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Vetting cancer claims in 2019 – it’s about hope, and working with our critics

Fact-checking health misinformation is particularly important to Africa Check. Our organisation’s formation can be traced to misinformation on the polio vaccine in Nigeria. 

Health misinformation has real consequences, and it’s not a problem limited to Kenya, or African countries. The World Health Organization says vaccine hesitancy is one of the major reasons measles has again become a global disease. 

In testimony to the US Congress earlier this year, Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Health and Infectious Diseases, said the US was seeing a resurgence in measles. He blamed this blamed on “an anti-vaccine movement that continues to gain momentum”. 

 In Kenya, the public health conversation this year was dominated by cancer. The deaths of three prominent Kenyans – Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, governor Joyce Laboso and parliamentarian Kenneth Okoth – from cancer fuelled this conversation.

I focused on cancer claims in Kenya in 2019. This is what I learned.

1. Lack of reliable data

Reliable data on cancer is often difficult to come by. Urging more investment in treatment, public figures made a lot of claims about the toll of cancer. Many were difficult to check, due to a lack of reliable data. For example, only 39% of deaths and 74% of births in Kenya were registered in 2018, according to Kenya’s national statistics office.

In 2017, while the World Health Organization estimated Kenya had 32,987 deaths from cancer, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics recorded 17,000. In 2019, the statistics agency did not publish cause-of-death data for 2018, as it had previously.

2. ‘Sellers of hope’ – why wrong information thrives

On a TV panel I was part of, Dr Mercy Korir, a physician and medical journalist, suggested health misinformation does so well because it sells hope.

“Everyone wants hope, for anything and everything,” Korir said.

Activists take part in a protest on 1 August 2019 in the Kenyan capital Nairobi to demand the government declare cancer a national disaster and make free cancer care available nationally.(Photo: TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

“If you are sick you want to be told you will get better. If you don’t have a job you want to be told you will get a job. Everyone is always looking for hope and health is one of the areas where there are many sellers of hope.”

She added: “If something gives you hope, you need to be careful”.

A medical oncologist, Dr Andrew Odhiambo, told me the complex nature of cancer was partly to blame for the success of miracle cure claims. 

“Cancer is not one disease and so there's a lot that doctors don't know, there's a lot the laymen don't know. So anybody can utilise that lack of knowledge to their advantage.”

3. Experts are vital in making sense of it all

As part of a partnership with Facebook to fact-check content flagged as potentially false, I came across many miracle cancer cures. They included lemon water, apricot seeds, bananas, coconut oil, alkaline diets, apple seeds, turmeric and snail liquid. 

Fact-checking these claims revealed a huge appetite for reliable health information, with one report being shared as many as 23,000 times.

A challenge I had to surmount was what research to call on. Even with peer-reviewed research, we need to know where to look. Working carefully with experts was indispensable.

For instance, when checking claims about soya’s link to breast cancer, we started by contacting oncologists working in Kenya. 

We then looked at reference materials published by WHO on the subject and contacted their authors. We also reached out to researchers who had been published in reputable peer-reviewed journals for more context. Essentially, we were casting our net wide.

4. Let’s work with our critics

The claim that soya was cancer-causing had a lot of currency in Kenya. It was made by a prominent senator who runs a cancer awareness foundation.

Experts, both in Kenya and abroad, told us that soya beans were actually healthy, but that the jury was still out on the safety of soya isoflavone supplements.

Once we published our findings, it quickly became clear that this distinction did not matter to certain readers, who maintained that the presence of isoflavones was enough to cause cancer. One Twitter user referred to a peer-reviewed paper to rebut our report, without realising its conclusions supported what the experts had told us.

Reflecting on this made me recall the advice of Jane Elizabeth from the fifth global meeting of international fact-checkers. It was important to “reflect on and respond to the emotions involved in people’s decision making, not just the facts”, she said.

In a keynote address at Global Fact 6 in South Africa this year, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, the founder of Africa Check, expanded on this. 

“Before we publish our fact checks we need to think about them from the perspective of the person who believes the false claim,” he said.

“If we want to be heard, if we want to get a hearing for our corrective information, we need to either acknowledge a kernel of truth if there is one in a false claim, or if not at least acknowledge the reason why someone might believe something that is not true.”

What next?

Cancer is a vital topic, particularly in Africa, where quality healthcare is still out of reach for many.

We will fact-check even more health claims in 2020. 

But we’ll need to do more to reach out to those who may not want convincing, to at least consider the facts. And we hope they’ll at least factor them in their conversations, even if they do not become immediate converts.

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