Don’t be Afraid to Ask: Addressing Health Questions in Post-Ebola Guinea

A radio program built on the success of its Ebola coverage to create a model for broader health reporting

During the Ebola outbreak that hit Guinea between 2013 and 2015, the nation’s attention was focused on the epidemic. Internews launched Ebola Chrono, a radio news program that covered prevention and treatment of Ebola. More than 300 daily programs, in French and local languages, were produced and disseminated for broadcast on 40 radio stations.

Journalist Mohamed Bah, at right, conducts an interview. Credit: Internews

Survey Shows Strong Influence of Ebola Chrono

In February, a survey showed that over 90% of the respondents who listened to Ebola Chrono found the show useful. They particularly liked the information that was provided and the interviews with ordinary people. How to prevent Ebola was the key benefit they got from listening to the program. 80% said that Ebola Chrono influenced behavior on how they looked after their health and the way they protected themselves from Ebola.

Moving on from Ebola

During the Ebola outbreak, Guinea’s underdeveloped health system was overwhelmed; many people stopped seeing doctors for routine issues. Health concerns other than Ebola were largely neglected and widely under-reported. As the Ebola crisis became contained, reporters at Ebola Chrono sought to raise health awareness by connecting medical expertise to questions raised by the local community and expanding their successful program into a new one, Ebola Chrono Plus, covering broader health issues.

Covering Issues Such as Sickle Cell Anemia

Dr. Mamady Drame has been practicing medicine for over 40 years, including a long stint in Paris. He has a wide range of medical interests, but earlier this year he was focused on drépanocytose, or sickle cell anemia. According to Drame, “It is the most expensive condition to get treatment for in Guinea, and there is no state funding.”

Dr. Drame broke off his morning consultations to talk to Ebola Chrono Plus reporter Mohamed Bah, who worked on a special segment on sickle cell disease. Another reporter, Sidigbe Conde, interviewed a patient about living with the condition.

Mohamed Bah’s brief was to interview Dr. Drame as the designated L’invite du jour, or “Guest of the day,” supplying medical context and an overview of how Guinea is coping (or not) with an expanding sickle cell problem. Luckily for Mohamed, Dr. Drame was an enthusiastic interviewee. A planned 10-minute chat turned into 40 minutes. Drame gave a detailed biological explanation of the deformed, crescent-shaped red blood cells that impair the blood flow and lead to anemia. He described the symptoms that can help identify sickle cell disease and the need for couples to know their hemoglobin types and how a mismatched combination of genes can make their child vulnerable to the condition.

Mohamed remarked that this interview strongly affected him.

“I knew about the disease; I have talked to people who have it. But I never knew it was on the scale it is in Guinea or how difficult the treatment can be. You learn new things every day in this job. Each medical topic has its own particularities.”

Stimulating a national conversation about health

As part of its support for local radio stations across Guinea, Internews provided guidance on how best to cover health issues in greater depth. The will is there, according to senior Internews trainer Jeremie Soupou, but there are problems of resources and confidence. “Often stations will have a health program in their line-up, but too often they fall back on just having a doctor, usually the same one, in the studio for an hour,” Soupou points out. “It does not make for great radio. What is really revealing is that radio journalists simply are not used to going out and reporting.”

Trainer Jeremie Soupou edits stories with a group of journalists in Labé. Credit: Internews

Ebola Chrono and Ebola Chrono Plus encouraged reporters to go on a mission outside Conakry and to file regular stories from around the capital. From the outset, Ebola Chrono sought to be interactive in its coverage of Ebola and other health issues. A late addition to the show’s running order was A Vous la parole, or “Over to you,” in which listeners were invited to call in with medical questions, while the team found doctors to give accessible, straightforward replies.

Reporter Sidigbe Conde frequently took charge of the slot. “I like producing A Vous La Parole because I get to talk to people about the health problems that trouble them,” Sidigbe says. “Often, they want something explained, but don’t know where to get an answer. People are often reluctant to go to hospital, so they end up taking advice from strangers, or just trying out different types of medication. With A Vous La Parole they could get the answers they want.”

But the answers do have to be straightforward and accessible, not least because they are going out to a mass audience, often tuning in to a local language version of the show.

As Sidigbe points out, “Experts can often use very technical terms, which even as health journalists we do not understand, so how will ordinary people get any benefit from their answers?”

Health Services open up to media

Ebola Chrono Plus reporters have seen a change in Guinea’s health media. Prior to joining the Internews’ reporting team, Mohamed had worked extensively in print and radio, covering politics, culture and sport. He does not regret the switch to health journalism. Covering Ebola in Guinea gave him unique contact with those who had been infected by the virus, while he also saw Guinea’s beleaguered health service finally opening up to the media.

The need for quality health information, on issues from tuberculosis to the Zika virus, continues. Survey respondents indicated they still want greater information on Ebola, as well.

And access for journalists is still not perfect, Mohamed concedes. “You will still get people who want to refer everything to their boss before speaking. That bureaucratic culture is still there. But now I can pick up the phone to the World Health Organization, or someone like that, and they will take me seriously.”


Marjorie Rouse is Internews Senior Vice President for Programs.