Gbarnga, Bong County – The role of the Liberian media in rolling back the deadly Ebola virus between 2014 and 2015 has left an indelible memory in the minds of experts who are committed to improving the country’s health sector.
The government and partners have often openly admitted that without the media the scourge of the disease could have been far more catastrophic. For now, building a resilient health sector with the help of the media is an initiative the government and partners say they are committed to achieving. Although achieving a new investment plan to build a resilient health sector will heavily involve the media, experts say there has been significant progress made recently between the health sector and the media. But some reckons the approach should have been considered years ago even before hit West Africa. “This is what we should have done many years back; we realized the gap and are anxious to bridge the gap,” says Dr. Samson Arzoacquoi, Acting Assistant Minister for Preventive Services at the Ministry of Health (MoH). As the health officer of Bong County during the outbreak, Dr. Arzoacquoi recalled the graved mistakes made in the past by ignoring the role of the media in Liberia’s public health plan. But he admitted that there have been significant corrections made. “Recent happenings in the health sector underpinned the pivotal role the media plays in strengthening the health sector,” he added. Dr. Arzoacquoi, who is also the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Liberia, was speaking to over 50 Liberian journalists from Nimba, Lofa, Bong, Margibi and Grand Bassa Counties at a one day risk communication media training workshop held in Gbarnga, Bong County. With support from the World Health Organization (WHO), the training was organized by the Division of Health Promotion of the MoH to further strengthen the health sector partnership with community radio reporters in promoting health journalism especially as a proposal to build a resilient health system is being considered. Expected to be effective by 2021, the plan focuses on several health issues including nine key thematic areas and if implemented will address the country’s public health challenge by making the system robust. Lecturing journalists during a one-day event, Dr. Arzoaacquoi said the key aspects of the plan focuses on competent and trained health practitioners, reengineering health facilities across the country, improving strong surveillance and effective response, attained capacity to provide medical supplies and diagnostic facilities as well as assuring quality services to rekindle the public’s confidence in the health system. He also mentioned sustained community engagement, revitalized information and research communication system to ascertain facts about progress and lapses, leadership and governance of the sector and sustained health financing as other major aspects that the new health plan captures. Dr. Arzoacquoi thanked WHO and partners for realizing the important role of the media to the health sector and recalled how the media cooperated effectively with the sector during the outbreak when misinformation led to myths and misconceptions that consequently worsen the crisis. “The quality of information is so important,” he said. “Not just about disseminating the information but weighing the information.” The former Bong County Health Officer also encouraged reporters to consider the implication of what they published or broadcasted. Speaking on behalf of the WHO, Lugaga Liliane said the sector will struggle if it doesn’t partner with the media while calling for improve and continue partnership with Liberian media practitioners. “We have hope in the media…; if we don’t partner with you we will not move forward,” she told participants. Meanwhile, Dr. Gabriel Logan, Bong County Health Officer, said the government is aware of the International Health Regulations (IHR) adopted in 2005 which calls for countries to notify and response to public health threats and he inferred that risk communication is a vital component of the IHR and essential to public health response. He also emphasized the need for the health sector to coordinate with the media saying: “risk communication is a process that helps minimize death, disease, and disability and this is done by engaging the public through rapid and transparent information exchange.” Speaking earlier just before the start of the training the President of the Press Union of Liberia, Kamara A. Kamara applauded the MoH and the WHO for embarking on such training and requested that more health reporting trainings are conducted for journalists across the country saying: “the coverage of the health sector can get better if the journalists are knowledgeable.” He referenced the significant role of community radio stations during the Ebola crisis and added that once community radios know how to communicate risky issues the communities will often be safe.