With the world in the grip of a global pandemic, health misinformation has become a matter of life or death. But using audio dramas delivered on WhatsApp to explicitly address falsehoods could help Africa tackle this scourge, a study suggests.
In the first three months of 2020 alone, nearly 6,000 people were hospitalised because of COVID-19 misinformation, according to theWorld Health Organization (WHO).
Researchers say that evidence-based approaches for countering real-world misinformation about health issues remain rare in low-income income countries despite the increasing vulnerability to diseases.
The study published in the BMJ Global Health tested the effectiveness of two methods for tackling health misinformation using audio dramas on WhatsApp in Sierra Leone. The first method explicitly mentioned the misinformation and then debunked it, while the second method focused on the facts only without mentioning the misinformation.
"Both methods were successful in reducing the belief in typhoid-related misinformation compared to the control group," says Maike Winters, coauthor of the study and a research coordinator at the Department of Global Public Health, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.
"When we compared the two methods to each other, the explicit debunking intervention was on most outcomes (not all) more successful than focusing on the facts only."
Health authorities in many countries currently shy away from tackling misinformation head-on, Winters said, adding: "They usually stick to the facts because there is a fear that by mentioning the misinformation, it can spread to people who had previously not heard of it."
Researchers randomly selected 776 adults who used WhatsApp into three groups: 246 received four audio drama episodes that discussed misinformation about causes of typhoid and debunked it with facts (group A), 245 received two audio dramas with correct information on what causes typhoid (group B), and 245 received two episodes about breastfeeding (control group).
The research was conducted in 2019, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both interventions appeared to improve study participants' knowledge, the study said, with 67 per cent of participants in group A scoring one or higher versus 66 per cent in group B and 51 per cent in the control group.
Winters explains that the audio dramas were created using trusted information sources that were well-regarded by local communities. For example, the drama actors were from a well-known Sierra Leonean actors' group and they played the roles of doctors and nurses.
While the misinformation is specific to Sierra Leone, we think that these building blocks can be used to develop similar interventions in other settings. The COVID-19 infodemic makes it very clear that misinformation can be very dangerous and that we need to tackle this on a large scale."
Maike Winters, coauthor of the study
Akinwale Oyejoko, a physician and managing director of Jayden Medical Centre, Lagos, Nigeria, tells SciDev.Net that the findings show how misinformation can thrive and even become a norm if left unchecked.
"So much damage is being done by misinformation. This is the information age, the age where information is the main weapon of empowerment and enslavement. And this gives us a peek into what is happening in our health sector as a whole," he says.
According to Oyejoko, African health policymakers should "come to terms with the amazing reach of fake news and the immediate and potential disaster it is causing to the people".
He urges more interventions to debunk popular misconceptions about health for the general public to be enlightened and empowered to fight health misinformation.
Winters, M., et al. (2021) Debunking highly prevalent health misinformation using audio dramas delivered by WhatsApp: evidence from a randomised controlled trial in Sierra Leone. BMJ Global Health. doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006954.