A friend of mine, a physician who works the longest hours of anybody I know, makes only one exception from her demanding schedule in New York. Once a week, she returns home early to watch a new episode of her favorite Brazilian soap opera.
I cannot think of a more unlikely fan. It shows the appeal of soap operas across a broad spectrum, from the most intellectually sophisticated to people with little or no formal education.
So it should come as no surprise that soap operas, or telenovelas, are increasingly being used throughout the world to disseminate messages about health issues such as the need for contraception, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, how to achieve peace between countries in conflict and how to elevate the status of women in developing countries.
By identifying themselves with the protagonists’ dreams and problems the viewer establishes an immediate connection with them. “I think people like stories that continue so they can relate to these people. They become like a family, and the viewer becomes emotionally involved. Viewers respond in two ways: One, that the stories are similar to what happened to them in real life, or two, thank goodness that isn’t me,” said H. Wesley Kenney when he was a producer of the TV series General Hospital.
In Colorado, state officials have developed a telenovela called “Crossroads: Without Health, There Is Nothing,” specifically aimed at conveying health messages to the population. One of the producers’ aims was to increase the number of health-insured kids in the state since almost half of the 150,000 uninsured children (many of them Spanish-speaking) were eligible either for Medicaid or the Child Health Plan Plus program. Following the airing of the telenovelas, there was a substantial increase in the number of children applying for insurance. That same program was used by the Baltimore Child Health Plan to educate Spanish speakers on how to navigate the health care system.
“We’re trying to get people to get related with this character and then feel, it’s such a shame that we lost her just because she didn’t know in time what to do and how to take care of herself, because she could have saved her life” said Julieta Ortiz, who plays one of the main characters in that telenovela.
In Niger, the state television station and UNICEF have joined forces to produce a serial drama entitled “Soueba” which focuses on the lives of young people in Niamey, Niger’s capital. Following their journey into adulthood, the program explores the realities of love and sex and the dangers posed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“‘Soueba’ is more than entertainment. Our aim with ‘Soueba’ is to stop the taboo around HIV/AIDS, decrease the stigma of people living with the disease, encourage positive attitudes and improve prevention behaviors,” declared the director of the program, Mahaman Souleymane.
In Ethiopia, the characters in the soap opera “Yeken Kignit” (“Looking over one’s daily life”) have kept millions of Ethiopians glued to their radios for two and a half years. In the process, they may also have changed their lives. Men who followed “Yeken Kignit” and a similar program called “Dhimbibba” (“Getting the best out of life”) sought to be tested for HIV at four times the rate of non-listeners, while the demand for contraceptives rose 52 percent among married women who listened to the programs.
In Nicaragua, PATH, an international nonprofit organization based in Seattle, working with a Nicaraguan non-profit group called Puntos de Encuentro (Meeting Points), has inserted health-related messages into one of the country’s most popular soap operas. The aim of those messages is to change some cultural assumptions that lead to domestic violence and sexual abuse among adolescent girls and young women.
Some telenovelas that have focused on health issues such as cancer and leukemia have also looked at the number of people who are donating and registering to donate bone marrow. After the program aired, donors went up from single digits to hundreds of people.
In Vietnam, the Ministry of Agriculture and several partners used education concepts to communicate pest management and environmental protection techniques to rice farmers. The project won several awards for its effectiveness in communicating science to people.
Latin American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela have become active exporters of telenovelas, which are eagerly watched in countries as far away from Latin America as Russia, Albania, Romania, China, and several countries from the former Soviet Union.
Depression and its consequences are little known or understood in parts of East Africa. A radio soap opera was created, with scripts authored by local writers and teenagers, which deals with the stresses faced by young people. The show was aired in Malawi and Tanzania, and increased young people’s awareness of this problem and what to do to solve it.
Increasingly, telenovelas have proven their worth in disseminating health messages, and have become an important tool to improve people’s health worldwide.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a winner of several journalism awards.