Action Meningitis raises awareness of disease through community theatre

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International charity Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) is working closely with the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust (MLW) in Malawi on an innovative health intervention project, Action Meningitis, which has been made possible with funding from Scottish Government’s Malawi Development Programme.

Action Meningitis pioneers the use of mobile phones in eight health clinics to provide the rapid triaging of patients which ensures:

  • Seriously ill children get help fast
  • Meningitis is identified and not misdiagnosed for malaria or milder illnesses
  • Vital data on serious illness is secured for future work and to show the system is working.

Action Meningitis has also raised awareness of this hidden disease among the public and health professionals by training health workers in recognising serious illness and informing the public through special radio health programming.

Thomasena O’Byrne, Malawi Manager said: ‘We have been working with communities and carers to engage them about the disease through awareness campaigns by radio in the past two years and have now branched out into community theatre and print publications. We wanted to improve the knowledge and awareness of meningitis of parents and carers whilst empowering them to take positive action when their child is sick. Increased awareness and willingness to attend clinics by these groups will mean that these sick children will be treated quicker and will have a better chance of survival. Also better understanding of the after effects of the disease helps confront some of the stigmas faced by families and individuals who are left with the life-long impact of devastating disabilities following meningitis.’

Recently MRF and MLW have been working alongside African Centre for Communication and Development (ACCD) to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of severe illness, including meningitis, and the need to get sick children to a clinic for medical help via community theatre.

Forty-one thousand (41,000) children died before reaching their fifth birthday in Malawi in 2013. Over half of these deaths were illnesses that could have been prevented by earlier recognition and treatment. Research shows that there is a lack of knowledge amongst parents and some health professionals about severe illnesses including meningitis in Malawi. Meningitis symptoms are commonly mistaken for those of other illnesses, usually malaria, often patients either seek the wrong sort of help or seek it too late.

Theatre for Development (TfD) has been working with Action Meningitis and has been situated within two communities where the project has introduced triage in Primary Health clinics (Mpemba and Ndirande). Using the World Health Organization Emergency Triage Assessment and Treatment (ETAT) protocol, community healthcare workers are enabled to detect vital signs of severe illness through mobile phones provided by Action Meningitis. ETAT complements existing childhood illness protocols and strengthens primary systems through improved prioritisation and patient flow.

Community members have taken part in the plays and together with the theatre group they developed the story line, drawing from personal experiences. Using a ‘stop and freeze’ concept, the audience has been encouraged to discuss some of the key issues. Each community play has prompted lively discussion including difficulties families face seeking healthcare and attitudes to clinics. Symptoms leaflets, designed by a local artist have been left with audiences and the wider community to reinforce messages from the plays.

Augustine Kamlongera, ACCD Director said: ‘TfD is an effective tool for behaviour change as we work with the community who help deliver the performances to their villages, not just passively viewing them. Theatre is considered an empowering and useful communication tool in many developing countries and the aim has been to educate communities about meningitis and empower them to make positive behaviour changes. We were really pleased to hear that the community members in Mpemba have continued to take the play round their district extending its reach and spreading even more awareness.’

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