Cutting Through The Fog: How Clear Communication Can Save Lives

H.E. Toyin Saraki
H.E. Toyin Saraki

After my own harrowing experience whilst giving birth in Nigeria, I dedicated my life to maternal, newborn and child health. I tragically lost one of my twin babies during childbirth and then had to fight for the survival of the other. Ten years ago, I founded the Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA) to ensure no mother or child would have to experience what I went through.

We have made excellent progress and instituted pioneering programmes that I am very proud of. These programmes have improved the state of maternal and newborn health in Nigeria but there is a long battle ahead. Nigeria ranks 169 out of 176 in the Save the Children's annual Mothers Index[1] and accounts for 13% of all global child deaths under the age of 5 - one of the highest rates in the world.[2]

One weapon we have in our fight is effective communications that can educate mothers about their health and the health of their newborn. You may be asking yourself – can a communications professional at a marketing agency really prevent maternal and child mortality in Nigeria, Afghanistan, India and beyond? Well, you can – and you have – and you will.

Medical marketing and media professionals have already done so much to further healthcare communications, and in the process, created informed and empowered consumers. Using the same intensive research and analysis methods that agencies use to stimulate demand for a certain brand, we could develop a strategy that educates communities in developing countries and in turn, transforms how countries approach healthcare. (Click on the video below to see an Oct. 2 interview with Mrs. Saraki, in which she explains the importance of viewing patients as consumers, as well as her country's approach to taming the Ebola outbreak.)

Education is a significant barrier to health in developing countries. This includes both formal education in schools, and an informal community-wide education in personal health. Many communities lack access to valuable health information that could save their lives. Educating men, women and the wider community in developing countries about their health empowers them to make life-saving decisions regarding healthcare. After all, you cannot reach a hand out for the help you need if you do not know what it is.

Improving health education will generate demand for vital services that are mistrusted by these communities. There are drugs and vaccines available to treat diseases but many people are not picking these services up due to misconceptions surrounding modern healthcare. Cutting through the fog of misinformation with clear and concise communications will create demand for these services and prevent needless deaths from long cured diseases.

Demand creation will not only improve individual health. It could also change how nations provide healthcare for their citizens as a whole. Governments can, should, and will be held accountable by their citizens on the basis of key services like the provision of healthcare. Demand creation will empower citizens to demand better healthcare from their elected officials – not just for themselves but for their neighbours too.

This is why the WBFA has partnered with McCann Health on a groundbreaking Demand Creation and Preparation for Birth initiative. The project seeks to change the mindset of ordinary people and empower them to be more health conscious. We believe that with better information, mothers can take control of their pregnancy and demand better care for themselves, their children, and their community.

I am delighted that the pilot for this initiative is in Kwara State, Nigeria – not just because as the former First Lady of the State, it is my home, but it is an innovative example of cross-sector collaboration that draws on the insight of a global communications agency and expertise of a civil society organisation to change the way local communities address maternal and newborn health.

There is an old African proverb that says, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.' It is in this spirit that I call for further collaboration between communications professionals and civil society organisations. We must work together to harness the power of effective health communications, and save the lives of women and children in Nigeria, across the African continent, and around the world.

Her Excellency Toyin Saraki is president and founder of The Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA).