Life-saving radio project in Burkina Faso

Development Media International (DMI) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are running a cluster randomised controlled trial of an innovative child survival intervention: a multi-issue radio health campaign

03 AUGUST 2012 | BURKINA FASO - The campaign involves the broadcast of health messages using radio spots (60-second adverts) and radio phone-in programmes. By broadcasting health messages that change the behaviours of pregnant women and new mothers, the project aims to reduce the large number of children dying before their fifth birthday in Burkina Faso and reduce child mortality by 19%.

DMI (Development Media International) and LSHTM (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) have created a mathematical model to predict how many lives could be saved through multi-issue mass media campaigns that target the most important underlying causes of death. The predictions of the DMI-LSHTM model are very promising and this research will be published in The Lancet later this year. The model predicts that comprehensive campaigns could reduce child mortality by 8% to 19% in low-income countries, depending on the profile of the country. The cost per life-year saved is also lower than any currently available health intervention.

DMI and LSHTM are now testing the predictions of the model in a real-life setting in Burkina Faso, a country that which combines high child mortality with a localised media environment, permitting a cluster-randomised trial. The trial involves broadcasting health messages to seven geographic areas, chosen at random, and seven control areas for 2.5 years. The evaluation, which includes baseline and endline mortality surveys with a 100,000 sample size, will be the most rigorous evaluation ever conducted of a mass media intervention. The evaluation is led by Simon Cousens, Professor of Epidemiology and Medical Statistics at LSHTM.

Innovation to save lives

“The project is innovative in three ways”, says Roy Head, CEO of DMI. “Firstly, we’re broadcasting messages on the most important underlying causes of death, not just individual issues. Secondly, we’re broadcasting very intensively: ten spots per day, and two hours of phone-in programming every night on every station. Thirdly, we’ll be measuring the impact more rigorously than has ever been done before. We’re hoping to prove that we can change behaviours on a scale large enough to save a lot of lives.”

The project relies on close partnerships within Burkina Faso. The evaluation of the intervention is managed in partnership with Centre Muraz, a biomedical research institute in Burkina Faso and the project is being delivered in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. During the trial, DMI aims to build the capacity of local media and the Ministry of Health with the aim of creating a health communications system that is sustainable long after their involvement ends.

This trial has been funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Planet Wheeler Foundation. Dr Jimmy Whitworth, Head of International Activities at the Wellcome Trust, says: "This exciting study aims to answer the question 'Do Mass Media Campaigns Save Lives?'. This is a fundamental question for public health today, when television and radio are reaching more people around the world than ever before. While mass media campaigns are increasingly being used, they have never before been rigorously evaluated. The results of this study could dramatically change the way we approach mass communication for health in the future.” Tony Wheeler adds: “What interests us are the implications of this trial. If it shows that this is the cheapest way of saving lives ever devised, it could help to save millions of lives in the long term”.

If lives are saved on the scale that the model predicts, this approach should become a high priority for governments across the developing world. Most supply-side interventions take years or decades to take to scale. Mass media, by contrast, can be taken to scale within months. If similar five-year campaigns are implemented in 12 African countries, the model predicts that one million lives should be saved. This process would, for the first time, place mass media campaigns in the mainstream of public health interventions, based on robust scientific evidence.