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Arts-based approaches to promoting health in sub-Saharan Africa: a scoping review
  1. Christopher Bunn1,2,
  2. Chisomo Kalinga3,
  3. Otiyela Mtema4,
  4. Sharifa Abdulla5,
  5. Angel Dillip6,
  6. John Lwanda1,
  7. Sally M Mtenga6,
  8. Jo Sharp7,
  9. Zoë Strachan8,
  10. Cindy M Gray1
  11. Culture and Bodies’ Team
    1. 1College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
    2. 2Social Sciences, Malawi Epidemiology and Intervention Research Unit, Lilongwe, Malawi
    3. 3Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
    4. 4Zaluso Arts, Lilongwe, Malawi
    5. 5Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Chancellor College, Zomba, Malawi
    6. 6Health Systems, Impact Evaluation and Policy, Ifakara Health Institute, Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzia
    7. 7School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, UK
    8. 8School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
    1. Correspondence to Dr Christopher Bunn; christopher.bunn{at}


    Introduction Arts-based approaches to health promotion have been used widely across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), particularly in public health responses to HIV/AIDS. Such approaches draw on deep-rooted historical traditions of indigenous groups in combination with imported traditions which emerged from colonial engagement. To date, no review has sought to map the locations, health issues, art forms and methods documented by researchers using arts-based approaches in SSA.

    Methods Using scoping review methodology, 11 databases spanning biomedicine, arts and humanities and social sciences were searched. Researchers screened search results for papers using predefined criteria. Papers included in the review were read and summarised using a standardised proforma. Descriptive statistics were produced to characterise the location of the studies, art forms used or discussed, and the health issues addressed, and to determine how best to summarise the literature identified.

    Results Searches identified a total of 59 794 records, which reduced to 119 after screening. We identified literature representing 30 (62.5%) of the 48 countries in the SSA region. The papers covered 16 health issues. The majority (84.9%) focused on HIV/AIDS-related work, with Ebola (5.0%) and malaria (3.3%) also receiving attention. Most studies used a single art form (79.0%), but a significant number deployed multiple forms (21.0%). Theatre-based approaches were most common (43.7%), followed by music and song (22.6%), visual arts (other) (9.2%), storytelling (7.6%) and film (5.0%).

    Conclusions Arts-based approaches have been widely deployed in health promotion in SSA, particularly in response to HIV/AIDS. Historically and as evidenced by this review, arts-based approaches have provided a platform to facilitate enquiry, achieved significant reach and in some instances supported demonstrable health-related change. Challenges relating to content, power relations and evaluation have been reported. Future research should focus on broadening application to other conditions, such as non-communicable diseases, and on addressing challenges raised in research to date.

    • health education and promotion
    • health policy
    • review

    This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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    • Handling editor Seye Abimbola

    • Collaborators ‘Culture and Bodies’ Team: Amelia Crampin, Jason Gill, Stuart Gray, Hazel Namadingo and Mia Perry.

    • Contributors Inception of the study: CB and CMG. Data collection: CB and OM. Data analysis: all authors. Contribution to the manuscript drafts and finalisation: all authors.

    • Funding This study was jointly funded by the UK’s Medical Research Council and Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund- reference number MR/R024448/1. CK is funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Fellowship.

    • Competing interests None declared.

    • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, conduct, reporting or dissemination plans of this research.

    • Patient consent for publication Not required.

    • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

    • Data availability statement All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. All data relating to the descriptive statistics presented in this paper are accessible in the online supplementary file.

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