Over the past five years, Patil has trained hundreds of ASHAs from different states to use WhatsApp to debunk false information.
Maya Patil, an ASHA from Maharashtra’s Kutwad village, says she’s noticed similar positive results after using WhatsApp. She’s been working in the field for 13 years, and in 2018 she met a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy with falling hemoglobin levels who had recently been diagnosed with anemia. She tried to connect the woman to the relevant public doctor, but the family wanted her to use natural methods to increase her hemoglobin levels.
Patil asked the pregnant woman to start drinking pomegranate juice, which has been proven to increase hemoglobin levels, but her mother said pomegranate juice causes kidney stones. Patil tried for several hours to explain the science, but the family wasn’t convinced, nor were they interested in anemia medications.
As a habit, Patil had been taking photos of hundreds of regional newspaper articles addressing common health misinformation that were written by doctors. In one, she found details about the benefits of pomegranate seeds and juice. She sent the pregnant woman the article in a WhatsApp message. Then she found more relevant YouTube videos recorded in Marathi, the woman’s language. After 10 such messages, she finally had an impact; the family allowed the woman to follow her advice, and within 12 days, her hemoglobin levels had increased.
They worked together for three weeks, and when the woman gave birth, it was a normal delivery with a healthy newborn weighing six-and-a-half pounds.
Creating a safer space for women
Though they had successfully addressed a great deal of misinformation over several years, many ASHAs were still seeing pregnant women who were too scared to talk about their pregnancies for fear of their in-laws and husbands. Even in big, ASHA-led group messages, many men in the community responded with “ill-informed comments,” says Netradipa Patil, the ASHA union leader.
Maya Patil similarly laments the persistence of dangerous medical information passed down by family. “The primary goal of any fake news related to pregnancy is to make women suffer,” she says. “Many older women say that they had suffered these rituals during their pregnancy, so why should the next generation not face this?”
So, in 2018 and 2019, ASHAs started to form hyperlocal all-women WhatsApp groups. With a smaller group of just 15 to 20 pregnant women and their close female relatives, Netradipa Patil would focus on helping them understand the scientific aspects of care. “It was difficult, but easier than dealing with hundreds of people in one go.” After six months of test runs, women in the groups even reported talking about misinformation in their households.