Views from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Louise Pealing presenting The Cure

In search of The Cure: School doctor presents new medical TV show

Louise Pealing is a clinical researcher at the School and a GP in north London. She recently presented two features for Al Jazeera’s new TV series, The Cure, which explores innovations in health and medicine from around the world. She shares her experiences of working on the programme:

It’s good to have friends that go to parties.  A very social friend of mine recently got chatting to a presenter for Al Jazeera at one. He asked her if she knew any doctors who might be interested in presenting a new programme called The Cure about frontiers in world health that they were working on.  I was surprised but very grateful when she told me she had suggested me! A few months later I was flying out to El Salvador to spend seven days away from my usual clinics to work as a TV presenter.

There are many similarities between your first day of filming and the first day on the wards as a junior doctor.  You have sufficient knowledge, but for the time being it seems to have escaped you – leaving an empty sort of fluffy place between your ears.  You are terrified but trying to appear at once professional but approachable, but you can rest assured that who you are talking with is even more frightened.  It also helps not having a script.  The Editor of The Cure, Neil Cairns, had this wisdom to impart: “I always remember Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the 6 W’s: what, why, when, how, where and who”.

Our first story was about CareHPV, a new cervical cancer screening test being rolled out to rural communities in El Salvador. Crack of dawn on the first morning we met with the team from Basic Health International, the NGO working with the El Salvadorian Health Ministry to roll out the CareHPV screening test in El Salvador. My role was to draw out from the members of the NGO, clinicians and women we interviewed, just how big a problem cervical cancer was for El Salvadorian women and their families and the large impact a screening test like CareHPV could have.

I was shocked to discover that more than a quarter of a million women die each year from cervical cancer and that 80% of these deaths occur in the developing world.  Talking with women in the rural communities it was striking just how many women they knew who had been diagnosed or died from cervical cancer.  The disease has reached epidemic proportions in these parts of the world.  It was very moving listening to the women’s stories and inspiring to meet the dedicated teams at Basic Health International and the rural health clinics who are trying to stop this disease in its tracks.

Our second story was very different but no less inspiring. The UN ranks El Salvador as the most vulnerable country to natural disasters and is frequently ravaged by floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and mud slides. The impact of these disasters is heightened by high levels of population density and deforestation.  To mitigate against the loss of life and injury during these disasters, NGO Plan International is establishing Civil Protection Committees, run by young people in the community.  These committees prepare and protect their communities by running evacuation drills and training in first aid.  We met with young survivors from previous disasters and learned how they were protecting their community against future disaster.

In the village of Melara on the west coast of El Salvador, we filmed an earthquake evacuation drill.  It was striking just how well organised and realistic the drill was.  Members of the community were made up to look like they had suffered serious injury – that included smearing themselves with a very convincing red solution.

A flare went off signalling that a drill had started and members of the Civil Protection Committee appeared with protective hats, first aid bags and stretchers to look for injury victims and help people find the safe evacuation point.  All the while loud sirens were going off, stray darks barking and the production team and I had a hard time keeping up with the committee members as they quickly ran from house to house.  It felt very realistic and very scary.  Talking with the young people who had survived previous disasters and used these drills to protect themselves and their communities from flooding in 2011, there was a real sense of determination and hope for the future.

My seven exhilarating days in El Salvador were an emotional journey from fear, to sadness then hope and inspiration. But while I was back to London and my general practice clinics and research, the production team were only half way through their task.  It is quite incredible to see three days’ filming reduced to seven minutes of air time.  The story was still there, true to form in context, content and tone, but now as a distillate.  Watching the programmes I lived all the emotions a second time – testament to how well Al Jazeera allowed these incredible people tell their inspiring stories.

Image: Louise Pealing presenting The Cure on Al Jazeera Credit: Al Jazeera

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