Kate Wilkinson COMMENT: The power of one HIV/AIDS fact-check

Africa Check receives a never ending stream of HIV/AIDS “cure” spam. Kate Wilkinson hopes that we are helping to turn the tide on these lies.

Fact-checking is usually associated with exposing politicians’ lies. Here at Africa Check, we do a fair share of these stories and they are usually read and shared the most.

But we also focus on debunking bogus health claims. For example, we found that eggplant, although tasty, is not a magic cure for colon cancer. Mole soup will not cure a cough. And newsflash: there is no evidence to support claims that pumpkin and tamarind will help manage diabetes.

In 2014, we also exposed a number of hoax Ebola cures and false preventative measures. These were hoaxes that can kill. A claim that bathing in salt water or drinking it will save you from Ebola went viral with deadly results. Two people died.

Our first HIV/AIDS fact-check investigated Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s claim that a special brew of boiled herbs could cure HIV/AIDS. Another report debunked claims that a supposed “wonder herb” called Garani-MW1 could heal people of the virus.

Herbs, spells and healing potions

Apparently, it was US president Benjamin Franklin who said that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. (But please don’t hold me to that.) At Africa Check we like to use a different version: in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except racist tweets and spam about HIV/AIDS cures.

Every day, without fail, our reports on HIV/AIDS receive comments detailing the stories of people supposedly cured of the virus.

A comment under the name Faith (who writes that she lives in South Africa but whose computer address showed the posting to be from McLean, Virginia) relayed that she was diagnosed with HIV when she was five months pregnant. She said a “friend on the internet” directed her to a Dr Olufa who apparently cured her of the HIV virus in only three days using herbs.

A comment from “Stella” explained that she was HIV positive for two years before being cured by a healing potion from a Dr Odumodu. A Harrold Barrington (who claims to be living in the United Kingdom although his computer address suggests Lagos, Nigeria) said he only needed to speak to a spell-caster called Dr Ukure over the phone to be healed.

Peddling snake oil

None of our fact-checking reports are safe from this kind of spam, ironically. We have closed the comment sections on the most abused ones but any report with a link to health or HIV/AIDS has become a target.

There is money to be made in peddling fake cures and snake oil to sick, desperate people. Fact-checking these claims is therefore important. Every day across Africa people are making decisions about their health. To do this they rely on publicly available information. In some cases, like the examples above, the information is a big fat lie. Relying on it can be deadly.

When we publish these reports our hope is that at least one person who is offered mole soup or cancer-fighting eggplant or a quack Aids treatment will Google the supposed “cure” and land up at our website. They can then make a decision about their health based on sound research, not the promises of snake oil peddlers.

(Cue the HIV/AIDS spam.)

[As predicted, this post immediately attracted spam. Here is the first: “My name is mark from USA, I want to testify to the entire world of how i got cured by Dr uzoya healing spell from HIV AIDS. I have been living with this deadly disease for the past 11months, i have done all i can to cure this disease but all my efforts proved abortive until i met an old friend of mine who told me about a spell caster who cast spells to heal all kind of diseases, though i never believed in spells i decided to give it a try when i contacted this spell caster, he helped me cast a healing spell, low and behold, when i went for a checkup i was told i am negative. Contact this great spell caster for any kind of diseases via this email…” Update: 5/1/15]

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