Behind the Numbers: Reporter Puts a “Face” on TB in Ethiopia

May 32012

Reporting on tuberculosis (TB) has always been of particular interest to Tesfamichael Afework, one of the press officers at the Federal Ministry of Health in Ethiopia. He has done several stories about TB in the past, but not like this one. He is now compiling a story on the results of a nationwide population-based “TB Prevalence Survey” that aims to determine just how widespread the disease has been here in Ethiopia.

After she contracted tuberculosis, Bekelu Abate says her weight dropped from 130 pounds to just over 100. Now, following the government's treatment plan, she's put 12 pounds back on and is feeling better.

As a Knight International Journalism Fellow working in Ethiopia to improve health reporting coverage, I get to work with press officers at the Ministry of Health to help them better understand and compile information for the health stories they are covering. Consequently, Tesfamichael and I have discussed the importance of storytelling with a “human face” while he is producing his television show on the results of the survey.

The survey shows the number of people who tested positive for TB dropped by more than 50 percent, from 579 per 100,000 to 265. Since the results show that the prevalence of TB has declined below what the World Health Organization estimated, the numbers are being echoed by many media organizations in the country.

However, reporting facts and figures in a manner that lets ordinary people understand them has been a challenge for many of the health journalists. Tesfamichael was keen to explore the implications of the survey results in the day-to-day life of ordinary people. As a result, he traveled from Addis Ababa to Debre Birhan, about 75 miles from the capital city, where he met Bekelu Abate, a TB patient who was diagnosed by health extension workers and sent to the nearby health post for medical treatment.

Bekelu did not know about the survey and its results. “What matters for me is I am able to get free TB treatment,” she says. Like many other people, Bekelu has gotten sufficient information about TB, but didn’t realize that it’s curable, or that its treatment in all health centers is free of charge.

Bekelu has suffered greatly with the stigma of TB as symptoms -- including coughing and weight loss -- were noticed. Neighbors automatically believed that she was HIV-positive without knowing her status. Bekelu has been taking her TB treatment for about 2 months now and feels much better. She has gained weight and says, “I stand before you all looking healthy.” Bekelu is also grateful for health extension workers in her locality who helped her to get free medical treatment.

State Minister for Health Dr. Kesetebirhan Admassu says the results of the survey indicate that the Ministry of Health’s TB program has been a great success. He explains that the involvement of health extension workers in identifying and referring suspected TB cases to nearby health centers has been vital to the program. The survey shows that 84 percent of TB patients in Ethiopia have gotten access to medical services.

Examining figures in the survey report, Tesfamichael is still demanding a response to the question, “Will Ethiopia successfully achieve health targets of the Millennium Development Goals?”

Dr. Kesetebirhan says, “The country has already achieved 70 percent of WHO’s health target goals in controlling prevalence of TB, and 84 percent of TB patients have access to medical services.” He adds a lot has to be done in fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS, and to improve maternal-child health so that Ethiopia will successfully achieve MDGs and health targets.

Tesfamichael is wisely watching to see if Ethiopia is moving forward in combating TB as well as other health priorities, HIV/AIDS and Malaria, in order to attain health targets of the MDGs by 2015.