CONVERGING IMPACT: NTV and Daily Nation join forces on health policy coverage

Sep 112010
  • Reporters from Daily Nation and NTV visit Webuye Hospital in Kenya to cover diarrheal disease in children.

If this looks like a tightly cropped shot, it really isn't. The actual room where this scene took place was only about a 10 by 8 foot space tucked away in a back office at Webuye Hospital, Bungoma District, about two hours from Kisumu, Kenya.

This setting mirrors hundreds of hospitals and clinics in Western Kenya, where every day, thousands of children develop severe symptoms of diarrheal disease. It happens because they live in villages and towns where there’s scarce access to clean water. It happens because parents don’t know the potentially devastating consequences of something as simple as washing your hands after using the toilet. It happens because long-standing cultural practices leave children vulnerable to misguided “remedies” for the early signs of dehydration and prolonged dehydration.

The result? Diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death for children in Western Kenya, after malaria. It’s actually the number three cause of death for all Kenyan children. And it’s one of a host of diseases in developing countries like Kenya that in theory are preventable. Getting that theory to reality is one of the most daunting challenges for every developing country in the world.

Incidentally, this scene also represents one of MY most daunting challenges…trying to forge a sense of cooperation between two major entities for my host organization, Nation Media Group. It’s the largest media house in East and Central Africa, and likely in the top ten of the entire continent. After years of working with journalists from tiny, poorly-funded media houses during my years of journalism training, landing at Nation Centre in downtown Nairobi was almost like winding up at the “New York Times of Sub Saharan Africa!

But that created another problem. While smaller operations are literally run on a wing and a prayer, and every staffer has to be prepared to fill in when something goes wrong, Nation Media Group is comprised of 8 media platfoms that operate completely separately, in classic silo-structure. In other words, the Daily Nation newspaper usually doesn’t collaborate with NTV unless it’s a major story like a political scandal, a monumental event like the recent vote on a new constitution, or a lauded sporting event.

So when I proposed having Daily Nation reporter Stella Cherono work jointly with NTV producer/reporter Ouko Okusah to cover the launch of a new government policy to treat children with diarrheal disease, I almost expected to be instantly shot down. Sure, I’ve done plenty of work to get Daily Nation editors accept and appreciate my insights about including more health coverage in the paper, but introducing an element of cooperation with the “TV Guys,” was another matter. Similarly, NTV airtime for features is jealously, carefully meted out, and health issues have to fight it out regularly.

That’s why I was thrilled when both Daily Nation and NTV editors endorsed the idea of producing stories about the new policy, and running them on the same day. The Daily Nation story would hit the morning newsstands with a tag urging readers to watch the NTV story later that evening. Again, in theory, it seems like a relatively simple technique that exponentially increases the ability to educate the public about a health issue.

I was aided in this task by a chance meeting with Polycarp Otieno, the media officer from PATH Kenya. Seattle based PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology for Health) has operated in Kenya for nearly 20 years, and is working on HIV/AIDS, child nutrition and TB projects, among its broad portfolio of projects. PATH works closely with the Kenyan Ministry of Health, keeping officials informed of the progress of their many health access related projects throughout the Western province.

So when Polycarp told me about the official launch of an integrated strategy to maximize treatment and education about diarrheal disease in children, I quickly realized it would create an opportunity to focus on a positive, proactive step taken by the government about an urgent health need.

PATH has been implementing Oral Rehydration Therapy centers in medical facilities for the past few years, in keeping with WHO 2004 guidelines for treating kids with two recent advances-an improved formulation of Oral Rehydration Solution and the use of zinc supplements.

And here’s where those seemingly cramped spaces are a stroke of genius. On the day I visited Webuye with Stella and Ouko, 10 babies and their mothers were receiving a powerful mixture of ORT and education. The babies received that restorative liquid, but their mothers learned how to spot the signs of dehydration before they worsened. They learned that they must wash their own hands often after using the toilet, and after tending to soiled diapers. But even more intriguingly, many of them learned that contrary to what they may have learned from their own mothers, you don’t stop feeding a baby or giving them liquids if they have diarrhea. That’s a common practice in Western Kenya, and yet when the baby arrives at urgent care near death’s door, there’s no time to admonish or educate the mother about the need to think differently.

Now, instead of automatically hooking weak, dehydrated babies up to costly IV drips, where they and their mothers will log at least one overnight stay, medical staffers can offer a less expensive treatment for kids who aren’t severely dehydrated.

Officials say the average visit in one of the 31 ORT centers at Western Kenya hospitals is about 4 hours. That’s long enough for medical staff to see if the baby improves, but it’s also enough time to drive the message home to moms. The payoff is potentially huge: for example, in November of 2008, 88 children were admitted at Webuye Hospital for diarrheal disease. In 2009, after the steady adoption of PATH program strategy, that number dropped to 7 children.

It's that kind of evidence-based public health practice that made Kenyan health officials adopt ORT as practical solution for improving the lives of Kenyan children. It’s also what made me think it was the perfect story to pitch as a joint project. There’s still a bit of a slog towards actually seeing it come to fruition. For example, last week it was impossible to get anything unrelated to the adoption of Kenya's new Constitution into the paper or on the airwaves. But I’m incredibly encouraged by the response so far.

Editor's Note: Fellow Rachel Jones encourages NTV and Daily Nation to work together on covering health stories in Kenya.