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Home / Health & Science

Kenyans need ‘immunization’ against Fake News

By DR GITHINJI GITAHI | Mon,Apr 12 2021 17:30:00 EAT

 We can ‘immunize ourselves’ against misinformation and disinformation avoid unnecessary death and suffering. [Courtesy]

In war, truth is always an early casualty. This has never been truer than in the current war against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Right from the start, the World Health Organization (WHO) coined the word, ‘infodemic’ as truth was the first casualty as misinformation and disinformation competed for space with facts. And in many instances, truth lost and country decisions from USA to Tanzania and others in between, were guided by myths. In this situation, the virus was the winner.

For the avoidance of doubt, while malformation refers to false and misleading information, disinformation, originally used in Russia as a tool for propaganda, is misinformation with intent to influence public opinion.

In an August 2020 survey by Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to Covid-19 (PERC), over 50 percent of Kenyan participants agreed that foreigners were trying to test a Covid-19 vaccine on them. This reflects how people process information with skepticism especially where we have low levels of trust between and within countries.

Covid 19 Time Series


More recently, we had many questions raised resulting in eroded trust in Covid-19 vaccines from disinformation created by the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association who made unsupported claims casting doubts on the credibility of the vaccine.

In the Covid-19 public health response measures of wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing, misinformation and disinformation have had a significantly negative result by allowing unchecked spread of the virus resulting in avoidable sickness and death.

As we now enter the next phase of our fight against the pandemic, vaccination, it seems to me that we need first to be ‘immunized’ against misinformation and disinformation.

As we prepared for the scientific breakthroughs of Covid-19 vaccines with hope and optimism, one thing was already worrying many public health experts and the Director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr John Nkengasong, captured it aptly: ‘Trust I build before its needed not when its needed’.

Indeed, though the PERC surveys show that over two thirds of Kenyans are willing to receive the vaccines, the one third who are not ready must worry us. This is because vaccination is less of an individual effort, and more of a population level effort where each needs to be safe for all to be safe.

As demonstrated by other vaccination campaigns like Small Pox and Polio, trust and acceptance is important in driving success in ending human suffering. It is trust that drives participation and creates beneficial public mobilization.

This trust is the ‘immunization’ we need against misinformation and disinformation. Whereas the circulation of misinformation and disinformation may look like an innocuous ‘virus’, a report published recently by the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate from February 1 to mid-March 2021, showed that about 65 percent of Facebook and Twitter posts analysed originated from the same 12 sources whom the researchers called the ‘Disinformation dozen’. The misinformation and disinformation is not an ‘innocuous virus’ but one deliberated seeded to harm.

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This is why we must identify the ‘misinformation and disinformation virus’ its sources, signs and symptoms and develop ‘immunization’ against it. This ‘immunization’ effort will need national, community and individual level interventions.

For one, the state has a duty to inform in a transparent and trusted manner. This doesn’t mean that the state is the owner of all information. By convening trusted sources like researchers, health workers, national and international organizations, the state can provide the ‘first dose’ of this immunization. To be successful, this ‘dose’ will need to be independently and transparently done and must be dissociated from procurement activities. The same people approving procurements are best not the same people discussing the science – in audit, it’s the ‘arm’s length’ transaction.

The ‘second dose’ of this ‘immunization, is the community and individual ownership.

This level is critical in rebuilding trust and is best achieved by allowing community engagement and empowerment through local leaders including religious leaders supported by the scientific community to provide factual information and support individuals to navigate misinformation and disinformation.

By following these two doses strictly and religiously, we can ‘immunize ourselves’ against misinformation and disinformation avoid unnecessary death and suffering.

Dr Githinji Gitahi is Global CEO and Director General, Amref Health Africa.   

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