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Nigeria: 10 big health-related claims we fact-checked in 2019 – and why

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It is easy to say at the end of every year, but Africa Check’s work in Nigeria kept us busier than ever in 2019.

It felt as though we saw more questionable claims and hoaxes this year than there were hours. 

But for us, the most worrying claims were about health. People can be convinced to do things by poor information, with dangerous, even life-threatening results.

The misinformation came in all forms – doctors’ “prescriptions”, scary “facts”, all-reaching cures from nature, myths grounded in tradition and religion, and suspicious statistics. 

Here we highlight 10 of the many claims we fact-checked to show what our fight against health misinformation looked like in 2019, and why we decided to investigate.

1. Malaria kills an average of 300,000 people a year in Nigeria

Many times the intention behind the claim is good, in this case to raise awareness about malaria, a major killer in many African countries. But the execution can go awry.

In August, to advertise its low-cost malaria care treatment, health insurance tech start-up WellaHealth claimed on social media that malaria killed 300,000 people in Nigeria each year. 

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, but it was still an eye-popping number. However, the most recent data from 2017 shows there were 81,640 deaths from malaria in Nigeria, the lowest in seven years. 

In 2010, the death toll was 146,734 and it has been on a steady decline since then. 

Why we checked

Numbers around certain diseases like malaria are considered important health indices in a country like Nigeria. Poorly researched statistics get in the way of public debate, for example if interventions against malaria are working.  Despite the decline in fatalities, Nigeria is by no measure out of the woods – indeed the data shows malaria cases are rising. But the gains should also be noted.

2. Of the roughly 14,000 Nigerian women diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, over 8,000 will die

Here a problem was under- not over-reported. It was again well meaning: a charity was launching a campaign against cervical cancer, a major yet preventable concern in Africa.

Of the about 14,000 Nigerian women diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, just over 8,000 will die, the charity said. But the data shows 14,943 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, while 10,403 die.

Why we checked

The quality of data on cervical cancer in Nigeria, where some 53 million women are at risk,is a concern, including for agencies such as the World Health Organization. So those involved should report the data available correctly when looking to raise awareness of the risks.

READ: Charity understates cervical cancer deaths in Nigeria as it unveils campaign

3. Nigeria has the highest number of cases of female genital mutilation in the world

Reported in a national daily, this claim made a number of statistical missteps: 

  • That because Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country in a region where female gential mutilation (FGM) is prevalent, it follows that it has the highest number of cases. The data shows that while the number of girls and women who have undergone the practice worldwide is unknown, there are larger numbers who have undergone the practice in Indonesia, Ethiopia and Egypt than in Nigeria. 

  • Relying on old data from 2002, perhaps given further authority by its attribution to the US National Library. 

  • And significantly, focusing only on the total number of cases to show Nigeria’s top position compared to other countries. Experts have often told us that the share of those affected in a population is a more reliable basis for comparing countries. By this measure, Somalia has the world’s highest prevalence of FGM, at 98%. Guinea is second at 97%, out of 38 countries, for women aged 15 to 49. Nigeria’s prevalence is 18%. 

Why we checked

In addition to promoting the accuracy of public debate and better informing policy makers who play a key role in the allocation of public funds, we are concerned that journalists should improve their statistical skills when telling public health stories.  

READ: Fact-checked: four claims about sexual and reproductive health in Nigeria

4. Hot lemon water kills cancer and regulates hypertension

Access to healthcare for cancer and other chronic diseases can be a challenge for many in Nigeria, not to mention costly, as in many other countries. Quick cures such as lemon water therefore promise hope but are unscientific, unproven and could be dangerous

Indeed, there are many cancer “cures” online. We debunked several of them this year, especially in our third party fact-checking work on Facebook. Apricot seeds, banana, turmeric, coconut oil, cassava and several other foods were all said to have cancer-killing properties. But all turned out to be false claims. How many more are out there?

Why we checked

There are real lives at stake. A diabetologist told us the following about a quick-fix cure for diabetes, which could apply to many other diseases: “I find all this charlatanism and giving false hope to patients dangerous.”

5. Nigeria has 11 million stunted children

A national newspaper claimed that there were 11 million stunted children in Nigeria. It also reported that the number of stunted kids has consequences for the country’s economic growth. 

We checked and found different estimates of stunting from different data sources, from 9.95 million to 13.9 million children. 

The wide disparity in the figures is attributable to uncertainty about the size of Nigeria’s population. The different sources used different population estimates. 

Why we checked

Nigeria’s population size is deeply contested, with a census last held in 2006. This often presents obstacles when designing policy to counter public health challenges, experts have told us. Highlighting this conundrum helps give a sense of the problem. 

6. Nigeria ranks 15th in the world and top in Africa for its suicide rate

Does Nigeria have the 15th highest suicide rate in the world and the highest in Africa, as claimed in the media? We checked and found that Nigeria, with a rate of 9.5 suicides per 100,000 people, was indeed the 15th highest in the world.

But in Africa, it ranks seventh. Lesotho, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Uganda and Zimbabwe have higher rates.

Why we checked

Public discussions about suicide, often a taboo topic in many parts of Africa, have in recent years been more visible in Nigeria. Accurate data can help inform these conversations.    

7. One in four Nigerians suffers from some sort of mental illness

This is one of 11 claims we fact-checked from an online report with the headline “Nigeria has a mental health problem”, published by international broadcaster Al Jazeera.

The best data on mental illness we found was from 2002, and showed that one in eight Nigerians aged over 18 had had a mental illness in their lifetime. However, because there is no newer data available, particularly not from the World Health Organization, we rated the claim as unproven

Why we checked

The fact-check speaks to data availability about a little-discussed topic, and how unchallenged claims have the potential to spread to international audiences.

READ: Fact-checked: Al Jazeera’s claims about Nigeria’s ‘mental health problem’

8. Every week, at least 12 doctors leave Nigeria to seek employment in the UK

The  debate about the migration of Nigeria’s health workers, particularly doctors, is evergreen in the country.

In April, the minister of labour and employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said medical doctors were free to leave the country as “we have more than enough”. Fact-checks showed that the statement was false. 

And so was this particular claim. The numbers show an even greater trend: up to 22 Nigeria-trained doctors a week were being listed on the UK government register.  

Why we checked

Policymakers seeking to stem the tide would do well to examine the reasons for the increase, which Africa Check has often covered.

9. Salt and toothpaste pregnancy test

“Pregnancy test with salt or white toothpaste at home” is the headline of a widely shared post on a Facebook group, which claims to be a forum for learning about “women-related issues, family, sexology and how to care & pamper your skin”.

The “most effective and easiest method of testing pregnancy by pregnant women” is a “salt pregnancy test”, claimed the August 2019 post

However, experts said the salt and toothpaste pregnancy test is unfounded in science and that medically approved pregnancy tests are recommended. 

Why we checked

Very often sites that sound authentic dupe a lot of unquestioning readers. Be cautious of Facebook groups.  

10. “Stop taking Vitamin C; it comes from the deep sea … You must go for deliverance” or “you will not make it into heaven”

This claim combined a spurious health-related claim and religion, a proven recipe for enticing aslice of Nigeria’s sizeable online audience. 

The preacher told her audience that those who take ascorbic acid (also known as vitamin C) and “eja titus” (Yoruba for Atlantic mackerel fish) “will not make it into heaven”. You can watch the viral video here.

We found this inaccurate

Why we checked

Public health experts have told Africa Check that “deeply religious” Nigerians tend to accept what religious leaders present as the truth without looking at the facts. Mixed with poverty and a health system that doesn’t work well, this leads to “generally poor health-seeking behaviour”.

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