A Journalist’s Passion For Health Issues Goes Beyond Reporting
By Andrew Mambondiyani
Bharathi Ghanashyam, an award-winning journalist based in India, has a passion for health issues in developing countries that transcends mere journalism.
And when she talked about health challenges in developing countries at the recent 10th European Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health in Antwerp, Belgium, she could not hide her frustration as some countries continue to neglect the health of their citizens.
According to health experts, the average total health expenditure in African countries stood at US$ 135 per capita in 2010 – only a small fraction of the US$ 3 150 spent on health in an average high-income country.
“Insufficient investment in the health sector and inactions to tackle the environmental and social determinants of health is a serious obstacle to improving health outcomes in Africa, particularly considering that the continent bears the bulk of the global morbidity and mortality burden for maternal and infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, and non-communicable diseases,” a report by the World Health Organization revealed.
“When countries are suspected of stocking weapons of mass destruction or carrying out nuclear programmes, sanctions are passed against them. The world isolates them,” a visibly frustrated Ghanashyam said. “Diseases claim more lives than a nuclear war will ever do.”
Ghanashyam who was a Journalist-in-Residence at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium in 2015, said there was a need to put punitive measures against countries that allow people to die from avoidable and curable diseases.
“Then why are the same strictures not in place against countries that allow people to die of avoidable, curable diseases? For health, we have only declarations, pledges, commitments, signatories and sometimes, hasty and grandiose promises. We never have punitive actions. For me, this is a failed obligation on the part of governments and lack of accountability. It is an aberration we need to correct with more rigor”.
She said developing countries had a very wide health landscape – which begins with very basic issues such as safe drinking water and decent living conditions, lack of which cause disease and death.
“Maternal and infant mortality are issues, and in fact, every chain of the life cycle in developing countries is an issue – by this, I mean birth, life, and death. Developing countries are not insulated from NCDs (noncommunicable diseases) either”, she said.
“To cut a long story short, I think developing countries must work on primary healthcare and public health. Only after certain standards are achieved there, can we hope to deep dive into particular areas”.
Her passion for health journalism started in 2004 to keep an inner promise she made to a young woman in Orissa (now known as Odisha, an eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal) in 2002.
“She was dying of HIV related TB, and I pledged I would do everything I could with my limited capabilities, to ensure [fewer] women like her died of avoidable causes. And today, when I look back, it is with the satisfaction that I have tried my best,” Ghanashyam said.
And she added: “I want to tell the soul of that young woman that I will continue to carry a message of hope on her behalf to every meeting I ever attend. The story of what inspires me is here. Please feel free to take whatever you will out of it”.
She, however, said writing on health was complex owing to terminologies – like the difference between elimination and eradication, paucibacillary, incidence and prevalence.
“It is also important to be completely accurate in the information you give out. The internet is not enough sometimes; you need quick access to experts, and this can be challenging. I have built rapport with experts and keep them informed of all my work. Even if they don’t reply or respond, I know that they are registering the fact that I am continuing to do my bit. So when I approach them, they readily respond,” she said.
She said empathy, accuracy, objectivity, field work and human voices remain the cornerstones of health journalism.
“No story is ever complete without these. There are no short-cuts to health or any story for that matter. The more rigor you put in, the better your story gets. Imagery is very important, but I would avoid overdoing my sentiments and let people speak instead,” she said.
For her work, Ghanashyam has been recognized [with awards such as] the WHO – Stop TB Award for Excellence in Writing on TB – 2011 and EU India – Thomson Foundation Award for Excellence in Writing on HIV – 2006.