Sunday, October 30, 2011

Skewed health coverage

The Hoot

The health of the Indian media is supposedly robust but the state of healthcare coverage in the Indian media is almost comatose. It snaps out of that coma only when ‘health’ and ‘wealth’ meet.  Is it not the media's job to cover broader health issues than those related to the health of their readers, asks KALPANA SHARMA
Posted/Updated Wednesday, Oct 26 15:08:54, 2011

Kalpana Sharma
The health of the Indian media is supposedly robust compared to the media in many other countries, particularly the West. But the state of healthcare coverage in the Indian media is far from that; in fact it would appear its condition is critical, almost comatose. Occasionally, it snaps out of that coma – when ‘health’ and ‘wealth’ meet.
If that sounds a bit obtuse, let me explain. Anyone can do a spot check of five or six leading daily newspapers. Count the stories related to health. The stories receiving a large amount of space will be: a disease that has afflicted a celebrity, eg pancreatic cancer after Steve Jobs succumbed to it; lifestyle diseases and the extent of their occurrence in urban areas, eg diabetes and hypertension and obesity; an unusual condition afflicting a celebrity, eg some years ago excruciating details on something called‘diverticulitis’ because Amitabh Bachchan was struck down with it. Apart from this, the health coverage includes chapter and verse on a disease for which a particular day has been chosen, such as Breast Cancer day or TB Day, etc. Apart from these, there are literally “seasons” of health stories – usually linked to funding and fellowships. So you might get a spurt in articles on TB, or on HIV/AIDS, or on tobacco-related illnesses. And of course, one must not forget the “health” reporting of politicians arrested for corruption who regularly require hospitalization.
But what of the diseases that strike and kill thousands of our poor? The latest such example is Japanese encephalitis (JE) which has killed nearly 500 children in eastern UP. The media has only just woken up to this fact – well over a month after the first deaths occurred. CNN-IBN did a special programme on October 11. Predictably, NDTV followed suit a few days later. And as a result of this media spotlight, the Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad hotfooted it to the afflicted area, Gorakhpur in UP. And since then, the print media has taken note and several editorials decrying the pathetic state of health care have appeared in major newspapers.
Encephalitis in UP, or Bihar and Assam, is not a new disease. It has been around for decades. And it occurs every year. Children die, or survive with severe afflictions. There is always talk about doing something about it. But the plans are not implemented, or action is taken when it is too late to save children from dying. Much of what needs to be done is preventive – the fairly unglamorous process of dealing with sanitation, providing clean water supply, ensuring that the Culex mosquito does not get easy breeding grounds, providing protection by way of vaccines and treated mosquito nets to the vulnerable population etc. This is not high drama. It is difficult to picturise this process on film. But it can be done. And it can certainly be written about. To write would mean doing considerable legwork over a period of time. And the story might not make it to a prominent position. In any case, newspapers are now clear that they only write for their readers, who are middle class and urban. So encephalitis in deepest darkest UP is simply not sexy enough. 
Health coverage in the media in many ways is a litmus test of the relevance of media in turning the spotlight on the dark corners in our country. With the media increasingly rendering invisible much of India, the news of tragedies, such as the encephalitis occurrence in UP, only come into the limelight when many avoidable deaths have occurred. Why should that be so? Is it not the task of the media to cover issues that are not directly related to the health of their readers but are essential to the health of the nation?

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