Journalists need to debunk health information to save lives

Debunking misinformation in health reporting

By  Christine Ochogo I

Information is power, as the saying goes. However correct and factual information in health reporting is what should be consumed in a bid to save lives.

It is therefore important to be cautious when handling information because as much as it is meant to enlighten people on a particular health subject matter, it that can also be used as a weapon for driving various agenda that is not for public good.

With the emergence of coronavirus that has caused Covid-19 pandemic, journalist have turned to health journalism to keep up pace in reporting its development since major stories being carried in the news media today is on COvid-19.

However, most journalist are not endowed with proper training on matters health and have been endowed with public health concepts but are forced to report on Covid-19.

This has created room for misinformation since people are coming up with their own views in regards to the novel coronavirus pandemic that has affected the globe.

In a write up published in forbes, dated August 09, 2020, a contributor mentioned that it is therefore necessary that journalist be taken through epidemiology training to be able to handle stories on covid-19 in a bid to fight misinformation.

By definition, epidemiology is the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and diseases and other factors related to health.

Most often we journalist are bombarded with too much information that is not necessary yet what we are looking for is the missing facts that is not available at our disposal.

In dissemination of information there are three types of information disorder which include misinformation, disinformation and mal-information.

Misinformation has been described as false information shared with no intent to harm. It is usually spread unknowingly and it contains viral messages that are shared quickly without fact checking.

Disinformation on the other hand has been described as deliberate false information that is misleading and knowingly shared to cause harm.

Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm to a person, social group, organization or a country to a person, so, often by moving private information into the public sphere.

Journalist covering health should be fast in spotting and debunking health misinformation by questioning the content and not just consuming information at face value.

Take an example of a recent statement by a USA based doctor, Dr. Stella Immanuel , who come out to claim that  hydroxychloroquine, which is an anti-malaria drug, can cure Covid-19 yet there is no scientific approval to that effect.

Erick Mugendi, Communication Managing Director at PesaCheck, an organization that fights against misinformation, stressed that false information in health reporting can lead to death if mishandled or not debunked in time.

In his explanation during a media online café organized by Media for Environment Science Health and Agriculture (MESHA) he mentioned that fact checking helps in increasing the availability of factual information for under resourced health topics such as Neglected Tropical Diseases, Reproduction Health among others.

 “Debunking misinformation can be done by countering the false information with proper and factual content that can help save lives,” Mugendi stressed.

Sometimes people loose trust because of evolving rereign in information and therefore journalist should develop a tentative tone when doing reporting. This will keep the public on track and be well informed.

“Initially when covid-19 pandemic broke, the public was being told not to wear facemasks, however as the virus evolved, World Health Organization approved the usage of face mask saying it has the ability to prevent the spread of the virus,” Mugendi said.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.



Why Rwandan journalist’s model answers COVID-19 coverage

By Aghan Daniel I

Science journalism is increasingly gaining traction in Africa but remains disadvantaged compared to other fields of journalism like politics and business, which receive more prominence and coverage in newsrooms.

The good news is that the sector is undergoing a rejuvenation, after decades characterized by inadequate coverage, poor reporting and weak scientists-journalists relationships.

Today, having interacted with and trained a number of journalists in Africa, the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) is happy to see renewed interest and commitment to science journalism by a specialized team of journalists who are able to think outside the box and innovatively create platforms that are transforming science journalism.

One such journalist, having interacted with MESHA for nearly three years now, is Christophe Hitayezu, a Rwandese journalist who has been hit by the bug of networking and bringing science journalists together.

With the COVID-19 pandemic having captured the imagination and minds of many people in the continent, Hitayezu went soul searching for a way of reaching out to the masses. His answer lay in founding a simple WhatsApp group to bring health journalists together.

As a journalist and media mentor with interest in health, agriculture and development reporting, Hitayezu has been trained by Internews in different aspects of journalism. He is a Thomson Foundation Alumnus for Access to Information and Investigative Journalism and the International Women’s Media Foundation Alumnus for African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.

