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Communication Bill Brieger | 15 Mar 2012 03:21 am

Malaria Misinformation

Many malaria partner organizations depend on the media to disseminate malaria information and generate support for their programs. And yet, unless the malaria organization itself issues carefully crafted press releases, interaction with the media can be challenging.

dscn0974-news-sm.jpgThis week has seen two examples of the media getting it wrong on malaria-related stories. The first came from the Yemen Post from where reports of an impending malaria and polio vaccination campaign emerged. This was later clarified to be measles and polio, but not before many people wondered ongoing research on malaria vaccines had become operationalized so quickly.

A newspaper in Nairobi issued the second questionable story.  Supposedly a study had been issued that showed less than half the people in Nyanza were using their insecticide treated nets properly.  The Nairobi Star  said that people were not using nets because of taboos or were using them to protect their gardens. It is not that net misuse does not happen, but the scale that was reported, 51%, was startling.

In short order it was revealed that no such study had been done, but that the press had relied on anecdotal reports from a community group.  In fact health researchers familiar with the area, on reading the story raised another important issue – because there are no proper plans for disposal of old nets, it is possible some people were re-purposing those, not the new nets.

Mosquito misinformation is quite common. The press in Ghana often reports on the activities of sanitation companies and local government councils who are engaging in environmental management of vector breeding and claims this is malaria control. Their efforts to clear garbage and dirty gutters are commendable, but this work is aimed at other mosquitoes, not anopheles who tend to breed in clear, sunlit collections of water.

Malaria endemic countries often have many national and local newspapers, but this does not mean that they have adequate strength in professionally trained science and health journalists, who can spot the problems noted above, or at least be curious enough to check the facts.

Most times these stories go unread by the malaria community, but occasionally they can cause confusion and embarrassment when they misrepresent program activities. Monitoring the press after such stories are published is not the answer. Working with the press to help them understand malaria technical issues and activities is recommended.

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