River blindness campaign shows role of media in solving problems

Ivermectin

A box containing a bottle of Ivermectin, a medicine used in the treatment of river blindness.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The mass media also helped in conveying accurate essential information to the communities at risk.
  • No doubt, without media involvement the OCP could not have mobilised the level of support that it did.


For more than 28 years, the international media played a critical role in highlighting the plight of communities affected by onchocerciasis (river blindness) and in helping to mobilise philanthropic support and funding for initiatives to combat it. 

I was privileged to be associated with this programme when I worked with UNDP.

In the early 1970s, of the 30 million people in the West African tropical and savannah areas, 2.25 million had this terrible disease and 100,000 people were blind. The black fly, the vector for the disease, limited access to land for farming, causing serious food shortages.

The Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP) was rolled out in 11 countries between 1974 and 2002. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, it was stopped in the 1990s by civil war. Its success was because of champions like the late Robert McNamara, the then-World Bank president, Dr Rosy Vegaloss of the pharmaceutical company Merck and a team of international health scientists and experts. 

McNamara used the power of the media and his position to persuade and convince three UN agencies — UNDP, WHO and FAO — to join in the initiative. They mobilised and attracted financial support for the programme from donors and other partners.

Influential role of the media

Their success was largely influenced by the actions and impact of the print and electronic media. International heavyweight dailies such as the New York Times (USA), the Financial Times (UK), The Guardian (UK) and the Los Angeles Times (USA) assigned reporters to cover the story — a rare instance of good news from the developing world, especially Africa.

The encouraging reports filed by various media on the OCP activities and Mectizan (ivermectin), the new medicine for river blindness, helped to change public opinion and gain support for the programme.

Press releases, aides’ memoirs, features and stories were shared with the media by the four agencies along with non-governmental organisations, foundations and charities. Print, television and the then-new platform, the internet, were used to solicit for funds from the public and private sector.

In 1987, when Merck wanted to use their new drug to treat onchocerciasis, the Houston Chronicle (USA) carried a story, which caught the eye of multi-millionaire John Jay Moores. According to the work of Professor Hugh Taylor, this led to Moores not only to contributing $25 million (Sh2.5 billion) for the distribution of the drug but also establishing the River Blindness Foundation to support OCP.

Another influential role of the media was in their transparent presentation of the OCP’s financial management until the end.

Involvement of the media

Documentary films such as Source of Hope, on the OCP’s work, won the Care Golden Eagle award and a Silver World Medal at the New York Festival in 2003. Another, Mara, the Look of the Lion, co-sponsored by France and WHO, also won several awards. 

The mass media also helped in conveying accurate essential information to the communities at risk and helped in training community health extension workers. The involvement of the media helped to overcome suspicions harboured by some communities that ivermectin was a poison sent by politicians whom they had voted against.

No doubt, without media involvement the OCP could not have mobilised the level of support that it did. Through its coverage, the media was able to maintain the level of awareness, sympathy and understanding of not only the participating countries but also donors, sponsors and supporters.

Its role in the OCP shows the potential of the media as a critical partner in resource mobilisation for all development projects in Africa. River blindness is just one of a host of problems — such as medical, social and environmental — afflicting Africa, and the world.

In the search for solutions, remember the proverb, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan”. In the quest for success, the media have a role to play — a responsibility even — in bringing attention to these issues and illuminating the importance of efforts to combat them. In this age of the internet and social media, the big media houses, especially in Africa, must ensure that their reporting is both accurate and critical.

Dr Kakonge (PhD) is a former Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Kenya to the UN Office and WTO in Geneva. [email protected]

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