Merck, a leading science and technology company, announced that it hosts its first Bilharzia Storytelling Lab in Kenya. The lab is a three-day workshop bringing together 30 Kenyan community leaders and storytellers. The participants are working on the task to develop new innovative ways of storytelling to empower and inform risk groups on prevention and/or treatment of bilharzia.
More than 240 million people worldwide require treatment for the neglected tropical disease (NTD) bilharzia (also known as schistosomiasis or snail fever), and it is estimated that 200,000 people die from the consequences of their long-term infections each year. The parasitic disease has particularly severe impact on children by stunting growth, causing learning disabilities, and leading to anemia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most cases of bilharzia are found in sub-Saharan Africa (92%). The disease continues to also seriously affect local communities in Kenya.
“Bilharzia remains a serious health issue in our country. To tackle this disease, it is necessary to treat the population on a regular basis. Empowering affected communities by providing information on bilharzia and NTDs is another crucial step in reaching elimination under our “Breaking Transmission Strategy”. I truly welcome the commitment of Merck, to provide regular treatments and now hosting the Bilharzia Storytelling Lab. Being one of the judges, I am very much looking forward to seeing the different solutions the teams will propose,” said Dr. Sultani Matendechero, Head, Division of Vector Borne and Neglected Tropical Diseases at Ministry of Health Kenya.
Since 2007, Merck is committed to tackle bilharzia and has already donated 1.3 billion tablets of praziquantel to endemic countries in partnership with WHO. The company’s praziquantel donations enabled the treatment of 520 million school-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya is one of the recipient countries since 2011 and has been provided with 19.7 million praziquantel tablets to date. Merck is working towards the elimination of this insidious disease, through a comprehensive approach, together with its international partners. Merck’s integrated approach combines provision of treatment, research and development, as well as WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) and health education initiatives. As part of its efforts to raise awareness on the causes of bilharzia and ways to prevent it, Merck has introduced the concept of the Bilharzia Storytelling Lab.
The lab builds on the human-centered design thinking approach, developed by Dalberg, a mission-driven communications and experience consultancy, which seeks to empower and mobilize people to solve global development challenges by collective, sustained action. The approach puts the risk group at the core of the solutions development. Throughout three weeks, the participants work with local experts from the creative sector, health organizations and non-profits to ensure solutions are rooted in reality.
“We are very excited to start our Storytelling Lab in Kenya and gather leading storytellers and community leaders to collaborate on solutions that will bring down the number of people affected by bilharzia. At Merck, we do not limit our commitment to providing treatment alone. We know about the importance of awareness raising in order to see a decrease in infection rates. The Storytelling Lab is the next important step in upscaling our activities in the prevention of infection with bilharzia through health education,” says Johannes Waltz, Head of the Merck Schistosomiasis Elimination Program and Director of Strategy and Finance at the Global Schistosomiasis Alliance (GSA).
Six teams, consisting of 30 Kenyan community leaders and storytellers are working on the challenge to develop innovative tools to raise awareness on bilharzia among risk groups. The three main risk groups as defined by WHO are domestic workers, particularly women doing household work in infested waters, agricultural workers and school-aged children. These are the three risk groups that the lab will address in developing storytelling projects to ignite behavioral change. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the Storytelling Lab is rolled-out virtually.
The Storytelling Lab concludes on the second World NTD Day, January 30th, 2021. This international day marks an important annual event to raise public awareness of the serious impact NTDs have all over the world. The World NTD Day is supported by over 230 international partners including Merck to put the spot on NTDs, raising awareness and calling for action to tackle NTDs. In addition, this day is the starting point in a decisive year for NTDs with WHO just having launched a new NTD roadmap, setting goals for 2030. The World NTD Day has been chosen as the final day for the Bilharzia Storytelling Lab. On that day, all teams will pitch their suggested projects to a jury and the most promising solution will be awarded with an implementation support of 10.000 USD. Merck has confirmed that it intends to apply the concept of the Bilharzia Storytelling Lab in other endemic countries in the future.