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Under the microscope: Health and development claims in Africa & around the world

Did African travellers introduce the zika virus to Brazil? Probably not. The virus found in South America is the Asian strain. Would bathing in warm, salty water save you from Ebola? That claim made in 2014 was just a cruel hoax.

Has South Africa lost R700 billion to corruption since 1994? No. The calculation is wrong. Does Malawi have just 300 doctors for 16 million people? The numbers are wrong but not that far off the mark.

Did a doctor cure Charlie Sheen and the people of Comoros of HIV with ‘milk from goats which had arthritis’? Err, no. Not at all.

What all these claims – about topics relating to health and global development – have in common is that they have all been fact-checked; some of them by Africa Check, others by the Pulitzer Prize-winning US fact-checking website - our main partner in a new project we launched this year.

Potentially life-changing decisions based on health claims

When independent fact-checking started in the United States more than a decade ago, it was pretty much all about politics.

Fact-checking pioneers such as and Politifact focused on checking the accuracy of claims by leading politicians. And that was and is important work.

Today politics is still the main focus of most of the 96 fact-checking sites found to be active around the world in a recent study by the Duke Reporters' Lab.

But a quick glance at what is trending on social media or splashed across newspaper headlines tells another story. Across the world, millions of people hear claims made about everything from health “cures” to access to clean drinking water, and make potentially life-changing decisions on the basis of that.

‘Facts remain vastly underreported’

Health and development have been a strong focus of Africa Check’s work since we launched our site in 2012. But from this year we will be doing a lot more fact-checking of these claims, and, partnering with other fact-checking sites around the world to do it.

The claim made in Brazil that Africans travelling to the 2014 World Cup had brought the zika virus in with them is a case in point. Our colleagues at the new Brazilian fact-checking site Lupa first drew our attention to it and we investigated and ran a report.

To showcase this and other such reports, we have set up two new pages - “Health Check” and “In Development" - where we will run the reports we and our partners produce. They will at the same time publish our reports on their sites - such as one about a South African hospital being the third largest in the world, that Politifact repurposed.

In a world where news travels so quickly, this matters. "The facts about global health and global development remain vastly underreported in America and across the Western world,” said PolitiFact executive director Aaron Sharockman, explaining why his site had got involved. “As we’ve seen with the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the stories or soundbites that do get reported or relayed are often inaccurate or misleading.”

No letting up on other topics

So what exactly will we be fact-checking? For our “Health Check” page we will investigate claims made in Africa and around the world on issues from supposed health cures to the prevalence of diseases, and the effect of health policies to standards of care.

As for “In Development”, we will focus on claims made in Africa and across the globe on a range of development topics from access to key services to levels of infrastructure development, economic growth, waste and corruption.

While we do this, we won’t be letting up on claims made about everything else - from crime to politics, urban forests to mermaids. It just means more reporting on health and development topics, and more reports for our readers from partner fact-checking sites around the world.  

Introducing a new ratings system

As we started this project, we made one more change to the site aimed at providing readers with a clearer understanding of our findings on the claims we investigate.

We have introduced a new system rating claims ranging from “correct” to  “mostly correct”, “unproven”, “misleading”, “exaggerated” or “downplayed” and finally “incorrect”.

Even with this system, we will continue as always provide you with a detailed explanation showing how we reached to that conclusion. They will now just come with a clear rating too.

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