, 2019, during the Nairobi Innovation Week. Today, with the support of UNESCO, RADA has been disseminated to all University of Nairobi campuses and to four other universities, namely Kenyatta, South Eastern, Masinde Muliro, and Pwani. Currently, counseling services are available to University students but this will change soon to accommodate all young people of appropriate age.
The app is available to everyone who is able to download it from the play store at no fee.
Every season, Margaret Kenzi, a potato farmer in Kenya’s Rift Valley, tirelessly works in her potato farm with hopes of a bumper harvest.
To her dismay, her efforts of three years have hardly yielded as she does not use certified potato seeds. She attributes this sorry state to the high cost of certified seeds, which has driven her to use regenerated seeds every planting season that are prone to attacks by pests and diseases.
“I depend on recycled seeds because certified seeds cost Sh3,000 (U$30) per bag of 50kg which I cannot afford due to the hard economy. And after harvesting, we are forced to sell our produce at a throwaway price to middlemen and brokers who invade our farms with ready cash. A 50kg bag of potatoes goes for between Sh1,500 (U$15) and Sh2,000 (U$20) while a 2kg package sells at Sh100 (U$1),” decries Kenzi.
Researchers put it that only maize is grown in more countries than potato, with Africa producing about seven percent of global potato output, mainly in Egypt and South Africa. The crop is popular and valuable for both food security and income generation, competing well with maize in the subtropical climates at higher altitudes.
Under these conditions, year-round production can be possible, often with at least two seasons per annum. In recent years, however, yields have shown notable declining trends, mainly attributed to major disease outbreaks, inappropriate cropping practices by farmers, substandard seed quality, and lack of organized market infrastructure for produce.
Emerging markets for processed potatoes (such as chips, crisps, starch) have increasingly focused attention on the crop, with rising demand from the fast-food industry and processing for added economic value. Processed potatoes, however, also demand high levels of quality, which can be difficult to sustain in the face of high pest and disease pressures.
In Kenya, according to Farming Success with Potatoes in Kenya, a publication by the International Centre of Potato (CIP), potato is the second most important staple food crop after maize and is valued at nearly $500 million (Sh50 billion) annually.
About 800,000 Kenyans directly benefit from potato production, while across the whole value chain about 2.5 million people receive income from potato. However, in Kenya, yields have declined and currently average 9-10 tonnes per hectare, much below the potential of 20–40 t/ha, and this is reflected across the region.
As if Mother Nature is adding insult to injury, farmers like Ms. Kenzi’s woes are not helped by the emergence of new pests and diseases, such as the recently detected potato cyst nematodes (PCNs), Globodera rostochiensis and G. pallida, a key threat to potato production in eastern Africa, according to an article published recently in the Frontiers in Plant Science journal by International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe); International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); North Carolina State University, USA; and Kenyatta University, Kenya.
The occurrence of PCN presents a key threat to potato production in Kenya, as well as to the entire East Africa region where potato features prominently as a food security or income generation crop for millions of smallholder farmers. The good news, states the study in its conclusion, is that it may be possible to manage the nematodes by inducing ‘suicidal hatching’ of the pests using naturally occurring chemicals in crop roots.
Nematodes are tiny microscopic worms, with some soil-dwelling species infecting and adversely affecting most, if not all, cultivated crops. Potato cyst nematodes (PCNs) are invasive nematode pests that were first reported in Kenya in 2015 and have since been confirmed from other countries in eastern Africa.
Studies by icipe and partners have shown that these nematodes cause up to 80 percent yield loss in potatoes.
“The management of the nematodes understudy is particularly challenging due to the pest’s ability to survive in the soil as tiny protective cysts. These cysts can contain up to 600 eggs but are able to remain dormant in the absence of a host plant for up to 20 years. Once they infest a field, it is impossible to eradicate. Therefore, a possible effective approach is to avoid the build-up and spread of the pest,” says Prof Baldwyn Torto, Head of Behavioural and Chemical Ecology Unit at icipe.
