Caleb Akano bought kola nuts for the first time in years, succumbing to a myth that the caffeine-rich fruit used in Nigerian ceremonies will protect him from Ebola.
“We are fighting a disease that does not give you a chance,” Akano, a 28-year-old political science graduate who lives in the Nigerian city of Lagos, said Aug. 7. “It doesn’t even give you time to panic, so everything has to be on my side.”
The local government of Africa’s largest city has appointed a “rumor manager” and asked pastors who say they work miracles to dispel “wicked lies” including fake cures about Ebola that are spreading through the city of 20 million, according to health authorities. They don’t want to go the way of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where misinformation complicated efforts to contain the viral disease, which has killed more than 1,000 people since December.
A second person in Nigeria has died of the disease that has no known cure or vaccine as President Goodluck Jonathan called it a national emergency last week. The best steps to steer clear of the disease are avoiding bodily contact and washing hands frequently, according to the World Health Organization.
“The rumors themselves can actually cause a lot of damage,” Lagos State Commissioner for Health Jide Idris told reporters last week. “People react to rumors by carrying wrong information.”
Ebola is normally treated by keeping patients hydrated, replacing lost blood and using antibiotics to fight off opportunistic infections. The hope is that a patient’s immune system will eventually fight off the virus’s aggressive attack. About 60 percent of those infected in this outbreak have died.
A Liberian-American man brought the virus to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with about 170 million people. The second victim, who died on Aug. 5, was a nurse who tended to him. Eight more cases have been confirmed, all in Lagos, and 177 people are under surveillance, Nigerian Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu said Aug. 11.
Lagos state Governor Babatunde Fashola last week urged Nigerians to increase the frequency of hand washing and to quickly report any suspected cases, after he visited an isolation ward in the city. The government has distributed leaflets, started a social media campaign and sent mass text messages.
Some people have been told to consume more salt or drink salt water to prevent the illness, Chukwu said. Chukwu called people spreading these “wicked lies” as “evil-minded.”
“This nonsense must stop,” Chukwu said on Aug. 8 in Lagos.
Jonathan asked the public last week to stop spreading misinformation about the disease and “unverified suggestions about the prevention, treatment, cure and spread of the virus.”
Phone companies, including Africa’s biggest operator MTN Group Ltd. (MTN) and Bharti Airtel Ltd. (BHARTI), have been sending out text message alerts about Ebola risks, while digital media and marketing companies, such as Lagos-based Big Cabal Media have set up websites on how to avoid Ebola.
Getting information to Nigeria’s more than 250 ethnic groups WHO speak more than 500 languages is also a challenge, Lori Thicke, co-founder of Danbury, Connecticut-based Translators Without Borders, said by phone. Only 70 percent of the population can be reached using the four main languages of English, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, she said. The organization is helping to translate some of the Ebola prevention messages.
Ebola is “a disease of ignorance in a way because there are many precautions and people aren’t taking them,” Thicke said in a phone interview from Paris.
Seyi Taylor, the 34-year-old co-founder of Big Cabal Media, set up website Ebolafacts.com on July 28 three days after the first person died of the disease in Lagos. Since then it has received 1.5 million hits and his company is now printing fliers. The English-language site will be translated into French, Swahili, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and Nigerian Pidgin.
“We were a bit worried as this government can basically take forever to get something through the door,” Taylor said by phone from Lagos. “We’re actually updating the website to try and respond to some of the hoaxes and myths that are going around.”
When there’s no readily available treatment to a disease people sometimes turn to unproven products. During outbreaks of bird and swine flu in the past decade alleged remedies from sauerkraut to herbal tea have been pushed as alternatives globally.
Nigeria is awaiting the outcome of its application to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for access to an antibody cocktail developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. was used to treat two infected American health workers. Spain obtained a dose of the drug known as ZMapp and is treating Miguel Pajares, a priest who was brought to Madrid Aug. 7 from Liberia.
A panel of ethicists convened by the WHO convened this week. The panel members must address who gets the medicines, which so far only exist in small amounts. Mapp sent the remaining stock of the drug to two west African countries the San Diego-based company said yesterday. They declined to name the countries.
For now Nigerians like Akano are continuing to turn to unproven remedies to ward off the disease, which can cause bleeding from the eyes and mouth.
“Even if the kola nut cure turns out to be false, thank goodness it’s just a fruit or seed,” Akano said. “It’s not like I’m harming my body.”