African Journalists Trained on Reporting Public Health Emergencies

Trainings on reporting public health emergencies are hard to come by – at least in sub-Saharan Africa. The recent Ebola crisis in West Africa revealed many lessons – especially during the initial stages – on how not to report and handle public emergencies.

When it comes to reporting this delicate area, journalists in many parts of the continent are often left to their own approaches with no reference point. When it comes to public health emergencies little nuances in the use of language can be a matter of life and death to large populations.

Aware of the gap that exists in this area, the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) in collaboration with the World Health Organizations (WHO) and the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) organized a training on Public Health Emergencies in Nairobi for 20 journalists drawn from Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Dr. Jemimah Mwakisha of WHO, Kenya  outlined  the frequency and magnitude of  Public Health Emergencies and attributed it to factors such as late detection and response, increased movements of people, expansion of international trade, social and climate changes and community resistance in Africa as the major factors fueling the rise. Dr. Mwakisha spoke on: Procedures in communicating information to Journalists & the Public during Emergencies.

“The African region faced on average 100 public health events every year between 2011 and 2014 with 46 countries out of 47 reporting at least one public health emergency and 17 countries out of 47 reporting at least ten public health emergencies,” Dr Mwakisha said. At least 28,000 Ebola cases were reported in West Africa with at least 12,000 deaths reported.

“How we communicate shapes the way the world sees a threat or a risk, and whether people care,” Mwakisha told the participants.

Effective communication helps people overcome fear, anxiety and reduce feelings of vulnerability. It helps communities understand the risks, deal with and survive the problem as well as help people make decisions, she reiterated. The media, she noted, is a key stakeholder who can greatly help share information and create better understanding of an emergency and they need to be well briefed to perform this role.

Public health practitioners must be able to recognize the utility of media while concurrently identifying what it cannot do. This is borne of a clear understanding of the capabilities and challenges that journalists face, said Dr Pamela Njuguna of the Kenya Medical Women’s Association.

“A more productive engagement can be achieved with health professionals having a better understanding of how health news is created within the media.  This knowledge can aid public health professionals in working with, rather than against, the media,” Dr. Pamela noted.

Journalists routinely attempt to balance different and sometimes competing aims amid significant operational constraints. Specialist medical reporters have much greater autonomy and capacity to produce and advocate for quality health stories, Dr Pamela added.

MESHA Chair Violet Otindo asked journalists to be careful with numbers while reporting public health emergencies.

Article by Kiprotich Koros, MESHA Coordinator


The two-day workshop on Covering Public Health Emergencies in Nairobi, Kenya (10-11 Dec, 2015) was organized with local partner and host MESHA and thanks to the financial support from the World Health Organisation (WHO). The workshop was attended by journalists from Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The above article was written by one of the participants.