Merck KGaA names winner of storytelling competition to boost schistosomiasis awareness in Ethiopia

After nearly two decades spent working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to supply billions of praziquantel tablets to help treat schistosomiasis, Merck KGaA has recently tacked on an additional awareness-raising component to its efforts to eliminate the parasitic disease also known as bilharzia.

That project has been dubbed the Bilharzia Storytelling Lab, and it wrapped up its third iteration late last month, the drugmaker announced Tuesday. The latest lab took place in Ethiopia, following previous installments in Kenya and Rwanda.

For this year’s lab, local participants were invited to a five-day workshop in Addis Ababa, during which they learned more about schistosomiasis and received instruction on storytelling from local and international experts. From there, the participants worked with health-focused and other nonprofit organizations to develop storytelling-based solutions that could help raise awareness about the disease in their communities. A panel of judges was tasked with selecting the best solution, which Merck will help implement throughout Ethiopia.

The winning solution this year—which was awarded a grand prize of 10,000 euros—uses multimedia participatory theater to improve awareness of schistosomiasis, specifically targeting young men working in sugar factories.

“We have seen great pitches today and it wasn’t easy to pick only one. In the end, we decided on Team Buna because it is an innovative and locally applicable solution, which is also scalable to surrounding communities,” Johannes Waltz, head of the Merck Schistosomiasis Elimination Program, said in a statement after judging was complete.

The previous two winners included a card game that could educate young children about the disease through play and a school notebook that included information about disease prevention for both children and their caregivers, according to Merck.

Schistosomiasis infections occur when the skin is exposed to parasites in bodies of water. After infection, parasite eggs that aren’t passed out of the body may become trapped within tissues, resulting in immune reactions and organ damage, per a WHO fact sheet.

The organization has placed schistosomiasis in its group of neglected tropical diseases, as it is especially prevalent in poor communities within tropical and subtropical regions that don’t have ready access to clean water. The WHO estimates that at least 90% of the approximately 250 million people requiring treatment for the disease live in Africa.

Since 2007, Merck KGaA has been working with the WHO to distribute praziquantel tablets, the recommended treatment for the disease, with efforts focused mainly on sub-Saharan Africa. Merck said in this week’s announcement that it provides the organization with up to 250 million tablets per year, for a total donation to date of 2 billion tablets, which have been used to treat around 800 million people.

In addition to supplying praziquantel, Merck’s four-pronged efforts toward “#MakingSchistoHistory” comprise developing new treatments for the disease, implementing health education and water safety initiatives and forming partnerships to bolster all of that work.