TZ pharmacist inspired a wave of online health promotion programs

27Apr 2019
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
TZ pharmacist inspired a wave of online health promotion programs

Dr Sajjad Fazel, a Tanzanian clinical pharmacist and public health advocate inspired health care professionals in East Africa to utilize social media for promoting healthy life styles and engaging with patients.

Dr Sajjad Fazel

Today, more than three years after he began Afya Yako, Tanzania’s first online health promotion program, numerous similar initiatives have sprung up helping the nation.

What is Afya Yako?

Afya Yako is a health initiative I founded in June 2016 for the purpose of educating East Africans on various health issues. Afya Yako is the first initiative in Tanzania that used the reach of social media to improve health literacy among the population. It is a Swahili based health education and awareness program that started on twitter weekly and has now spread to Facebook and Instagram.

What was your goal when you founded Afya Yako?

Tanzania is a country facing the double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases. It is also a country with scarce and poor health infrastructure especially in rural areas. With the spread of smart phones and cheap 3G internet, I founded Afya Yako to educate the public on various health issues and also answer pressing health questions that they may have. A lot of NGO’s and health institutions focus on treatment rather than health education. Non-communicable diseases cannot be cured but managed. Hence, preventing them through promotion of a healthy lifestyle is very important.

What kind of impact have you created?

The impact is quite huge due to the appreciation and following of thousands of East Africans in regard to the Afya Yako Initiative. Afya Yako has impacted individuals in many ways; some have quit smoking, others have started eating healthy foods and keeping a diet. Some have started exercise groups and preach good health in their individual communities. Apart from individual impact, Afya Yako has created awareness on the harmful effects of shisha smoking which has partly assisted the government on the sheesha ban in July 2016. The initiative has also championed prevention of Non-Communicable diseases through lifestyle changes which the ministry of health has embraced late 2016. Through the Afya Yako initiative I have also advocated for blood donation drives, contraception use and many more. On another level, Afya Yako has brought a sense of realization to the Tanzanian population that social media can be used for the benefit of the public and not only for celebrity gossip as previously perceived.

Have you ever considered utilizing conventional media?

Yes, after the online initiative kicked off. I created a television health show called the ‘Afya Yako Show’. This show was a bilingual health education show where I’d interview various health professionals on health conditions that affected Tanzanians. The show was first aired on IBN Tv Africa and then moved to Kwanza Tv briefly.

How has Afya Yako inspired other health professionals?

Since I founded Afya Yako in 2016, several other programs have sprung up (TibaFasta, AfyaTrack, Daktari Mkononi, JamiiHealth). Healthcare professionals and medical students who’ve seen the success of Afya Yako have decided to adopt it for health promotion on a variety of topics including infectious diseases, chronic diseases, nutrition and many more. Currently, there are over 20 online health promotion programs in Tanzania and I am proud of having started a national movement.

In addition, I had the opportunity to present the lessons learnt from Afya Yako as a scientific poster at the Canadian Public Health Association Forum in 2018. I received great feedback from various public health units within Canada that were interested in adopting a similar program for health promotion.

How has the Ministry of Health in Tanzania reacted to the Afya Yako initiative?

I am grateful that the Minister of Health in Tanzania, Ummy Mwalimu is a very progressive and forward-thinking individual. She highly appreciated the success of Afya Yako and accepted me to join the NCD Working Group at the Ministry of Health. As a result of this, the Minister of Health created the department of public health education that followed in the footsteps of Afya Yako and is currently utilizing social media for health promotion.

What feedback has Afya Yako received from the media?

The Afya Yako initiative has received great acclaim from various media outlets within Tanzania and abroad. Various media houses including Radio Deutsche Welle, Kwanza Tv, Radio Western, The Citizen, Clouds Radio and more.

What are your future plans with Afya Yako?

I am currently writing a book that contains the health education materials from Afya Yako. The aim of this book is to reach those East Africans who are not online. I also plan to create a mobile application that would be a quick reference for patients on various diseases and conditions endemic to East Africa.

Do you have any advice for other social entrepreneurs hoping to start a similar venture?

Yes, my advice to other social entrepreneurs is to innovate and collaborate wherever possible. I believe there is now an over saturation of health promotion programs online in East Africa. We don’t need more programs of a similar nature rather we need innovative ways for healthcare professionals to collaborate and build few effective platforms. Furthermore, I’d like healthcare professionals to think of how they’d measure impact before they start out a project.

Bio:

Dr Sajjad Fazel is currently a Research Associate at Alberta Health Services working on cancer prevention research. He is a clinical pharmacist by training and an outspoken public health advocate. Sajjad has experience working in public health and health management across three continents. His experience working in developing nations sparked his interest in public policy and its ability to improve population health, reduce inequities, and advance social justice.