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COMMENT: Injecting a larger dose of health fact-checking in Nigeria

In January 2018, the health community welcomed news that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would pay off a $76 million loan from Japan to Nigeria taken in 2014 to help fight polio.

The assistance was given because Nigeria - one of only three countries yet to eliminate polio - had made major strides in its drawn-out fight against the virus.

But the country could perhaps already have hammered the final nail in polio’s coffin if it were not for an unfortunate set of events.

In the early 2000s, a polio vaccination campaign in northern Nigeria, which has a large reservoir of the virus, came unstuck. This was after the media circulated unchecked false statements that the shots contained anti-fertility and cancerous agents. Predictably, an outbreak soon followed.

The event inspired the establishment of Africa Check, the continent’s first independent and non-partisan fact-checking organisation.

Myths have deadly & costly consequences

It is clear that in a multicultural and multi-religious country like Nigeria, the quality of health information has an outsized impact on outcomes, as a 2011 study found.  

Other health campaigns caught up in the web of misinformation included ones about contraceptive use, antenatal care and child spacing. Their failure leads to costly treatment gaps.

In another study, researchers found that that certain myths about family planning negatively affected its use among Nigerian women. Popular ones were “contraception makes women become promiscuous,” “it is expensive to practice family planning,” and “family planning causes cancer”.

The authors concluded that for more people to use contraception, there was a need to counter “myths and information by appropriate factual information”.

Debunking Ebola ‘cures’

Right from Africa Check’s inception, we’ve been setting the record straight on various health claims in Nigeria. Initially, we especially zoomed in on the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

In the ensuing global panic, viral social media and mobile messages urged Nigerians to bathe in salty hot water and then ingest a salt solution to save themselves. Africa Check quickly debunked these.

A Nigerian professor of ophthalmology claimed that drinking a concoction from a local plant could prevent and cure the deadly virus. We found no scientific proof this could work.

While there is no telling how many people resorted to these “cures”, the evidence is that the quality of information people have about their health,  determines the kind of help they seek as well as how and when they seek it.

New grant will strengthen our work

In late 2016, Africa Check opened a Nigeria office. Since then, we’ve considerably increased our Nigerian output, including a factsheet on the crippling 2017 doctors' strike and the meningitis outbreak which left more than 1,000 people dead.

Others included fact-checking a tweet by the New York Times that “almost all children under 5 have died” due to the humanitarian disaster in north-eastern Nigeria, which was thankfully not the case. However, health data for Nigeria is often sparse, so much so that we couldn’t say for sure whether fewer than 20% of Nigerians have access to oral health care services, as the health minister had claimed.

Underpinning our work is that we go a step further to provide people with clear and accurate information to help them make better-informed choices. A generous new grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will strengthen our work in the continent’s most populous country.

Most visibly, it allows us to expand our team of researchers to three. More hands mean we can debunk more dodgy claims.

Learning from Lagos’ ‘medicine men’?

But three local staff members - as experienced and hardworking as they are - could never do it alone. The funding also ramps up our ability to train other local journalists, one of our top objectives.

This year, we will bring together health reporters, civil society groups, public health policy experts and government officials to explore the best ways of ensuring that public health information is as accurate as possible.

The grant will also enable a full roll-out of our Info Finder tool. This is a database that provides a wealth of reliable and expert-reviewed data on almost any topic under the African sun, allowing users to independently verify information for themselves.

Doing all this and more in Nigeria, while tracking the impact of it, will require some creative thinking. Perhaps we can take a leaf from the imagination of Lagos’ popular “medicine men” who touts cure-all potions...


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