By Tobias Lengnan Dapam

Worried by the challenges beclouding the country’s health sector, and the need to improve confidence in COVID-19 vaccine, the Association of Nigeria Health Journalists (ANHEJ), organised a 2-day annual conference on the 25 -26 of November, to proffer solutions to the COVID-19 challenges in Nigeria.

The programme which took place at Auta Balefi, Nasarawa State, saw major stakeholders in the health sector such as; World Health Organization (WHO) Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH), Africa Health Budget Network (AHBN) Institute for Human Virology Nigeria (IHVN) WAHO, Marie Stopes and many others.

Speaking at the 5th conference themed; “Improving confidence in COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria beyond 2021: The role of the media,” World Health Organization (WHO), Country Representative in Nigeria, Walter Mulombo, said media and journalists are the bridge between scientists and the public.

Represented by the head of the global body’s communications unit, Charity Warigon, Mr Mulombo said the COVID-19 pandemic, unlike any pandemic in history, has affected everyone and every country in a manner unexpected.

He called on countries including Nigeria to quickly embark on building their health systems and security in preparation for any sudden and future outbreaks of pandemic.

Mulombo said lack of preparedness affected everyone and every country in an unexpected manner during the earlier phases of covid-19 pandemic outbreak which resulted in absence of sufficient knowledge to inform development of vaccines as the sciences were limited.

The worst he lamented, is the fact that such lapses were exploited by mischief makers, who used the occasion to mislead Nigerians with false and misinformations on social media platforms.

He however commended the Association for organizing such event describing the conference as timely and appropriate as it does not only speaks to the present, but also to the future of making Nigerians healthier.

“The media and journalists are the bridge between scientists and the public. It behoves on every member of the Fourth Estate of the Realm to, as social responsibility, ensure the provision of accurate, timely, credible, understandable, relevant, and actionable information through various communication channels.”

He added that despite challenges faced by the Nigerian media and journalists, they have also proven to be highly professional by rising to the test of the COVID-19 hesitancy by educating, mobilizing, and creating awareness amongst the populace.

The WHO boss in Nigerian, called on Journalist to continue to strive to improve on what they have achieved so far and even do better, adding that there is so much to attain in driving confidence in the vaccination effort by building trust and continuously being a trusted and reliable source of information.

“Our messaging must continue to remind the public that, for the foreseeable future, we must continue to wear masks, physically distance, and avoid crowd. Being vaccinated doesn’t mean that we can throw caution to the wind and put ourselves and others at risk: relaxing public health and social measures interventions should be done cautiously and with careful attention paid to those who remain unvaccinated”.
“On our part, WHO remains resolute in sustaining this mutually beneficial partnership with AHNEJ, towards promoting health and wellbeing, keeping the world safe and serving the vulnerable, to achieve Universal Health Coverage and ensure that no one is left behind”.

Also speaking, Health Emergency Information & Risk Assessment (HIM) Lead, of WHO, Dr Geoffrey Namara, said misinformation remains the bigger threat affecting  COVID-19 response efforts in Nigeria.

He urged  health journalists to always equip themselves with relevant knowledge and information to ensure proper reportage.

 Namara said effective communication is the only vital tool that  guides the public towards appropriate services and treatment.

In his presentation titled:”Understanding key outbreak metrics for accurate reporting”, Namara said it was unfortunate that conspiracy theories, misinformation and other factors have prevented most Nigerians from accepting the vaccines.

He urged  health journalists to use the platform to delibrate and brainstorm with critical stakeholders on relevant information that will convince Nigerians to accept the COVID-19 vaccines.

He said, “Public health is key in community awareness and the media plays vital role in reaching the communities.

“Effective communication guides the public towards appropriate services and treatment which helps to prevent or reduce the spread of the disease.
“Misinformation poses a great threat to response efforts. Journalists must be equipped with relevant knowledge to ensure proper reporting in a health emergence”.

He added that without testing data, effort to eliminate the pandemic will not be achieved.

Also, Africa Health Budget Network (AHBN) called for transparency and proper utilisation of funds targeted at providing the needed support to win the fight against the pandemic.

The Coordinator of AHBN, Dr. Aminu Magashi stressed the need for government and policy makers to prioritise health if the country must achieve full recovery from the pandemic.

Represented by AHBN’s Senior Programme and Partnership Officer, Dr. Obinna Onuoha, Magashi urged health journalists to demand answers on the type, nature and duration of funding support targeted at COVID-19 recovery plan.

He said: “Every COVID-19 funding and recovery plan touches the lives of all Nigerians, and as such, the public should adequately be adequately informed on how each penny is utilised.

“With all the efforts underway towards recovery from COVID-19, the media stands in the front line and centre in ensuring that all Nigerians are well informed with the facts; what funding has been received and from whom, what plans from the Government are in place to utilize these funds to provide quality health, what are the checks and balances to ensure these dedicated funds offer value for money.

“What are the steps taken to ensure all concerned parties are held accountable in the disbursement and utilization of these funds, what are the feedback mechanisms from the beneficiaries of these health interventions, and how are the challenges and lessons carried forth for future reference, that we may learn from the past?”

In his goodwill message, Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of Human Virology Nigeria (IHVN), Dr. Patrick Dakum who advised government to fund health programmes rather than depend on donors, urged the media to ensure the government understands their role by ensuring proper funding for health, tell compelling stories that will bring about government action.

Represented by Pharm. Moses Haggai, he insisted that the importance of a vibrant and responsive health system was critical to every public health intervention including COVID19, HIV, TB and other health issues.

“Health systems are expected to serve the population needs in an effective, efficient and equitable manner. .

“Health Interventions have in many ways impeded the spread of many diseases of Public Health concerns in Nigeria. This ranges from the high Maternal and Child mortality due to malaria infection, High incidence of Drug Sensitive and Drug Resistant TB to the dreaded HIV infection as well as the devastating COVID-19 infection.

“The Media is a critical stakeholder in sustaining health awareness, promoting a healthy society and driving social change. It is also an undeniable and veritable tool for advocacy to government and all other stakeholders especially at moments like this where the world faces new health challenges.”

On his part, the ANHEJ President, Hassan Zaggi,  in his welcome address, lamented that even though the Federal Government  is making efforts to achieve  immunity against COVID-19, some enemies of progress are working hard to frustrate the efforts.

He said as critical stakeholders in the sector, the conference will accord the opportunity to brainstorm on the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Zaggi said, “Colleagues, you will agree with me that issues surrounding the uptake of COVID-19 vaccine  have been  source of concern to  us due to vaccine hesitancy arising from several factors.
“Some of these factors include conspiracy theories on the safety of the vaccines, fear of the unknown, false and misinformation on social media platforms amongst others.
“This, has, however, led to foot-dragging by most Nigerians to uptake the vaccine despite all sincere efforts by the government.
“As journalists covering the health sector, we are deeply worried by the way most Nigerians are not willing to uptake the vaccine even though the country has been applauded globally for its effort in COVID-19 vaccine roll out.
“We are also concerned that if urgent actions are not taken, the Federal Government’s target to vaccinate 55 million residents of Nigeria by the end of January, 2022, which is 50% of the target population, may not be visible.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in the next two days, we will channel our energy towards finding workable strategies on how health journalists can convince Nigerians to take the COVID-19 vaccines”, Zaggi added.

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