The health messages we hear each day about diet and exercise take a back seat in the developing world.

It is the challenge of all public health system in the world — getting individuals to give up unhealthy habits and adopt healthy ones. But the possibility of good and bad health habits takes on a very different importance when you leave the industrialized world.

In the developed world, the considerable health emergencies are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and public health messages reflect that. You can probably recite them: Exercise more; eat more vegetables and fruits; avoid trans fats.

In less grow countries, the public health messages have a very different focus. Right now, one of the greatest campaigns in Africa is to save the lives of young ladies by motivating them to give birth in state-run health clinics instead of at home, where the risk of bleeding to death is so much greater.

In Zambia, a huge number of pregnant women die needlessly every year. Health officials have spent considerable time and money promoting their free clinics, but the results have been disappointing. Few women paid attention. “We were not successful in our communication to the individuals,” said Joseph Kasonde, MD, Zambia’s Minister of Health. “We decided this is an expert matter.”

So the government turned to specialists prepared in the art and science of changing behavior through communication. Their project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, began by conducting public opinion research throughout the country to identify the specific reasons so many women ignored the clinics, and then focused the messages on those concerns.

Zambia’s new maternal health campaign now describes in detail the services health clinics offer, from pre-natal to post-natal care.

It focuses the clinics’ HIV message not on the mother, but on her unborn baby, explaining that HIV medications available at the clinics will reduce the risk of the virus being passed to the newborn.

“A pregnant woman in Zambia may be in denial about her own health, but she will do anything to protect her baby,” said Anne Fiedler, the project’s director. The new messages also emphasize the availability of free birth control at the clinics. In a little more than two years since the project started, this new campaign appears to be working. Many clinics report a spike in the number of women using their services. Zambia’s Health Minister reports unequivocally: “It is saving lives.”

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