Health reportage traditionally entails exceptional understanding of issues and trends in the world of medicine and science as well as sensitivity to the impact of health policies. Because the subject matter has direct implications for wellbeing, life and death, health reporting ought to be approached with a higher sense of responsibility and the health writer needs to be well informed and diligent enough to sift the grains of information through a very fine sieve.

With the advent of citizen journalism and the plethora of unregulated online sites, however, the rules of balance, social responsibility and reliance on expert opinions have become even more important to ensure dissemination of information that is not only accurate, but also relevant. 

This message was enunciated at a learning forum held in Lagos recently to promote dialogue and knowledge sharing between experts from different health related fields and members of the Health Writers Association of Nigeria (HEWAN) drawn from the print, broadcast and online media.   

The forum featured a keynote presentation by a former lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Consultant Nutritionist and Dietician, Dr. Chika Ndiokwelu. Speaking on the topic Adequate Nutrition and Lifestyle: Essential for Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), Dr. Ndiokwelu, who is also the Country Representative of the International Confederation of Dietetic Associations, remarked that unhealthy eating habits, increasingly sedentary lifestyles and other risky behaviours such as tobacco and alcohol abuse have contributed to a frightening rise in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases across the globe. 

 “Cardiovascular and Chronic Respiratory Diseases, Cancer, Diabetes and other NCDs are responsible for 60 per cent of deaths globally with 80 per cent of these occurring in developing countries. It is estimated that by the year 2030, 80 per cent of deaths globally will be caused by NCDs” she said 

While the situation is compounded for some individuals by predisposing genetic and environmental factors, Dr. Ndiokwelu assured that most NCDs and their symptoms can be prevent or reversed by appropriate modifications to dietary and lifestyle habits. She said the frightening statistics around NCDs makes it imperative for journalists to rise to the challenge of educating their readers on the causes, prevention and management of the various diseases. 

Dr. Ndiokwelu cautioned, however, that peddling myths and half-truths about these diseases puts the reading public at greater risk. She cited the widespread traditional belief among Nigerians that hemorrhoids, which is popularly known as “pile”, is caused by sugar whereas, in reality, “pile” is caused by chronic constipation or diarrhea. She said this falsehood has been peddled through many generations such that even educated Nigerians now erroneously believe that pile is caused by sugar. 

A similar situation, she said, is emerging about diabetes which is now generally blamed on sugar consumption as a direct cause whereas, in reality, sugar does not feature in the World Health Organization’s list of risk factors for diabetes. She noted that, unfortunately as a result of this wrong notion, in many of the Nigerian languages, Diabetes loosely translates as the “sugar disease”.  She said sugar or sugar-sweetened foods or beverages, if consumed excessively, can exacerbate a diabetic situation. Paradoxically, however, sugar can also become essential in professionally managing a diabetic situation. 

The speaker stirred the hornet when she debunked another widely held belief by her assertion that the hydration and nutritional needs of a baby in the first six months can be adequately and exclusively met with breast milk, such that a baby does not even need water, if effectively breast fed within the period. This triggered an animated debate among the participants with some of the health writers admitting that they had not been confronted with the scientific evidence on this issue before now. 

Dr. Ndiokwelu cited other instances where myths and ill-informed presumptions have assumed a form of medical truths in Nigeria. She said everyone should be alarmed about these falsehoods which abound in every medical situation including fertility and maternal and child health and are responsible for many preventable and avoidable deaths on a daily basis. 

Other speakers at the forum which was sponsored by Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited included Dr. Bartholomew Brai, a Senior Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research and Dr. Kemi Odukoya, Senior Lecturer at the department of Community Health, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, who moderated a Q&A session that also featured two Coca-Cola officials – Mr. Clem Ugorji, Public Affairs & Communications Director and Mr. Fred Chiazor, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs Manager for Coca-Cola Central, East & West Africa. 

Dr. Brai corroborated the views expressed by Dr. Ndiokwelu on the various issues and charged health journalists to habitually evaluate their sources of information and avoid the temptation to flow with popular beliefs on medical issues which may not necessarily be correct. While appreciating the pressure for speedy turnaround time in today’s journalism, he said the professional and ethical requirement for true and objective information should not be sacrificed for speed especially in matters affecting public health and wellbeing. He noted that over-reliance on the internet these days is breeding indolence in every professional, including journalism; and he advised health journalists, in particular, to establish relationships with credible experts in medicine, nutrition and allied fields who can sound as quick reference points and sounding boards for their write-ups.

Responding to a question, Chiazor said that every ingredient used by Coca-Cola for its various products has been certified both locally and internationally as safe for consumers, including Aspartame which he said has been subjected to more than 200 critical research studies. “We recognize that consumers have different needs, and this why we offered a choice of beverage products including sugar-sweetened and sugar-free as well as low and no-calorie products”, he said. 

Speaking on Coca-Cola’s rationale for sponsoring the forum, Ugorji said, “Coca-Cola has a long heritage founded on trust, integrity and quality. Our success as a business is tied to the well-being of our consumers, and this forum demonstrates our commitment to promote sustainable dialogue with key stakeholders in order to achieve shared understanding and balanced communication on consumer health issues.”

Commenting on the workshop, the President, Health Writers Association of Nigeria (HEWAN) Chikwe Azoma remarked that, “Training and re-training are essential for entrenching professionalism in the Journalism profession. The workshop was very interesting and educative and I believe discerning members of the public would also benefit from attending similar events.’’

Health Reporter at The Guardian, Paul Adunwoke, also praised Coca-Cola for its adherence to global best practices in manufacturing, corporate governance and social responsibility given what he saw during the a tour of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ikeja and a presentation by Ugorji on the company’s social footprints globally and in Nigeria. 

In summarizing the discussions, the forum moderator, Dr. Kemi Odukoya highlighted two key takeout for the journalists as: factual information on health issues which may often require a quick consultation with a subject matter expert should not be sacrificed for speed to publish; and the internet is not always right. 

Dr. Odukoya said message for the general public moderation in that disciplined adherence to consumption of food and beverages, balanced diet, variety and active lifestyle is the key to sustainable health and wellbeing. She thanked Coca-Cola for sponsoring the session and charged the food and beverage industry to take seriously the responsibility to educate consumers by equipping journalists with the right information. 

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About Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited

Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited, an active citizen of the community and one of the most respected companies in Nigeria, is a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company, the world's largest beverage company, which refreshes its consumers with more than 500 sparkling and still brands.  Led by Coca-Cola, one of the world's most valuable and recognizable brands, our Company's portfolio includes 20 billion-dollar brands including Diet Coke, Coca-Cola Zero, Fanta, Sprite, Vitamin Water, PowerAde, Minute Maid, Simply, Georgia and Del Valle. Globally, we are the No. 1 provider of sparkling beverages, ready-to-drink coffees, juices and juice drinks.

Through the world's largest beverage distribution system, consumers in more than 200 countries enjoy our beverages at a rate of more than 1.9 billion servings a day.  With an enduring commitment to building sustainable communities, our Company is focused on initiatives that reduce our environmental footprint, support active, healthy living, create a safe, inclusive work environment for our associates, and enhance the economic development of the communities where we operate. Together with our bottling partners, we rank among the world's top 10 private employers with more than 700,000 System associates.  

 

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Kenneth Eze

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