Alumnus targets public health via social media

Stephen Linch // Special to Western News

Mahija Abdallah, Mtimbwani Dispensary mother and child health care specialist, gathers information from a Tanzanian woman in Mtimbwani, Tanzania, in 2012. At least 10 public-health promoters in Tanzania are using Twitter, Instagram and blog posts to share information about diabetes, heart disease, good hygiene, healthy eating, regular exercise and smoking cessation. The Ministry of Health now has an online division.

As celebrity gossip and jokes long dominated social media in Tanzania, Sajjad Fazel, MPH’18, was convinced social media could be used for social good.

Working as a clinical pharmacist and newspaper health columnist in Dar es Salaam, a major commercial port on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast, he decided to combine his interest in public media with his passion for public health.

“I’ve always had this belief that public health information should go viral,” he said.

In 2016, Fazel began Tanzania’s first online health-promotion initiative, Afya Yako, Swahili for Your Health. Its accompanying Twitter account – with weekly tips on exercise, healthy eating, mental health, smoking cessation and diabetes management – soon swelled to include Facebook and Instagram and then short videos and accompanying info-graphics.

The posts drew the attention of Tanzania’s Minister of Health and Social Welfare, who began retweeting his accounts.

Soon, Fazel’s public health advocacy became public health policy.

Sajjed Fazel

Western UniversitySajjed Fazel, MPH’18, began a social-media blitz for public health in Tanzania – and launched a movement that continues to grow in the east African country.

Within six months, the Health Minister had declared a national day of exercise, in response to Fazel’s call to combat obesity. The country’s president banned shisha smoking nationwide, after Fazel hammered home its health hazards.

“People don’t generally assume that Twitter can change government policy – but it can,” Fazel said.

By the time he left the country in 2017 to enrol in Western’s Masters of Public Health (MPH) program, Fazel’s one-year experiment in public-health advocacy had spread to politicians, bloggers, entertainment figures and other influencers across the east African country of more than 55 million people situated just south of the Equator.

While the official Afya Yako accounts are mostly dormant now, Fazel is conducting cancer-related research in Alberta and still tweeting health promotion from his personal account.

At least 10 public-health promoters in Tanzania are using Twitter, Instagram and blog posts to share information about diabetes, heart disease, good hygiene, healthy eating, regular exercise and smoking cessation. The Ministry of Health now has an online division.

In the country, there has been an upswell in apps intended to help people get healthy, and Swahili-language websites that translate to Community Health, Health Tracker and Pocket Doctor.

Their collective efforts fill an important void in a country where non-governmental organizations have focused efforts on preventing communicable diseases – but where non-communicable diseases are also endemic and less well-understood.

Fazel surveyed some of those who had seen the Afya Yako campaign up to a year after the program officially ended and half said their health literacy had improved and that they had spread the word to their home communities.

As many as 20 per cent had also changed their health behaviours he found, in a study that became a poster presentation, through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) travel grant, at the Canadian Public Health Association Conference in 2018.

Since graduating, Fazel’s work has included health promotion in tobacco control. He was a policy researcher whose work spearheaded smoke-free campus policies across the country.

He is also researching what makes online health misinformation – the myth that sunscreen causes cancer, for example – more compelling than the truth, and how best to counter the falsehoods.

He has also become a member of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of influencers selected by the World Economic Forum.

Fazel said his time at Western helped shape him to become an effective, multi-disciplinary researcher.

“Canada has a great reputation in a lot of developing nations,” he said of his decision to study here. “I’ve known Canada as a country where science and research are valued.”

He “fell in love with the MPH program at Western” because it was the only one in Canada to offer a breadth that included policy, research and health promotion; the only one with a case-based approach; and the only one with Indigenous health as a specific course and module.

“I advocate whenever I can for the program. It’s wonderful and it’s something I really, really value.”