March 22

Urvashi Prasad

From Radio Jingles to Cricket Matches – You Have to Pass the Word to Heal the World

I once met a 21-year old tuberculosis (TB) patient who, despite being fully curable, was unwilling to initiate his treatment because he did not want anyone to know about his condition. TB is one of the oldest human diseases and can be cured if detected on time, allowing the patient to lead a normal life thereafter. Despite this, there is considerable social stigma attached to the disease. In fact, overcoming stigma is a major challenge in public health; it affects people suffering not just from TB, but from various conditions like HIV/AIDS, mental health, cancer and blood disorders. One of the important reasons for persistent stigma is limited knowledge about these diseases, including routes of transmission, symptoms and available treatment.

Effective communication must therefore be a critical part of any public health program.

There have been some notable communications efforts in the public health space over the years. The R UV UGLY campaign by Cancer Research UK successfully highlighted the dangers of sunbed use. Similarly, Amitabh Bachchan, India’s most famous movie actor, was able to influence a large number of families to get their children vaccinated against polio which played a vital role in the eradication of the disease from the country. The HIV communication campaign in India was an example of a successful collaboration between the government and external agencies in delivering messages about culturally sensitive subjects like sexuality.

I was involved in a campaign that focused on making parents and children aware of the need for and benefits of deworming, before the mass deworming rounds conducted by state governments in India in 2012. A comprehensive communication strategy targeting the local communities where the program was being implemented was designed. It is often assumed that if there is a problem and a solution, people who are suffering will clamor for the solution. However, the reality is that people need to be educated about the risks and benefits before their buy-in can be obtained.

Evidence Action’s Deworm the World initiative developed a communications strategy to address the questions of parents about the benefits of deworming as well as any potential risks associated with it. The campaign message was disseminated through press conferences, radio jingles, posters, street plays and sporting events. They also leveraged existing structures in the community like parent-teacher associations and school management committees. The messages were simple and presented in an attractive manner to catch the attention of all stakeholders. The campaign was a great example of a collaboration between the public relations department of state governments and a technical agency with expertise in designing such communications efforts around the world.

Important lessons can be learned from the success of these campaigns. All of them defined their audiences very precisely. For instance, the R UV UGLY campaign targeted the influenced (sunbed users between 16 and 18 years old) as well as the influencers (parents and siblings between 28 and 44 years old). All these campaigns used a range of communications strategies to effectively reach out to diverse audiences. They also ensured that the key message of the campaign was available through every possible channel including print media, television and radio. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that they simplified the messages in a manner such that information about relatively complex subjects was accessible to people from all backgrounds.

Public health messaging must be tailored to appeal to a wide range of audiences. While the use of celebrities is often helpful, a suite of communication strategies should be developed which can allow for dissemination of information through various mediums. In a remote village, for instance, a community radio might be the only channel through which local residents receive information.

In order to tackle social stigma, it is also vital that campaigns focus on dispelling common myths and misconceptions. For instance, while it is fairly common knowledge that TB affects the lungs, not many people are aware that it can also affect a number of body parts other than the lungs. It is this lack of awareness that has allowed stigma about diseases like TB to persist for hundreds of years.

Finally, it is important that dedicated and consistent funding is available for public health communications from the government, donor agencies and other stakeholders. While a lot of focus in the health sector is on infrastructure, doctors and medicines, communication should not be neglected. Without effective messaging, limited awareness, persistent stigma and lack of buy-in from local communities will continue to hamper the success of public health programs around the world.


Photo: Red Ribbon Express was an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign run in collaboration with Indian Railways.


Urvashi Prasad

Health Care
infectious diseases, public health