Hitayezu contributes to Down To Earth, a magazine published by Centre for Science and Environment, India.

Born in 1988, in Southern Province of Rwanda, young Hitayezu studied Rural Development and Agribusiness at the University of Rwanda, though his love and passion for journalism started since his high school days.

His first and only story at the time was published in 2008 in Huguka Newspaper, currently turned into Huguka Radio station.

“Although I couldn’t find right connections with radio stations to volunteer my time– as online media was in its formative stage in the country – I did not give up. In 2011, I created a blog using my name, through which I published my first article in January 2012, I was convinced that this could help me practise journalism,” he told this writer. At this time, online media in Rwanda was gaining visibility, and he started contributing to the then newly created websites.

Sadly, most of them are no longer operational. Close to the end of his undergraduate studies, Hitayezu volunteered with (Igihe means time in Kinyarwanda), one of the best performing news websites in Rwanda.

After his university studies, he founded a media outlet, Nonaha, for which he is the chief editor. Operational since 2014, the website is among a few that have survived for long without external financial support.

From the fellowships and study tours in Africa, Asia and Europe, Hitayezu has earned his networks and media skills. He singles out the trainings organized by MESHA as having turned around his way of looking at networking for science journalism. Supporting COVID-19 media response.

In March 2020, Hitayezu set up an information and training WhatsApp group that has brought together over 100 health journalists and communicators from over 20 African countries. Named COVID19 Updates, the group also has a few health journalism experts and humanitarian workers.      

“Journalists in this part of the world had not been trained about covering the novel coronavirus unlike other infectious diseases like Ebola and HIV, so we needed a forum to provide timely and accurate scientifically sound messages to the masses,” he says.

With the formation of the WhatsApp group, Hitayezu hoped to reach health workers whom he felt needed to be provided with information on new diseases and so to him, the bearers of that information would be the media who in turn needed fresh and up to date information on a regular basis.

“As the disease is new, journalists need customized reporting strategies and approaches to help prevent the spread of the virus in an ethical and responsible manner. I felt concerned and started to think of how I could connect with other like-minded journalists from across the continent,” he told Sayansi. Although he had an idea, the next challenge was to find and persuade experts to provide the new skills pro bono.

The other big question was, how would the platform remain active till the disease is gone? Besides, how would it be sustained and maintained? He therefore thought of bringing on board media experts.

“Luckily, the webinar with International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), World Health Organisation (WHO), British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Media Action and Internews on March 4, 2020 about the role of media in containing COVID 19 and saving lives, inspired and helped me get connected with the right people. I seized the moment and started by putting my request to the webinar organizer at International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,” says Hitayezu.

In no time he had been connected to Internews’ humanitarian expert who told him of his joy to help as he loved the initiative. He told Hitayezu how they had worked a lot around rumours and misinformation.

“They finally connected me with Internews health journalism expert based in the Africa region who applauded the initiative and helped bring more experts,” Hitayezu says.

The platform is a success “The platform, to me, is a huge success as it is specific and narrow on COVID-19, different from other groups which divert from the intended objective to delve into irrelevances. From the group, I have made some new connections that are beneficial in my writing career. Besides, I have acquired more knowledge on the virus itself and how to treat every information on social media on the virus without first fact checking,” says Lavie Mutanganshuro, a Rwandan journalist.

“The group is a conduit to understanding some of the complications of COVID-19. It serves as the bridge to journos across the continent and discovering details about COVID-19.

Even though the pandemic is still on in Africa and globally, Hitayezu hopes it will end soon. He however says the WhatsApp group will continue to empower its members with right information, resources and by acting as an announcement board on what is happening in the space of COVID-19.


Protect us from the pandemic, people with NCDs urge State

By Mike Mwaniki I


People living with Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Kenya have urged the government to urgently implement measures to protect them from the virus.