In over 100 countries, this has been achieved by strict quarantine regulations because they are globally considered as the most important pests threatening potato production but are all too often overlooked in less developed countries.
The recent studies by icipe and partners aimed to manage their spread by exploring several known facts about potato cyst nematodes. First, is the fact that potato cyst nematodes eggs hatch only in the presence of suitable host plants such as potato, tomato, and African nightshade, which scientists refer to as the Solanaceae family.
Once hatched, the infective juvenile nematodes that emerge from the cyst seek host crop roots to invade and feed upon. The developing female nematodes swell and eventually become a new cyst full of eggs. These eggs hatch only once triggered by chemical signals produced by the roots of the host plant. The aim of the research was to identify these signals, and whether they can be exploited to induce hatch of the potato cyst nematodes juveniles in the absence of host crops and thus lead to their eventual death; or rather the ‘suicidal hatch’ of the nematodes.
“We noted that most juvenile PCN that hatched in response to some chemical signals, known as steroidal glycoalkaloids (SGAs) and steroidal alkaloids (SAs), remained encysted. In other words, they did not leave the cyst to invade crop roots but remained encapsulated in the cyst,” noted a Kenyan scientist, Juliet Ochola, who was involved in the research as part of her MSc studies, based at icipe and registered at Kenyatta University.
Prof Danny Coyne, a soil health scientist at IITA, explains that the SGAs and SAs could be used in synthetic forms to stimulate suicidal hatch of PCN in infested fields before farmers plant potatoes.
Alternatively, plants that produce the chemicals but are not usually infected by PCN could be incorporated in a crop rotation system to stimulate PCN hatch, thereby reducing populations of the pest.
“Blends of the compounds obtained from crude material of such plants may be used to treat potato fields as organic soil amendments. This approach would be environmentally attractive and better than using nematicides, which can be hazardous, and due to their dependence on single compounds, are prone to pest resistance,” says Prof Coyne.
The study presents the results of a countrywide survey undertaken to determine the distribution of PCN and the potential damage it is causing in the major potato growing regions of Kenya.
Additionally, the study team examined farmers’ potato production practices and how these will need to be taken into consideration for the implementation of future pest management strategies.
It is hoped that the information provided in the study will serve as a wakeup call that should further help policymakers and regional stakeholders to make informed decisions related to PCN containment and mitigation.
For 21 years, Bamburi Nature Trail Hill, commonly known as Haller Park, has never closed its doors to visitors.
The sanctuary for lost and orphaned wildlife has been a haven for anyone who wanted to spend their day relaxing in a peaceful environment and getting acquainted with friendly animals. But when I visited recently, seeking an interview, Karima Nyinge, who heads the department for visitors, shocked me with the news. “We have closed the park for now due to the COVID-19 disease,” he said.
Haller Park was named so in honor of Dr. Rene Haller in recognition of his efforts, in conjunction with Bamburi Portland Cement Company, in transforming the abandoned quarry into a breathtaking ecological paradise.
The park is located south of the cement plant along the Mombasa-Malindi highway. It covers 75 hectares of land and houses a variety of animals, including hippos, buffalos, giraffes, waterbucks and oryx. The night walks in the park, conference services, among other activities, are now a thing of the past, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Nyinge says the government regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have made it difficult for the park to operate since they host large groups per day.
“We have closed because some of the rules are hard to observe, especially because visitors like to converge around hippos and giraffes and feed them, which will see us break the rule on social distancing,” he says.
Another hurdle is contact tracing in case one of the visitors tests positive for the disease.
Mr. Nyinge says it would be difficult for them to trace all the contacts that might have come into contact with the person. He says the park receives up to 160,000 tourists a year, but this year they are likely to fall way below the number. But luckily, some of the workers were retained to continue feeding the animals and maintain their daily routine.
