Health stakeholders from across Africa have lamented the impact of mis/disinformation in the fight against COVID-19 and non-communicable diseases. Speaking during the inaugural webinar, held on May 26th 2021, for communicating health sciences in the region, stakeholders led by Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary (CS) Hon. Mutahi Kagwe expressed concerns on how falsified information about the pandemic hampers efforts to combat NCDs.

CS Hon. Kagwe expressed concern that lies and half-truths about the pandemic have instilled a sense of fear that is leading to fewer hospital visits. This is presenting a challenge in monitoring and managing NCDs. The CS decried low knowledge on NCD-predisposing factors saying this is good fodder for the spread of misinformation about these diseases. “Agricultural technologies, for example, have been rumoured to cause cancers and this negatively affects food production which in turn curtails efforts to make safe food available to the population,” the CS observed.

Hon. Kagwe acknowledged the role of the media in addressing misinformation. He challenged journalists to be at the forefront of the fight against NCDs. “This can be done through vibrant media-and-expert engagements advocating for lifestyle changes, proper environmental practices as well as the use of quality agro-chemicals to reduce the risk factors for NCDs,” he said.

The CS further said misinformation threatens to erode progress made in the health sector in Africa and called for structured dialogues and engagements among stakeholders in order to help address this challenge.

The Health CS revealed that in Kenya, NCDs such as cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory diseases account for over 50% of hospital admissions and 55% of hospital deaths making them a leading cause of death in the country.

Josephine Kalinauckas, the Head of European Union’s Regional Team on Crisis Prevention and Response in East and Southern Africa, warned the far-reaching spread of inaccurate information can deeply affect health and stability of communities and countries if not addressed. “COVID-19 provided a staggering example of how facts and science can be twisted and distorted to a point that hinders the success of public policy campaigns,” she said.

The stakeholders also called on African governments to sufficiently invest in NCD prevention, surveillance and control. Dr. Samuel Oji Oti of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) observed that NCD departments in some African countries are grossly underfunded and understaffed. “Twenty years ago, through the Abuja Declaration, African governments promised to commit 15% of the national budget to health care. However, majority of them have not lived up to this promise,” Dr. Oti recounted.

Dr. Oti - Screenshot

The webinar, attended by health journalists from across Africa, was the first in a series of science dialogue sessions whose objective is to bridge the widening gap between science and society through timely interventions on various types of misinformation on innovations in agriculture, food and nutrition, health, and the environment aggravated by COVID-19 pandemic. It also provided an opportunity to launch a UNESCO-led ISAAA AfriCenter-implemented regional training of journalists that will serve to enhance their capacity to effectively report about pandemics and NCDs in the infodemic era.

“The journalist capacity training program is being implemented within the framework of UNESCO’s project CoronavirusFacts: Addressing the ‘Disinfodemic’ on COVID-19 in conflict-prone environments,” explained Dr. Yumiko Yokozeki, Director, UNESCO Addis Ababa Liaison Office to the African Union.

Also launched was the Africa Life Science Knowledge (ALSK) hub, a platform that will host the science dialogue series and journalists’ capacity strengthening program. “The ALSK hub will provide a platform for journalists, both in the mainstream and community media, to access health-related information that has been easily packaged into non-technical language. They can use this information to help communities make decisions on how best to handle COVID-19 and NCDs in Africa,” said Dr. Margaret Karembu, the Director ISAAA AfriCenter, and Chair of the ALSK hub.