Blocking the good news on malaria
The successful sequencing of two malaria-related genomes has been virtually ignored by the African media. Nothing better indicates the need to enhance science communication on the continent.
Last Friday's issue of the Washington Post carried, like many leading newspapers in developed countries, a prominent story announcing the genetic sequencing of both the parasite that causes malaria and of the mosquito that transmits it to people. All such stories emphasised that the details of the sequence of these two organisms, published in the journals Science and Nature, opens up exciting new avenues for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
In sub-Saharan Africa — home to almost 90 per cent of the 300 million people who are infected by the disease each year — however, the coverage was very different. The front pages of leading newspapers in cities like Kampala and Nairobi continued their coverage of local political stories.
Where the malaria story was mentioned, it was given at most a relatively short story on the inside pages, usually taken from a wire service. Some newspapers did not mention the story at all. Despite its potential relevance to large sectors of the population in the areas reached by these newspapers, there was little of the scientific or medical excitement that had permeated coverage in the developed world.
The explanation — or rather explanations — of this discrepancy lie at a number of levels. One is to do with cultural values. Breakthroughs in any form of science rarely generate significant coverage in the print or television media of developing countries, as they are often seen as remote from either the interests or immediate needs of the readers or viewers. Identification with political stories, in contrast, where the individuals and issues described are local and familiar, is seen as far more relevant.
The values of the broader culture are echoed within the newspaper and broadcasting professions themselves. If science has a low value in society at large, it is little surprise that science journalists find this reflected within their working environment. Few recruits to the profession aspire to specialise in a field where they can seldom, if ever, expect to get front-page exposure, even for a story as potentially significant as the sequencing of malaria-related genomes.
Also, as mentioned previously in this column, there is the question of resources. Thanks partly to easy access to a range of electronic forms of communication, reporters in the developed world enjoy instantaneous access to a wealth of information about new scientific discoveries, and to individuals prepared to comment on their significance. Few reporters in the developing world, however, are able to do this, and thus miss out on the wide range of information available to the press on issues such as last week?s malaria story.
The challenges of exploitation
All these handicaps have serious implications. According to leading Ugandan researcher, Thomas Egwang, the publication of the genomic sequences of the malaria parasite and the mosquito that transmits it, opens up the prospects of a range of new tools for malaria control. At the same time, however, it poses a challenge to African researchers to become active participants in exploiting this information (see Genome sequencing raises malaria hope).
This, in turn, requires convincing their leaders about the importance of investing substantial sums into post-genomic approaches to confronting malaria. The gap is large. Two years ago, 44 out of the 50 countries in Africa that are affected by malaria agreed to support the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) campaign. One of its goals was to ensure that 60 per cent of sufferers get immediate access to treatment. Yet an evaluation of RBM points out the many of the countries that made this commitment have virtually ignored it, and that only a small number have secured the funding and staffing needed to achieve this goal (see Weak leadership threatens anti-malaria drive).
Nothing could highlight more effectively the need for better science communication in Africa and, indeed, the rest of the developing world. Presenting information about new (and relevant) scientific breakthroughs in such countries is not an end in itself. Rather, working through a set of cultural and social processes, it is an essential ingredient in building the political and economic support required to ensure that such breakthroughs are effectively exploited. This is particularly true if developing nations genuinely wish to ensure that this exploitation is done on their own doorsteps, and not by some foreign multinational corporation motivated more by the demands of its shareholders than a desire to relieve suffering.
A role for SciDev.Net Africa
By coincidence, the malaria story 'broke' on the final day of a workshop on science communication organised by SciDev.Net and held in Entebbe, Uganda, last week. One immediate spin-off was that we could organise a competition among the journalists present to write a news story for our own website. Several high quality entries were received — a reflection of the talent that exists (but is frequently ignored) by newspapers in the region — making it difficult to select the eventual winner. Our congratulations go to Kenneth Nwogbo, a journalist at Nigeria's Daily Champion (see 'Genome sequencing raises malaria hope').
The concluding day of the workshop also produced a 'consensus statement' outlining the obstacles faced by science communicators in various professions working in Africa, suggesting the potential contributions that various social and professional groups (including politicians and media 'gatekeepers') could make to improving this situation, and finally listing some concrete measures that could be taken by scientific communicators themselves.
We intend these suggestions to form the backbone for the activities of SciDev.Net Africa — the sub-Saharan regional network of SciDev.Net — that was launched on the first day of the workshop. The relatively modest coverage of the malaria story by the African media underlines the importance of this initiative. As Egwang said in a presentation during the launch, part of the responsibility for moving forward lies with scientists themselves, particularly in a world where, he suggested, "communicate or perish" is becoming one of the requirements of modern research.
Overall responsibility is much broader than that, involving not only scientific institutions and academies, but also professional journalists, information officers, and indeed policy makers at all levels. The first recommendation in the consensus statement is that all African governments should introduce "comprehensive policies and strategies on science communication into their national planning and resource allocation". There are other places to start as well. But this should certainly be one of the top priorities.
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© SciDev.Net 2002