“The animals have been trained. For example, a hippo would come out when they are called. It’s a routine for them and we don’t want them to forget it,” says Nyinge.
The situation is not different for the Tsavo Heritage Foundation in Voi, Taita Taveta County, which champions the landscape restoration of the Tsavo Ecosystem and Dispersal Areas. Jacob Kipongoso, the Foundation CEO and environment activist, says since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Kenya they put on hold all their plans on conserving the environment.
According to Kipongoso, most of their work involves people, hence it is difficult to uphold keeping the social distancing rule. “For now all the plans we had to plant trees here at Voi were put on hold. We have nothing to do since all the work we were supposed to do involves people,” he says.
“We were supposed to have a big meeting with environmental activists in May and an international conference in December, but both were postponed.”
Kipongoso says poachers have taken advantage of the situation to increase their poaching activities because they know there is not enough security at the sanctuary. He urges the government to provide the activists with personal protective equipment so that they continue planting trees and attain the 10 percent forest cover the State is advocating for.
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director General Brig (Rtd) John Waweru says the tourism sector has recorded a 92 percent drop in revenues since March when the first case of COVID19 was detected in the country.
The KWS boss was addressing a webinar organized by Internews in conjunction with the East African Community and World Conservation Union (IUCN) last week.
Waweru says other threats include a drop-in visitors’ numbers by 76 percent, an increase in poaching of endangered species, increased transnational crime through porous borders, escalation in bushmeat poaching and associated crime and increased human-wildlife conflicts due to influx of people in the rural areas. He says they are now planning to use technology to improve security at the parks.
“We are planning to use drowns for surveillance at the parks to stop poaching activities. We are also planning to train our rangers to be multi-skilled and offer different services at the park,” says Waweru.
While addressing the same webinar, Christophe Bazivamo, the Deputy Secretary-General for Productive and Social Sectors in the East African Community (EAC), said the region relies heavily on the abundance and diversity of wildlife to boost its economic growth, earn foreign exchange and creates jobs.
He suggests a number of interventions in the wake of the pandemic, including EAC member states providing stimulus packages for tourism small and medium enterprises (SMEs), community-based conservation initiatives, and promotion of regional and domestic tourism.
Other measures include diversifying conservation revenue streams, strengthening one health platform, and developing protected areas management plans.
The nightmare that is COVID-19 has undoubtedly shaken the world. For persons with disabilities, they have remained invisible.
Ms. Angeline Akai echoes these sentiments. She is a visually impaired person who, until the pandemic showed up, was working as a consultant sensitizing people on the plight of persons with disabilities.
Today, she sits at home with his nephew, jobless. According to the government, she is not an essential service provider and therefore has to work from home, but, no client comes to her at home.
Everyone is skeptical, and, like the Ministry of Health advised, “you should treat everyone as a suspect of COVID-19, hence the need for social distancing.”
For more than three months now, she has not been receiving clients. Her income is no more and her savings are depleting as time goes by.
“I do not like asking for help from friends, but I am afraid I’m now relying on friends, which, I feel is a threat to my dignity,” says Ms. Akai. The government released funds to help the vulnerable but speaking to some of the people with disabilities, they said that they are yet to receive any assistance.
“I have asked my area chief if he has heard of any registration that is ongoing for people like us, but he told me he is not aware of any of such,” says Ms. Akai. If she were to go out, as usual, she will need aid to walk her through the streets of Nairobi, and, her nephew is not one of the options because he is still young. Her vulnerability to unknowingly coming into contact with persons with the coronavirus is high. Ms. Akai is not alone.
Catherine Syokau is a Communication Officer, with a physical disability. Her story is quite different. Unlike Ms. Akai, she still goes to work, but only thrice or twice a week. That means that her productivity, like most Kenyans, has reduced.