The caucus of lobby groups of people with NCDs said the government should prioritize their needs because they at a higher risk of COVID-19 infections and deaths.


Led by Africa Sickle Cell Organization CEO, Lea Kilenga and Renal Patients’ Society of Kenya Chairman John Gikonyo, the caucus urged the government to place those living with NCDs at the center of the COVID-19 response.


“The Government should build a resilient supply chain of essential NCDs medicines and commodities by ensuring their availability, affordability and accessibility at Primary Health Care facilities,” said the consortium in a statement.


The caucus said those living with NCDs who are unable to physically visit health facilities and pharmacies should be supported to access the medication and other commodities.


“The Health and Labor and Social Protection ministries, through the National Emergency Response Committee should include those living with NCDs among the vulnerable population eligible for the COVID-19 kitty as well as social protection benefits,” said the caucus in a statement to the media.


The NCD caucus comprises 30 patient-led organizations based in Kenya, including Women for Dementia Africa, Stroke Association of Kenya, Renal Patients Society of Kenya, Cancer Awareness Centre of Kenya and Kenya Mended Hearts Patients Association, among others.


The caucus, in conjunction with the NCD Alliance of Kenya—which is the national coordinating body for NGOs, civil society organizations and patient led groups and all players working on various aspects of NCD control—held a webinar on August 10, 2020.


The World Health Organization and the Health Ministry have warned that those living with NCDs and adults aged 60 years and above are vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, with persons with inadequately controlled NCDs at higher risk of severe attack with poor outcomes.


Experts say NCDs, which include cancers, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and mental health disorders, among others, currently account for more than 55 per cent of total hospital admissions and over 55 per cent of hospital deaths in Kenya.


The Kenya STEPwise survey for NCDs risk factors (2015) report identifies the major NCDs in the country as cardiovascular conditions, cancers, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases with their sequelae and shared risk factors. Equally contributing to the huge burden are violence and injuries, haemoglobinopathies, mental disorders, oral, eye and dental diseases.


Experts say cancer is estimated to be the third leading cause of death in Kenya, after infectious diseases and cardiovascular diseases.

Estimates from Globocan 2018 show that there are 47,887 new cancer cases in Kenya every year and 32,987 deaths due to cancer annually, up from approximately 41,000 and 28,500, respectively in Globocan 2012. Globocan data provides valuable information on 36 cancers for 185 countries worldwide.


Elsewhere, the Kenya STEPwise report estimates that cancer is the second leading cause of NCD related deaths after cardiovascular diseases and accounts for seven per cent of overall national mortality.


The leading cancers in Kenyan women are breast, cervical and oesophageal. Breast cancer affects 34 per 100,000 population, a clear indication of the threat cancer poses to women.


In men, oesophageal, prostate and Kaposi Sarcoma are the most common cancers, with incidence rates of 17.5; 15.2 and 9.2 per 100,000 men, respectively.


At the same time, a new report by the International Diabetes Federation says 552,000 people in Kenya had diabetes in 2019, but nearly a half of those people are undiagnosed.


When contacted, a senior Health Ministry official, who sought anonymity, said the ministry was currently compiling cases on the number of people suffering from cardiovascular diseases and the report will be “ready by the end of the year.”


The NCD caucus said, “The adaptation of health systems, by the government, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has negatively impacted those living with NCDs.


“For example, access to NCD treatment and care has been compromised by closure of NCD clinics as the focus has shifted to COVID-19 containment while supply chains have been disrupted, with transportation costs increasing.”


They said they had received reports of shortages and stock out of essential NCD medicines and commodities in public health facilities.


“Those living with NCDs are experiencing disruptions in NCD healthcare services, which puts them at higher risk of developing life threatening NCD complications and severe COVID-19.”


While acknowledging efforts by the Health Ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic, the caucus said there was a need to ensure protection and wellbeing of those living with NCDs.


