Award for campaign on limiting family size goes to two at JHU

MEMORABLE MESSAGES

November 12, 1991|By Eric Siegel

In Mexico, a song by two leading pop singers encouraged teen-age listeners to put off having sex because "love on the run creates bread-and-water children." In Turkey, a televised spot by a top comedian showed a fictional farmer able to leave each of his seven sons only a flower-pot full of dirt, the result of generations of large families. And in Zimbabwe, a radio soap opera dealt with the personal burden faced by men who had several children.

For nearly a decade, Phyllis T. Piotrow and Patrick L. Coleman, two Johns Hopkins University public health communications specialists, have worked to develop and disseminate these and other mass media campaigns promoting family planning and sexual responsibility in developing countries around the world.

Tonight, in a ceremony in New York, they will be honored for their efforts with a prestigious Charles A. Dana Award for Pioneering Achievements in Health and Education. Four other innovators in health and education from around the country will also be honored with the award, which carries a $50,000 prize and a medal.

In citing Ms. Piotrow and Mr. Coleman, the Dana Foundation, the private philanthropy that administers the awards, lauded them for "launching a far-reaching alliance between health professionals and popular entertainers to reach millions of men and women with memorable messages" on birth control and sexual abstinence.

"To have the Dana Foundation recognize the importance of using mass media in public health promotion is terribly exciting," said Ms. Piotrow, director of the Hopkins' Center for Communications Programs, in a recent interview in the center's offices in Mount Vernon. "That's real progress. It means we're not laboring in the vineyards anymore."

Ms. Piotrow and Mr. Coleman -- who is returning from the Philippines, where he is the center's senior resident advisor, for tonight's ceremony -- began working together on a concept they would come to dub "enter-educate" in the early 1980s. Before that, Ms. Piotrow, 58, recalled, public health was dominated by epidemiologists and biostatisticians; what educational efforts there were consisted mostly of "a lot of pamphlets and posters" and talks by nurses and other professionals before small groups of people. "They often weren't that interesting and weren't reaching very many people," she said.

Armed with a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and a mandate to reach more people, Ms. Piotrow and Mr. Coleman decided to use the mass media to deliver the message. Their first program was launched in Mexico in 1986, with teen idols Tatiana Palacios and Johnny Lozada singing about sexual responsibility in a pair of songs chosen in a contest among professional Mexican songwriters. Both songs were Top 10 hits.

The success of the songs garnered widespread publicity for the project and was followed by similar campaigns in the Philippines featuring songs by Lea Salonga, who went on

to star in "Miss Saigon," and in Nigeria by international recording star King Sunny Ade.

Not all of the center's projects involved music aimed at young people. In Turkey, for example, a series of 10 comedy spots and a soap opera were geared to adults. "The problem in Turkey is not teen pregnancy," Ms. Piotrow explained. "The problem is that married couples have more children than they want."

In all, the center, which has a $13 million annual operating budget funded largely by U.S. and international sources, has helped start "enter-educate" programs in 40 developing countries. It has also begun to provide evidence to counter the "traditional view that mass media campaigns are OK to create awareness but they won't change behavior," Ms. Piotrow said. After the campaign in Turkey, an additional 250,000 women had themselves fitted with IUDs. "What we've shown is [these campaigns] will change the behavior of some people."

Those changes have not yet shown up where they count most: in the population statistics. "Declines in birth rates take years to accomplish," Ms. Piotrow noted.

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