“Working from home is a challenge for me, I do not have internet connection so there are some duties that I cannot perform from home,” says Syokau. Her routine when going to work is still the same, only that this time, she has to have a hand sanitizer all the time just to be safe.
At the bus station though, as it has always been for her, she is helped to board the bus to and from work. She, therefore, is at risk of getting too close to people whose viral status, she may not know. She is forced to sanitize her wheelchair so many times as recommended by public health officials. The Nairobi Metropolis put up water points for people to wash their hands while in town as one of the ways of containing the virus.
One thing that unfortunately did not cross their minds, is that people like Ms. Syokau are not privileged to use taps that high. “I cannot wash my hands in town, I only sanitize. What about my fellow vulnerable people who cannot afford sanitizers?” she asks.
Tom Ndede, who works with persons with disabilities, feels that the “hearing impaired are the most neglected people during the ongoing relief items distributions compared to other persons with disabilities.”
Delving deep into the issue, you will understand why that is his intuition and he says the main barrier is communication. Whilst the Ministry of Health briefing could have a sign language interpreter, not everyone has the luxury to watch that, and on radio, communicating to a person with hearing impairment is impossible. They are left out when crucial decisions regarding the pandemic like the curfew are made.
“Sometime back, a young man who is deaf in Kakamega who had not heard about the curfew was beaten up by police because they did not understand his situation,” says Mr. Ndede.
That did not sit well with the members of the deaf community. Their appeal to the chair of the National COVID-19 response team, therefore, is to highlight some of the challenges facing persons with disabilities during the pandemic.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented crisis for the African continent and requires a momentous response if we are to recover from the devastation it has and will cause. Journalists, as part of the personnel at the frontline cannot afford to rest on their laurels as the pandemic ravages the cradle of man.
“Journalists and health rights advocates must come together in solidarity, to be vigilant to monitor resource use by the authorities,” says Sylvia Nakasi of Uganda Network of AIDS Services Organisations.
While addressing journalists from Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe during a cross-border science media café, the advocate noted that journalists must also amplify the need for other services for the good of the community and at the same time preach caution to governments not to hurry to find a vaccine or drugs to the detriment of the health of the public.
The organizations at the forefront of the media café were Zambia Institute of Mass Communication (ZAMCOM) which led its planning and coordination, Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) from Kenya, Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre from Zimbabwe and Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) from Uganda.
Partnerships between journalists, scientists and health experts, said Ms Nakasi, is necessary to ensure the public consumed correct information about Covid-19 in a simple and easy to understand language.
Journalists, she added, need to follow up on whether the resources meant to fight the pandemic are really aiding the interventions or are ending up in people’s pockets.
“Even as you work on your stories, do you ever stop to think about whether the man on the ground actually receives your information in a friendly format in a simple language?” she wondered while vouching for simplicity and accessibility of stories by journalists.
On her part, Ms Zarina Geloo, a veteran science journalist from Zambia asserted that health journalists, particularly those who have covered HIV before occupy a unique position to communicate COVID 19 while applying what has been learnt from covering the former.
She urged journalists to keep their eyes on the big prize by covering all that needs to be communicated to their audience about the virus. As a case in point, she reminded journalists that they must investigate the integrity of the tests being administered by the authorities. High body temperatures can be caused by many other things other than COVID-19.
“As a rule of the thumb, journalists must strive to deliver messages that empower people – use first person stories to illustrate how close and conquerable the virus is,” she asserted.
Ms Geloo, a veteran health journalists, told the audience that it is the work of the health writer to demystify the virus hence community messaging is key pointing out that even experienced writers must go back to the basics and ensure they simplify the messages.
“We need to talk about how we are going to live with it the way we have lived with HIV and make it a manageable disease and we must refocus HIV communication and make it work in the process we normalize it,” she added.