“At the same time, we request for clear guidelines on how those living with NCDs can safely attend the re-opened clinics across all levels of the health facilities in Kenya,” said the caucus.


It also urged the government to ensure continuous education of healthcare providers on triaging and best practices for management of NCD-related emergencies.


“With Kenya easing restrictions, we ask the Government to inform the public of the availability of services in these clinics and encourage positive health seeking behaviors.”



Why Africa must participate in COVID-19 vaccines trials

By Darrel Bosire I 

Africa could benefit from lower prices by participating in the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine development efforts, experts have said.

There could also be cost trade-offs for countries taking part in vaccine trials because they are co-investors or partners in the projects, says Dr Borna Nyaoke-Anoke, Manager, Clinical Trials at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative/Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership (DNDI/GARDP). Dr Nyaoke-Anoke said countries that opted out of vaccine trials will likely buy them at higher prices once they are developed.

“It does not make economic sense for pharmaceutical firms in the north that includes Europe and America, to test and develop a vaccine in their home countries at very high costs and then sell it here at a price similar to the one in their home countries. It is even harder to expect them to give discounted rates on the vaccines to African countries,” she said.

Dr Nyaoke-Anoke said the reasons pharmaceuticals prefer Africa for medicine and vaccine trials are purely scientific, and not racism. “Africa has the richest genetic variety and this makes it an ideal location for clinical trials involving vaccine and drug candidates.

That will result in more effective medicines and vaccines for people from the region and beyond,” she said. She was speaking at a recent virtual pre-conference hosted by the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA), and attended by experts and science journalists from all over Africa.

Prof Kenneth Ngure, a lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), said Africa has scientific and moral reasons to participate in vaccine trials, so that when the vaccines are discovered the findings can also be generalizable to African populations.

Prof Ngure added that populations that participate in trials are usually the ones that are prioritized to receive the vaccines once they become available.

“We should avoid double speak. On the one hand we do not want to participate in vaccine trials and on the other we are demanding to get the vaccines,” he said.

“Remember most of the vaccines and drugs that we use in Africa today had the trials conducted in the west, it is only recently that Africa is getting more requests to conduct these studies because it has built its human, regulatory and infrastructural capacity.”

Dr Nyaoke-Anoke urged African countries to invest more in boosting research capacity in their labs as well as increasing the number of testing sites to attract interest from pharmaceutical firms developing vaccines and medications for various medical conditions.

She said not all medicines and vaccines developed in foreign countries were as effective for local populations, adding that the only way for African nations to overcome this was to take part in the research using local volunteers.

Data from the website www. shows that there are 166 COVID-19 trials taking place in Africa, as compared to 710 in the United States alone, and 107 in Canada. South America has 162, China 60 and India 181.

Out of the 1,056 COVID-19 drug trials going on globally, DNDI indicates that Africa is the site for 56 trials. Uganda, Kenya and DRC are currently participating in trials for one drug each, as compared to Egypt with 36 trials, and South Africa with eight. Dr Nyaoke-Anoke rooted for more funding for research efforts into medication and vaccines on the continent.

“There is a real and urgent need for governments and other stakeholders in the continent to increase funding for research so that they can benefit from credible data from such efforts on home soil. By becoming partners in the research, it will put them in a good position to access drugs and vaccines developed specifically for their populations’ genetic makeup,” said the researcher and academic.

all are visited by tourists, so they are all potentially at risk. Apart from the more solitary orangutans, all species of great apes are highly sociable, living in close-knit social groups with physical interactions between them such as grooming and play occurring throughout large parts of every day. Transmission of any disease would Dr Nyaoke rooted for more funding for research efforts into medication and vaccines on the continent.  

“There is a real and urgent need for governments and other stakeholders in the continent to increase funding for research so that they can benefit from credible data from such efforts on home soil. By becoming partners in the research, it will put them in a good position to access drugs and vaccines developed specifically for their populations’ genetic makeup,” said the researcher and academic.

