• Spreading the word

    Social media is a powerful aid in improving health outcomes on the continent

    Spreading the word

    The number of African social media users has risen continuously to more than 384 million in 2022, according to statistics aggregator Statista, with penetration considerably higher in North and Southern Africa than in other regions. In February 2022, some 56% of the population in North Africa used social media, while the share was 45% in Southern Africa. Central Africa was significantly behind, with a share of just 8%.

    Facebook is the leading social media platform in Africa in terms of market share, followed by YouTube and Twitter. Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn lag behind, though figures vary greatly from country to country.

    ‘The adage “information is power” could not be more true as more and more health agencies leverage social media to direct critical health messaging to its populations,’ says Kenya-based Lizz Ntonjira, communications and engagement director at WomenLift Health, an NPO aimed at advancing women into senior leadership positions in order to improve global health outcomes. ‘Social media is an essential enabler of access to information and, more importantly, it has significantly contributed to positive health-behaviour changes.’

    Ntonjira serves on the steering committee of the Public Health Risk Communication and Community Engagement; is a board member of the Children’s Sickle Cell Foundation in Kenya; and is co-chair of the Zero Malaria Campaign Coalition steering committee, also in Kenya. One of the coalition’s initiatives is the Zero Malaria Starts With Me campaign, which focuses on youth, the generation most likely to end the deadly disease.

    ‘This campaign is an example of how social media can be used to reach youth on global health issues,’ says Ntonjira.

    ‘It was launched to inspire young people in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for over 90% of global malaria cases, to take the fight into their own hands, to achieve zero malaria. It is a positive, bold, groundbreaking campaign designed to inspire public passion and action.

    ‘A digital-first campaign, it was led by art and fashion to integrate the campaign into everyday youth and street culture. Utilising social media platforms, the campaign called on youth to add their line to a universal, visual malaria language called the Muundo [a Swahili word that means ‘structure’]. The Muundo became a giant online mural and a visual call for action to end malaria. The movement grew line by line, turning the pattern into a collective statement that was delivered to global leaders by young people from across Africa at the Kigali Summit on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases in 2022,’ says Ntonjira.

    The Zero Malaria Starts With Me campaign reached 708 million people worldwide, with digital engagements reaching 35 million, and was considered a huge success.

    Africa’s leading health NGO Amref was at the forefront of the COVID-19 response in sub-Saharan Africa, and considers its Vaccine Solidarity With Africa campaign – the crux of which rested on strategic social media use – one of its most successful to date.

    ‘Africa is home to 17% of the world’s population, yet it remains the least-vaccinated continent, with only 49.7% of Africans fully vaccinated to date. Our ambitious Vaccine Solidarity with Africa called for vaccine equity on a global scale,’ says Lilian Kamanzi, communications and fundraising manager for Amref in Uganda.

    ‘Through social media, Amref joined the People’s Vaccine Alliance, an international network of [more than 100] health and humanitarian organisations, world leaders and health experts, united by the belief that the COVID-19 vaccine should be free and available for all, as a global common good. We called for companies working on the vaccine to share their intellectual property free from patents, so that effective vaccines can be manufactured in Africa and around the world. Our global petition to end vaccine injustice has accrued almost 200 000 signatures from all over the world.

    ‘Secondly, social media was critical in providing information to the public. Amref created a COVID-19 landing page on the website where information could be accessed and shared on social media. It became a trusted source of information.’

    From 2020 to 2022, Amref facilitated full COVID-19 immunisations for 13.3 million people and administered 15.2 million doses across Africa, including first, second and booster doses.

    Kamanzi and Ntinjira agree that while social media allows organisations to reach targeted audiences and track engagement, ascertaining the impact of a campaign is a challenge.

    ‘It’s one thing to have an online health campaign reach 50 million people, but it’s another to assess whether it’s had any impact on them,’ says Ntinjira. She believes that if any social media campaign hopes to have a real-world impact at a community level, it must be accompanied by offline initiatives and behaviour tracking.

    With almost 4oo million users in Africa, social media is becoming the go-to tool for the health sector to disseminate useful, truthful information to the public

    ‘This involves hands-on work, like carrying out awareness surveys in the targeted audiences before campaigns are launched, and doing follow-up surveys at a later date. Additionally, these need to be accompanied by active outreach, such as community workshops. This, for me, is the only way you can track the true impact of your campaign.’

    Not only is measuring impact a challenge, social media campaigns must also compete with a profusion of misinformation, disinformation, fake news and scams, especially when it comes to health. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated valuable advances with regards to influencing health outcomes via social media.

    During the pandemic, Viral Facts Africa – a first-of-its-kind African initiative to combat health misinformation online, and the public face of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance – was launched by the WHO, fact-checking organisations and leading public health bodies. The initiative leverages the reach of a network of at least 14 organisations to counter health misinformation as it spreads and to ‘inoculate people against falsehoods’.

    Not only a resource for combating COVID misinformation, it also disseminates health fact checks, explainers, myth busters and misinformation literacy messages on Ebola, measles, cholera, cervical cancer and more, in formats that are optimised for sharing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

    These new countermeasures will no doubt prove essential in the fight against pervasive misinformation well into the future, as 5G-related activities are beginning to pick up across the region, a harbinger of exponential connectivity.

    By Robyn Maclarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images