NAIROBI, Kenya, May 28 – Joel Shunza Gitali, a Kenyan teacher who has dedicated his life to fighting tobacco use and addiction mostly among young people, has won the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global prize for his work in tobacco control.
WHO announced the award through a statement on Friday.
“We are pleased to announce that the World Health Organization has named Kenyan teacher and tobacco control advocate Mr Joel Shunza Gitali as a winner of this year’s World No Tobacco Day Award. Mr Gitali, who is also chairman of the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance, was selected from hundreds of nominations from the 194 WHO member states,” the Kenya Tobacco Alliance indicated in a statement.
Every year, WHO recognises individuals or organisations in each of the six WHO Regions for their accomplishments in the area of tobacco control.
This recognition takes the form of WHO Director-General Special Recognition Award and World No Tobacco Day Awards.
Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries was also awarded for introducing alternative crops in tobacco growing areas.
“It made me feel energised. I give credit to members of civil society in Kenya. They have visited all corners of the country fighting tobacco use. They also came in strongly to support my nomination. This is a sign of teamwork and cooperation,” Gitli stated soon after learning about the award.
Mr Gitali’s interest in health began in 1970s as a child by observing his mother, who was a Community Health Volunteer.
“My mother was CHV having been trained by Unicef and used to tell us the dangers of tobacco,” he said. “Also, my wife is a nurse and we were staying at Maseno Hospital when we were newly married. I could see how people’s lifestyles were the causes of illnesses.”
“At that time, I began a community cultural group, Social Liberation and Health Promotion Club (now a community-based organisation). We began in Maseno in 1995 but the CBO later shifted to Kakamega. The purpose was to cause social change and cultural transformation in the society to enhance good health.”
Gitali came face to face with the devastating effects of tobacco use among young people in 1996 while working as a guidance and counselling teacher.
It was not only the commonest form of addiction among students, especially those in day schools, but was also the main avenue into other drugs including bhang, alcohol, kuber and khat.
“Students addicted to tobacco and drugs have a problem of not concentrating yet the school environment doesn’t permit them to smoke. Such students become defiant, they steal from others in order to buy cigarettes. They also sell books and so can’t perform well,” he said.
“They’re ever worried they will be found out. They are not settled. They are afraid of going to teachers for consultation fearing they smell tobacco or bhang. They keep avoiding teachers and parents and fellow students. Some, when they have not smoked, don’t come to school or feign sickness,” he added.
According to the Ministry of Health’s STEPwise Survey for Non-communicable Diseases risk factors, tobacco use is the main preventable cause of death in Kenya.
It directly leads to the deaths of 9,000 Kenyans every year, and leaves thousands of others severely sick and disabled, awaiting death.
It is also one of the four risk factors raising the burden of NCDs in the country.