Can the sun cause malaria? Red Cross volunteers strive to dispel traditional beliefs in Côte d’Ivoire

Published: 11 August 2016 9:30 CET

By Ombretta Baggio, IFRC

It is a hot and busy Saturday morning in Abidjan and volunteers with the Red Cross Society of Côte d’Ivoire are preparing for their live radio show on Radio Amitie’, a community radio station in the capital.

The topic this week is malaria, but today the volunteers will not talk only about the usual malaria prevention messages, they will also tackle some of the strongest traditional beliefs existing in communities.

Ulrich Kouame is the radio presenter and a Red Cross volunteer. He explains that, “many people strongly believe that you will get malaria if you stay in the sun for a long time or if you eat a lot of mangoes.”

These are some of the beliefs and perceptions that are entrenched in communities in Côte d’Ivoire where malaria remains one of the most pressing public health issues and accounts for 40 per cent of patients in health centres.

Kone Amy, the other volunteer in the radio programme is also leading group discussions in communities reached by radio. She says, “convincing communities to use mosquito nets does not really help unless we tackle the roots of their beliefs, understand why they are so rooted in their way of thinking, and discuss the true causes with them.”

According to a study undertaken by the Red Cross in 30 locations in December 2015, almost 78 per cent of people in Cote d’Ivoire know that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. However, around 12 per cent still think that hot sun can cause malaria. Thirty-six per cent know at least three symptoms of malaria, and only 14 per cent can mention at least three ways to avoid it.

In a bid to find a different and better way to communicate with and engage communities in Côte d’Ivoire, the Red Cross launched a risk communication and community engagement project in September 2015. It seeks to engage communities through dialogue with the view to enable them to voice their needs, debate rumours, and address cultural beliefs that are preventing them from fighting against prevalent diseases in the country, namely malaria, cholera, and meningitis. Their beliefs could also be blurring the resolve of communities in preventing Ebola.

The power of radio

Since over 50 per cent of the population relies on radio for their information, the Red Cross has invested heavily in working with this powerful communication channel to develop a comprehensive approach that uses community group discussions to feed weekly radio debates.

“Every week volunteers gather to examine the community discussions, revise all data collected, as well as questions asked and rumours spreading in the community,” explains Franck Gaba, the beneficiary communications/community engagement coordinator at the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire. He says it is based on these analyses and the community information needs, that they prepare a radio programme which normally airs the voices of the community and those of health experts.

Media platforms such as radio, can communicate preventive, life-saving and risk-mitigating information rapidly and efficiently during emergencies. Paired up with community engagement strategies, radio programmes allow for effective behavioural and social change through Red Cross interventions that are centred on community participation.

In as much as proper messaging and solutions for health issues are shared, communities will always be the main decision makers. Establishing systems in the communication space that allow communities to clearly voice their understanding of the issues, influence others, and provide feedback is a step towards building stronger trust and fostering more community-led solutions to deep-rooted problems like malaria.

The Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire’s communication and community engagement project has reached close to 1.2 million people through radio and social mobilization activities. The project is part of a ten-country initiative in sub-Saharan Africa, funded by the European Union and supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) on awareness, preparedness and prevention for the Ebola virus disease and other prevalent epidemic threats and disasters.

As of July 2016, the regional project had reached an estimated 4 million people in the ten participating countries.