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[LILONGWE, Malawi] Public health practitioners in Malawi are using information and communication technology (ICT) to more effectively inform and educate the people on health issues such as family planning, child health and malaria prevention.

A team from the US-based Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs (JHU-CCP) is pioneering a mass communication programme locally known as Moyo ndi Mpamba (Life is Precious) to address health issues and analyse feedback through mobile phone short message service (SMS) and Facebook.

Its promoters say the innovative and interactive Moyo ndi Mpamba programme is evidence-based and addresses relevant health problems facing Malawians, including poor attendance at antenatal clinics, poor nutrition, inconsistent use of insecticide-treated bednets because of fears about their safety, and poor hygiene practices due to low risk perception of diarrhoeal diseases.

“Radio has a comparative advantage in terms of feedback and reaching out to wider audiences at once.”

Henry Chimbali, Malawi’s ministry of health

The United States Agency for International Development is funding the five-year programme running from 2013 to 2018 for US$100 million.  

JHU-CCP team leader Chancy Mauluka is showcasing Moyo ndi Mpamba at the 10th e-Learning Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this week (20-22 May).

Mauluka says the project has reached 55 per cent of its target audience, leveraging on audience phone and social media habits to develop an effective education and entertainment communication tool to solve public health issues in Malawi.

“Alternative feedback platforms could have been letters and phone calls, but letters take long to arrive, and phone calls are way more expensive than SMS,” Mauluka explains “The Facebook platform allows audience members to interact, sparking interpersonal discussions that expand into communities.”

 The radio drama series’ main objective is to stimulate interpersonal communication around health issues, Mauluka adds.

Education and entertainment as deployed in the programme provide social models the audience can identify with and learn from.

According to Mauluka, listeners follow the drama characters in their daily lives, the challenges they face and how they address or cope with them.

“There is evidence that direct messages have very little impact on people’s behaviours. People learn and take actions by direct personal experience or by observing others,” Mauluka says. Winston Mwale, the chief reporter at Zodiak Broadcasting Station, which airs the programme, says most Malawians have opted for SMS and Facebook as valuable technology to capture key issues on development such as health because these platforms are cheap and more accessible.

Henry Chimbali, Malawi’s ministry of health spokesperson for HIV prevention and behaviour change, says the programme  is increasing awareness and promoting uptake of health sector services, as the country faces serious public health problems due to lack of understanding about the disease and correct behaviours to prevent its spread. 

Moyo ndi Mpamba has popularised services such as family and maternal planning, malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation. Radio has a comparative advantage in terms of feedback and reaching out to wider audiences at once. It is a well-designed concept that continues to change and shape Malawians on their perception about health issues," Chimbali adds.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.