Responding to a question on why pharmaceuticals preferred Africa as a location for medicine and vaccine trials, Dr Nyaoke said science, and not racism, was the real reason for the choice.

“Africa has the richest genetic variety and this makes ideal location for clinical trials involving vaccine and drug candidates. Even though a few insensitive statements have created the impression in people’s minds that Africans are perhaps viewed as guinea pigs in some quarters, the main goal of the trials is to get comprehensive data from the wide genetic variations in the African populations. That will result in more effective medicines and vaccines for people from the region and beyond,” she said.

“Most trials are taking part in high-income countries. Very few trials are planned in Africa, South Africa, Central and South America, South and Southeast Asia.

Dr Nyaoke said many of the trials currently taking place are too small to be conclusive.

“COVID-19 trials need to be large, well designed and adequately powered to generate authoritative, concrete evidence,” said Dr Nyaoke.  

She lamented that “research to date has mainly been focused on advanced cases of the disease while COVID-19 cases in Africa have mainly been mild.”

Dr Nyaoke said the trials should look into better ways to care for patients in view of the worryingly low levels of ICU and hospital bed capacity on the continent.

“Limited hospital and ICU bed capacity and exposure of health workers require urgent investigation. Large, well-conducted clinical trials are urgently needed to support guidelines on prevention and clinical management in resource poor settings,” she said.

According to Dr Vincent Muturi-Kioi, a medical director at the International AIDS Vaccine (iavi), different people will respond differently to drugs and vaccines because of many factors including human genetics and environmental exposures.

For scientists to develop vaccines and other biomedical products that are optimized for African populations and are meant to address public health problems that may disproportionately affect people in Africa and other low-income regions of the world, it is important that the clinical trials provide data which accurately represents the way these products work in the target populations.



Time to save Mother Earth from imminent perish

For fish lovers, the writing on the wall is that you may need to start looking for a substitute because soon, perhaps in your lifetime, there may not be any more fish.

Even though this sounds harsh and perhaps unimaginable, but a look at the Living Planet Report 2020, released  recently states that overexploitation, bycatch of non-target species, seafloor habitat destruction from seafloor trawling, illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, gathering of organisms for the aquarium trade are to blame for the declining fish on our table.

If you love nature, be informed that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in millions of years. To understand how much we are at a risk, one needs to spare time to read the recently released report The Living Planet Report 2020 to read for yourself that we are in the red and you can do something to reverse the trend.

The reports warns that humanity must rethink the way we produce and consume food and energy, and the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic model which have  pushed the natural world to its limits.

COVID-19 is a clear manifestation of our broken relationship with nature, and highlights the deep interconnection between the health of both people and the planet.

The 2020 global Living Planet Index shows an average 68% (range: -73% to -62%) fall in monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016.

Why should we be concerned about the biodiversity? According to exerts, biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.

Its loss is hence not only an environmental issue but a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. It is also a self-preservation issue.

In addition, nature underpins all dimensions of human health and contributes on non-material levels – inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences and shaping our identities – that are central in quality of life and cultural integrity, says the report.

Our worry is further confounded by the report’s proclamation that freshwater biodiversity is declining far faster than that in our oceans or forests. Based on available data, almost 90% of global wetlands have been lost since 1700; and global mapping has recently revealed the extent to which humans have altered millions of kilometers of rivers.

These changes have had a profound impact on freshwater biodiversity with population trends for monitored freshwater species falling steeply.

The 3,741 monitored populations – representing 944 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes – in the Freshwater Living Planet Index have declined by an average of 84% (range: -89% to -77%), equivalent to 4% per year since 1970. Most of the declines are seen in freshwater amphibians, reptiles and fishes; and they’re recorded across all regions, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean.

The findings of this report calls on everyone to indulge in saving the planet for the good of posterity. That is the only wat we can justify that we appreciate what Mother Earth gives to us freely.