Journalists must not be confused by the science because there are a lot of experts hence they must be wary of the current overload of information. She added that it behoves the journalists to develop knowledge on this disease and continue to rely on the scientists to provide accurate information on what is happening. Finding reputable sources of information, she observed remains the key role of a health journalist and most importantly, “read, and read “and do a lot of research, for experienced hands have come from far and cannot afford to lose the plot on COVID-19.
Further, she said that journalists must understand how the vaccines are being conducted. Are they being done differently with that of HIV vaccine?
“We must stay away from misinformation and stay away from speculation since we do not have the luxury of misinforming our audience,” she concluded.
A scientist on board, Dr. William Kilembe, Project Director, Zambia Emory HIV Research Project said that journalists ought to avoid misunderstanding and miscommunication. He added that they should pass useful information to the public such as the numbers of cases and deaths. Most importantly, he said that it is key for them to give out information on how the public can protect themselves against the virus to avoid its spread.
On May 13, 2020, I was priviledged to attend MESHA’s 20th science café, which to me was just the third in my life. This time round, it was a different experience altogether – it was online! At first, I fidgeted, having not used the software called Zoom before!
My panic was easily solved by the MESHA leadership who gave us what they called a simple tutorial on how to install and navigate to the point of joining the zoom meeting through a link they had provided way before the online science media café!
What else, we had been told that this café would be cross-border, meaning that other countries will also be tuning in together at the same time to listen to a panel of speakers. In the past, the four countries whose support come from avac – Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – held separate cafes at different times with different topics and speakers.
Like magic, I tuned in just on time as the moderator of the day, Mr Chaacha Mwita from Internews, an experienced journalist and editor, welcomed us all on board and introduced the first speaker of the day, Zarina Geloo, an award winning science journalist from Zambia who started by saying that she started reporting on HIV before it was even given a name.
Zarina cautioned journalists to always keep safe while writing and reporting on COVID19. As you start to write on COVID-19, you must be clear on how COVID-19 is or is not transmitted,” she said. She also urged the media to investigate the current testing being done and whether the kits are genuine. She added that journalists need to explain plainly that some of the symptoms such as high body temperature can be brought about by many things and should not be taken as the main symptom and an inclusive of coronavirus.
She pointed out that whereas the media is currently burdened by information overload, it is not an excuse for them to stray and publish or broadcast misleading and wrong facts as authentic professionalism must be held.
“A majority of you has been reporting complex HIV stories and interpreting large amounts of data. This experience must be applied snugly on reportage of COVID-19,” she said.
She went ahead to urge journalists to communicate to their audiences with messages that empower and enable them to understand and accept that the virus will be with us for a long time just like HIV.
She as well said that stigma has developed on COVID-19 patients considering the ways in which the health officers handle them. Fear is injected to the public by how the emergency response teams collect the handle the dead and the speed at which those found positive or are suspected of being positive are driven to either quarantine or isolation centres.
Dr William Kilembe, a Zambian scientist noted that the duration between COVID-19 infection and death is so short that a vaccine should be developed within a shorter period of time. He rubbished the mentality that Africans have hard immunity to COVID-19 and said that hard immunity can only be achieved with a vaccine. Therefore, a vaccine should and must be developed as soon as possible to break the spread of the virus.
Other than Zarina and Dr Kilembe, Ms Sylvia Nakasi of Uganda Network of AIDS Services Organisations also spoke emphasizing on the crucial role partnerships between the media and health advocates like herself play in empowering communities to consume and demand for health information in totality, right from the science to use of physical and financial resources.
Once again, as has happened to me ever since I attended my first science café on vaccines, I left the meeting having learnt that as a journalist, the interactions that I am exposed to, through the science cafes, prepare me for the task ahead, perhaps in the near future, perhaps for a long time to come.
The organizations which put the programme together were Zambia Institute of Mass Communication (ZAMCOM) which led its planning and coordination, Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) from Kenya, Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre from Zimbabwe and Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) from Uganda. The Internews team led by Ida Jooste also played a lead role in the success of this café.