Author: Angela Githitho Muriithi, April 13 2015  - In a crowded, dusty camp for displaced people in Somalia, Ibrahim and Raho are doing their best to raise two children. When their baby falls ill with diarrhoea, traditional birth attendant Raho treats her with the cures handed down over generations, refusing modern oral rehydration solution (ORS) and zinc treatments. Sadly, their baby dies - another grim statistic from Somalia, where health indicators are amongst the worst in the world – another tragic and preventable infant death from diarrhoea, one of the world’s biggest child killers. The couple’s grief is real and intense.

Except that Ibrahim, Raho and their baby were fictional characters in BBC Media Action’s radio drama broadcast across Somalia. Part of a bigger radio programme - Tiraarka Qoyska (Pillars of the Family) that also included a factual magazine segment, the drama was designed to give families the information they needed to keep young children healthy and well nourished.

Fictional tragedies

And it seems to have worked. Our research found that people who listened to the programme knew more than non-listeners about how to prevent and treat children’s illnesses and practised what they learned. The storylines in which babies died seemed to be particularly effective - listeners most recalled these fictional tragedies and were more likely than non-listeners to change how they cared for sick children.

Life-saving treatment

Dehydration can be a dangerous side effect of diarrhoea so giving extra fluid to an ill baby is especially important. In Somaliland, 39% of mothers who listened to the programme and 43% of regular listeners (people who listened to at least every other episode) boosted both their breastfeeding and giving fluids to a child with diarrhoea as opposed to only one in five mothers who didn’t listen to the programme - a significant difference.

And even though a diarrhoeal baby (over six months old) may be “off its food” it is also vital to keep trying to replenish lost nourishment. Our research found that there was some mistaken belief that food and drink should be reduced for sick babies. While just a quarter of non-listener mothers said that they continued to give their children food when they had diarrhoea, 43% of regular listeners did so. Just over half of mothers who didn’t listen to the programme gave potentially life-saving ORS treatment to their child with diarrhoea, 65% of listeners used ORS.

The fictional treatment of infant death almost never made it into the programme. Writers were asked to create a compelling drama that focused on six priority behaviours to support child health. When the producer tried to persuade the writing team to add child deaths into the scripts, they initially refused, thinking that such storylines would be too upsetting. Finally, he persuaded them that killing fictional babies could save real babies’ lives.

And the message seems to have got through. As one young Somali mother said:

“They [the characters] were talking about who is better – the baby who was given the breast at first or the one who is not, and that the one who was given the breast is healthier and gets more protein than the other. I have taken this opinion and will use it if God wills.”

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in Somalia.

Image credit: BBC Media Action

BBC Media Action
BBC Media Centre, MC3A, 201 Wood Lane
W12 7TQ
United Kingdom (UK)
Phone: 44 (0) 20 8008 0001
Fax: 44 (0) 20 8008 5970