Putting health on the front pages in Indonesia

Germain Mottet
29 January 2019
[Interview] What stage has been reached in research into dengue, a disease that claims hundreds of victims every year in Indonesia? Dewi Safitri, journalist for CNN Indonesia, searched it out during her stay as journalist-in-residence at the Institute of Tropical Medicine.

Why did you choose dengue fever as a subject? What is the link between this disease and your country of origin?

Dengue fever is a massive killer. Every year, hundreds of people die from this disease. In 2015, more than 1,200 people died from dengue fever in Indonesia. More than 125,000 people were infected. Indonesia is stricken by the endemic. But in my opinion, the media are not providing enough information on the question: "How can we relieve the country and the population from this misery?” So I am trying to understand the context of the research into dengue fever, and the fight against this scourge.

 

Portrait de Dewi Safitri
Dewi Safitri

Is a vaccine or treatment currently available?

In recent years, the French pharmaceutical group Sanofi has launched the first vaccine against dengue fever in 20 countries, including Indonesia. But one study found that the vaccine, called Dengvaxia, could pose a risk to people who had not previously been infected with the disease. So the fight goes on, as scientists need to find a new treatment. This might take decades, and there is still work to be done, like preventing the easy transmission of dengue fever by mosquitoes.

 

Can you describe the Indonesian healthcare system?

Demand for treatment in Indonesia – with its more than 250 million inhabitants the 4th largest country in the world - is huge. The universal system introduced in 2010/2011 requires people to pay before they receive treatment. But there is a problem with this system: the mismatch between the sums paid and the care provided. The programme is underfunded, arouses mistrust on the part of the public, and does not meet the expectations of patients or healthcare professionals. The government is therefore re-examining the project.

Right now, the biggest threat facing us is not violence or repression, but the massive spread of false information, also known as fake news. This undermines the reliability of information and the public's trust in us. The only way we can tackle this is to develop a critical mind, thanks to the media in particular.

You are in charge of ethics at CNN Indonesia. Why are ethics important when it comes to science and health?

Ethics play a major role in journalism. In scientific subjects such as medicine, pharmacy and bioethics, we need to be extra vigilant. We need to be ethical in covering topics which are ethically sensitive themselves. For example, a pharmaceutical company conducting clinical trials on people needs to exercise the utmost caution. But in developing countries, regulations are often less strict in this respect. As a journalist, this raises a lot of questions. We need to be aware of this and address these issues in a nuanced way.

 

What is life like as a journalist in Indonesia?

Indonesia is probably one of the countries in Asia with the most freedom for journalists. I'm grateful for that. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we work without intimidation or violence. We are fortunate to be able to travel, write and express concerns. Up until now, the most prominent spaces in the Indonesian media have been taken up by politics, corruption and natural disasters. Not much attention is paid to research and innovation in the area of health. My goal is to talk about this and make people think. I want to put the spotlight on these issues that are vital for Indonesians.

 

What do you wish for the future of your country?

As a science journalist, I believe it is essential that Indonesians can form critical opinions. The media has a responsibility in that respect. Right now, the biggest threat facing us is not violence or repression, but the massive spread of false information, also known as fake news. This undermines the reliability of information and the public's trust in us. The only way we can tackle this is to develop a critical mind, thanks to the media in particular.

Journalist-in-Residence

Journalist-in-Residence is an initiative from the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM). In 2018, 3 journalists from Asia and Latin America had the opportunity to broaden their knowledge on a topic from tropical medicine or global health. The ITM is an essential partner of the Belgian Development Cooperation.

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