Until recently, the discipline of communication has operated at the periphery of public health. Communication was perceived as more skill than science, and equated only with dissemination of findings.
Fortunately today, many public health leaders realise that promoting health and protecting the public requires both sound science and effective public health communication. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical importance of credible information and communication in public health emergency response, as it was essential to disseminate lifesaving information to enable to people take precautionary measures to keep themselves and their communities safe.
Many countries like those in Africa were left battling not only the epidemic but also an infodemic of misinformation. The consequence of this misinformation, amongst others, was poor public confidence and acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine, contributing to the difficulties in achieving optimal vaccination coverage.
Learning lessons from the pandemic, African governments must prioritise the role of communication not only in tackling public health emergencies but also in providing sustainable access to credible, evidence-based public health information for better healthcare in Africa.
What is public health communication?
Public health communication is the scientific development, strategic dissemination, and critical evaluation of relevant, accurate, accessible, and understandable health information communicated to and from intended audiences to advance the health of the public. It draws from many theories and disciplines, including social cognitive and communication theories, marketing, and public relations.
Public health communication is inherently interventionist, seeking to promote and protect health through change at all levels of influence. When well conceived, carefully implemented, and sustained over time, public health communication programs can elicit change among individuals and populations by raising awareness, increasing knowledge, shaping attitudes, and changing behaviours.
For example, health communication campaigns have helped to reduce the stigma around HIV and AIDS, making it easier to convince people to get tested. Public health communication can also describe healthy skills, such as performing monthly self-breast exams, and demonstrate the benefits of adopting new, healthier behaviours. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s campaign featuring real people’s stories of living with smoking-related diseases prompted many people to quit smoking.
Strengthening public health communication in Africa- Bloom Public Health case study
Misinformation and disinformation are critical public health problems in Africa. Unless African governments make concerted efforts to create a robust and clear flow of communication from public health institutions to the community level, misinformation and disinformation will continue to be a significant challenge, particularly in responding to public health emergencies. To address this problem, appropriate partnerships with the media, government institutions, technology platforms, and other social media platforms must be established, promoted, and sustained at all levels.
These platforms are critical in disseminating accurate health information and preventing the spread of misinformation. For example, digital media is becoming an increasingly used tool for public health communication. The #HealthFactCheckNaija project implemented by the Nigeria Health Watch during the COVID-19 pandemic has been helpful in targeting different audiences to debunk misinformation using comics, infographics and videos to ensure engagement.
It is, however, important to note that modern communication channels are less accessible to rural populations in Africa and their mechanisms are poorly understood. According to the World Bank, only approximately 36% of the Nigerian population use the internet. Thus, community engagement is a critical component of public health communication in Africa. Capacity building at the local level is necessary to ensure that community influencers -traditional, community and religious leaders with wide-reaching impact and influence in their communities- are effectively engaged in implementing public health communication programs.
Bloom Public Health case study
Drawing lessons from the pandemic on the need to strengthen public health communication in Africa, Bloom Public Health, an indigenous public health think tank in Africa, began in January 2022 to publish weekly public health articles in the Business Day Newspaper, Nigeria, reaching thousands of people.
The articles shed light on priority public health issues in Africa, focusing on Bloom Public Health’s four core pillars: Supply Chain Management, Pharmaceutical Quality Systems, Laboratory Strengthening and Diagnostics, and Policy for Public Health.
These articles disseminate public health information to all stakeholders within the public health sector. From the policymakers who are shaping the rules and regulations that govern healthcare in Africa, to the African citizens who desire to increase their health awareness and educate themselves on pertinent public health issues.
They highlight imminent health threats, while also advocating for the adoption of behaviours that promote good health, such as regular exercise, nutrition, and stress-reduction; avoiding dangerous substances like carcinogens or other toxic materials; seeking opportunities for early screening and diagnosis for serious health problems; and availing the best available healthcare services, when appropriate, to minimise harm. Ultimately, the articles are a call to action on the crucial role we all must play to achieve “health for all” in Africa.
In Conclusion: The field of public health communication is poised for a period of rapid expansion globally. Africa must therefore leverage on the potential of public health communication to make significant contributions to the health of the public, not only during emergencies but also by promoting behaviours and choices that positively affect people’s general well-being and everyday lives.