Tuning into community radio to tackle health issues

''The large focus must be on prevention,'' says Dr V Mohan, President of the Research
Society for Study of Diabetes in India, as he worrisomely disclosed a recent update that found 63 million patients having diabetes and India roughly adding “one million every year” to this growing numbers.

Participants at a HIV/AIDS programme.It is no comfort that China is “way ahead of us” in diabetes prevalence. But at least “cut the growing number which is called prevention of excess gain,” argues Dr Mohan, a renowned Chennai-based diabetologist known for his research on the epidemiology of the disease, to drive home that communication is the key.

Structurally, the more dreaded HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immunodefici­ency syndrome), is even more compell­ed to make a quantum leap in using inform­ation and communication technologies (ICT) to make the WHO (World Health Organisation) mandate of “Getting to Zero” a decent reality by 2015. The WHO target, by that year, simply translates into “no new infection, no new deaths and no stigma discrimination due to HIV/AIDS”.

Despite the Tamil Nadu State Aids Control Society (TNSACS), making significant strides in reducing the AIDS prevalence rate in the State from 1.13 per cent in 2001 to 0.23 per cent in 2012, through a cluster of programmes and strategies, it now sees in the FM community radio (CR) a seamless gateway to many.

“A CR station, covering a range of up to 15 km is far more focused on the geogra­phical community it reaches out to, not only in information dissemination to raise awareness about the disease, but also to ensure a participatory approach by the community people from below,” says Ms Dhivya Ramalingam, Deputy Director with the TANSACS. As the Central gover­nment’s policy requires that CR stations be set up only in well-established educational institutions – the government now mulls to bring reputable NGOs into this
network-- the communication process is to be bias-free and well-informed.

Several intervention programmes have been tried out in last 20 years for different communities in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment with the AIDS Preve­ntion and Control Unit in each district as its fulcrum. But “we now find that CR can be more area-specific, and is a better medium to reach out more focused messages on therapy, removing mental bloc­ks, attitudes and stigma, than giving general messages through the mass
media,” reasons Dhivya.

First it was a CR initiative Nalandhana (are you well?) the TANSACS had funded last year for reaching out to 700 HIV positive people being treated at the Tambaram Sanatorium Hospital near Chennai. Enthused by its outcome, this year it is funding two similar projects, one to Anna University’s CR station, and to another CR station at PSG College of Arts and Science, Coimbatore. They will produce and broadcast HIV/AIDS
programmes for the next five months.

Contrary to the usual “top-down appr­oach” in most radio broadcasting when a production team beams a programme for the local community, this will just be the opposite, says Ms Christie Leema, who is production in-charge at the Anna University CR “@90.4 mhz”. Catering, with help of students and volunteers, to a large slum area in the university’s vicinity, “about 40 people from the local community will be trained for radio
production,” chipped in Dhivya.

All issues that need to be candidly raised in preventing HIV/AIDS – from higher infection rates in marginal groups, more susceptibility among the high-risk groups like sex workers, truck drivers, drug users to even homosexuals-- will be discussed by these programmers-cum-presenters. It brings alive an informal care in communication in the local language (Tamil) that only a CR platform can provide, explains Dhivya.

Interviews, phone-ins, skits and drama will be the programme formats, which the CR staff will help the local targeted audience design. But there would not be any “sermonising” from the top. For example, if the husband of one Karpa­gam (name changed) in the community earns his bread as a truck driver, the CR programmer would aid her to see the need to get herself tested for HIV/AIDS, they said. There are similar precautions to be taken by pregnant women to prevent “parent to child transmission” of the possible virus infection.

Again, there are any number of HIV positive people who, despite being given a free bus pass by the Tamil Nadu Government to enable them regularly visit the concerned anti-retro viral therapy (ART) centre in the district/taluk headquarters hospitals for continued treatment, face social ostracism during travel. Fearing such embarrassments, several patients discontinue ART treatment.

“Our society accepts cancer patients, though that disease is worse than AIDS; this is due to an irredeemable stigma attached to AIDS as a malady caused by undesirable sexual promiscuity,” points out Prof S Gowri, Director, Educational Multi-media Research Centre at Anna University.

The key to this process is that in all the HIV/AIDS related programmes broadcast by the CR, “it is people from the community itself who will be in an open-ended communication situation, asking each other and discussing what needs to be done in finding remedies for these issues,” emphasises Dhivya.

“For all the invasion by television, the radio’s reach is still unique; more messa­ges reach people through the radio than we anticipated,” says Dr P Manorama, noted community health activist and Director of the Chennai-based Community Health Education Society.
Dr Manorama discovered this when they started a family resource centre at Kotturpuram (near Anna University) to launch a novel programme of each individual “contributing a handful of rice” for a children’s nutrition programme. “There are several misconceptions and fears about HIV/AIDS and so let people raise questions about the problem so that the CR programmes are not confined only to creating awareness,” Dr Manorama urged, sharing her experience.

“Ultimately, in all our interventions, we connect with the AIDS prevention/control centres to get a feedback on their efficacy,” says Dhivya.  

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