Revisiting Mass Media Failure in Sri Lanka: What is to be done?

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at National Policy Workshop on Prevention of Chronic Kidney Disease, held in Colombo on 16 Dec 2015

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at National Policy Workshop on Prevention of Chronic Kidney Disease, held in Colombo on 16 Dec 2015

On 16 December 2015, I was invited by Sri Lanka’s Presidential Task Force for the Prevention of Chronic Kidney Disease to speak on this topic at the NATIONAL WORKSHOP ON PREVENTION OF CHORNIC KIDNEY DISEASE held in Colombo.

Speaking to an audience of scientists, health and agriculture sector public officials and policy makers, I briefly explored the kind of misinformation, myths and pseudo-science uncritically peddled by Lankan media.

Professor Rezvi Sheriff, Sri Lanka's top kidney specialist, chairing National Policy Workshop on CKDu in Colombo, 16 Dec 2015

Professor Rezvi Sheriff, Sri Lanka’s top kidney specialist, chairing National Policy Workshop on CKDu in Colombo, 16 Dec 2015

Scientists are researching widely on what causes the Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in Sri Lanka that affects thousands of people (mostly farm workers) and burdens the public healthcare system. As health officials and policy makers struggle with the prolonged humanitarian emergency, unprofessional and fear-mongering media coverage often adds to public confusion and fear.

As a science writer, I have long been concerned about public communication of risk in times of distress. In late 2012, speaking at an Asian science communication workshop held in Colombo, I first coined the phrase: Mass Media Failure is complicating Mass Kidney Failure.

I revisited and updated this analysis,arguing that there are many reasons for systemic media failure in Sri Lanka that has allowed ultra-nationalists and certain environmental activists to pollute the public mind with half-truths and conspiracy theories. These need media industry level reform.

Meanwhile, for improving the CKDu information flow in society, I proposed some short, medium and long term recommendations.

Here is my full PowerPoint:

 

Public perceptions of pesticides & how they influence policy: Case of CKDu in Sri Lanka

I am not a public health or environmental expert, but have long covered related topics as a science journalist.

Among my long-standing interests are the downstream health and environmental effects agrochemicals – both chemical fertilizers and farm chemicals applied against pests and weeds. Parallel to this, I have also been covering chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu), a mysterious illness that has been affecting thousands of Lankan farmers for nearly 25 years.

A link between agrochemicals and CKDu is suspected, but not yet scientifically proven (even though environmentalists ask us to believe so). It is a current yet contentious topic, which I chose for my presentation to an international workshop on “Pesticides and Global Health: Research, Collaboration and Impact” held at the Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, UK, on 10 – 11 February 2015.

This workshop launched Pesticides and Global Health: An Ethnographic Study of Agrochemical Lives — a research project funded by the Wellcome Trust and hosted by Durham University.

In my presentation, I explore the topic from the angle of public perceptions, which are largely shaped by what appears in the media. This has been problematic since mass kidney failure in Sri Lanka has been compounded by what I call a ‘mass media failure’.

Most of our media have failed to understand, analyse and report adequately on this public health emergency. Instead of helping affected people and policy makers to work out solutions, some journalists have become amplifiers of extreme activist positions. This has led to alarmism and policy confusion.

What is to be done? There are no short-cuts to the scientific investigation process which must follow – that means further research is needed to find definitive evidence for causative factors. That could take a while, given how people are exposed to multiple environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors.

But meanwhile, the welfare of those already affected by the disease and their families needs to receive greater public support. Environmentalists trying to score points from this tragedy overlook this vital humanitarian aspect.

A few excerpts from the presentation below. See full presentation above.

Advocacy journalism is fine; activist journalism is questionable

Advocacy journalism is fine; activist journalism is questionable

We need Lankan media to be more reflective, less accusatory

We need Lankan media to be more reflective, less accusatory

Spare a thought for today’s policy-makers who must think and act on the run…

Spare a thought for today’s policy-makers who must think and act on the run…

 

 

 

 

 

Mysterious Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka: Nalaka Gunawardene answers BBC’s questions

As a science journalist, I have been covering scientific aspects of the public health emergency of mass kidney failure that has killed an estimated 20,000 persons in Sri Lanka over the past two decades.

It emerged in the early 1990s, when hundreds of people in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone – heartland of its farming — developed kidney failure without having the common causative factors of diabetes or high blood pressure.

Most affected were men aged between 30 and 60 years who worked as farmers. The disease built up inside the body without tell-tale signs or symptoms, manifesting only in advanced stages.

Over the years, many scientific studies have been carried out on what causes this mysterious disease, now called Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown aetiology, or CKDu. Various environmental, geochemical and lifestyle related factors have been probed. Researchers now suspect environmental and genetic factors as causes – but a definitive link to a specific factor has yet to be found.

On 23 January 2015, I answered a few questions posed by BBC World Service (radio) on CKDu, to feed a news report they were producing for global broadcast.

My full answers are shared here in the public interest.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene responds to questions from BBC World Service on the mysterious mass kidney failure in Sri Lanka: 23 January 2015

Question 1: What are the various theories that scientists have put forward as a possible cause for this disease which has been studied for 20 years?

Question 2: As a science journalist, you’ve been tracking the research on this public health concern for some years. What do you think is most likely cause?

Question 3: The World Health Organisation supported research has suggested a link with agrochemical use. Don’t you think that such a link is likely?

Question 4: The new government of Sri Lanka has just pledged to give high priority to the kidney disease. What are the challenges faced by the government in dealing with this crisis?

 

Mass Kidney Failure and Mass Media Failure in Sri Lanka

The kidneys are vital organs in our body that help keep the blood clean and chemically balanced through filtering. Healthy kidneys separate waste and excess water.

Similarly, a healthy and vibrant media helps separate fact from fiction, and provides clarity and context vital for an open, pluralistic society to function.

In Sri Lanka, mass kidney failure during the past two decades has been followed by what I see as a mass media failure to understand, analyse and report adequately on this public health emergency. Instead of helping affected people and policy makers to work out solutions, some journalists have become mere amplifiers of extreme activist positions.

As health officials and policy makers struggle with the prolonged humanitarian crisis, partisan media coverage has added to public confusion, suspicion and fear. As a science writer and journalist, I have watched this with growing concern.

I just gave a talk on this to the Science Communication Leadership Workshop which was part of the First General Assembly of Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 17 October 2012.

Here is my presentation:

See also my recent writing on this topic:

Sunday column 19 Aug 2012: Science and Politics of Kidney Disease in Sri Lanka

Sunday column 26 Aug 2012: Watch out! Everybody Lives Downstream…