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Vaccination in Kenya has a Fake News Problem; And it is Not Happening Online

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When you come across the term ‘fake news’, you will most likely think it has something to do with politics. This is because the majority of the research and attention given to fake news has been focused on its use in politics and election campaigns. However, misinformation and disinformation also presents a big challenge in other sectors. Health is one such area that our research shows is also being affected by fake news. However, it does’nt get the mainstream attention afforded to categories like politics.

As the Information Age has evolved in the era of social media, we have seen misinformation in health explode with no system of facts in place to counter the spread of falsehoods. Misinformation to do with health is uniquely delicate in that it completely suffocates the truth in many cases, exposing people to very real physiological danger. The forces behind this brand of fake news includes false advertising pushing products like waist trainers, genitalia enlargement pills, magical weight loss pills and meal replacements. The misinformation is also spread through myths and misconceptions of diseases such as ebola, as witnessed on social media whenever an outbreak occurs. In countries like the U.S, vaccine hesitancy has found a home online with the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement gaining massive momentum in Facebook groups and other social media channels. ‘Anti-vaxxers’ believe there’s a connection between vaccination and autism, as well as other brain disorders, despite there being no scientific evidence supporting that theory. We have also seen healthcare being caught up in political tugs of war, leading to falsehoods being trumpeted by influential public figures or mainstay institutions like the church. In short, fake news is seriously damaging our health.

This phenomenon has been manifested in Kenya in the area of vaccination. The country has a long history of vaccine hesitancy and distrust, which has been mainly fuelled by the church’s skepticism towards the procedure. A survey carried out by Ipsos in 2014 found:

  • As much as 45% of Kenyan Catholics believe that the tetanus vaccine is being used to depopulate Kenyan populations,
  • While the Catholic Church are the most vocal against vaccines, in other Christian denominations as much as 65% of them also believed the vaccine is a tool for depopulation,
  • 40% of Muslims consider the vaccine to be a depopulation device, with 77% of North Eastern Province residents being in opposition to the vaccine,
  • As a testament to the power of misinformation, education was not a factor influencing people’s beliefs in whether the vaccine is a depopulation mechanism or not.

Most recently, there has been loud public debate and uproar over a national cervical cancer vaccine drive planned by the Kenyan Government and targeted at girls aged 9 to 14 years.

We conducted research around this conversation and other vaccine-oriented conversations in recent history to understand the underlying attitudes towards vaccines among Kenyans. We wanted to trace any misinformation and misconceptions being pushed online around this issue and the forces behind it. Here is what we found:

1. News stories are the trigger of conversations around the vaccine. News coverage sparks Kenyans to share misinformation around vaccines, either innocently or maliciously.

As with any other facet of public health, vaccine drives need to be supplemented by media campaigns in order to get vital information out to the public. However, the opposition to the vaccines, mainly by the Church, tends to make the vaccine drives a news item in themselves.

In our research we identified that there is no active digital anti-vaccination campaign in Kenya. No specific organisation of any kind is actively churning out fake news about vaccines to a specific target audience.

In the absence of an active digital misinformation campaign or news coverage, vaccine misconceptions largely stay under the radar. This rapidly changes whenever a story is published. Sparked by news coverage, anti-vaccine sentiments tend to bubble to the surface and online commentary increases in comment sections on news sites and on social media. From this, we can conclude that the misinformation agent happens offline and the misconceptions appear online.

Mentions across the web for terms associated with vaccinations in December 2018

2. Politicians are emerging as influential misinformation agents about vaccines.

As the government wages a tug of war with the church over vaccines, the debate rapidly becomes political and invites other parties to weigh in on the matter. This is how an influential voice like ODM leader, Raila Odinga ends up holding a press conference to state that the tetanus vaccine led to the sterilization of over 500,000 women. This effectively makes the media a conduit for fake news. The data we collected shows how much conversation Mr.Odinga triggered by making one statement about vaccines.

Key word density graph for comments on news stories about vaccines in 2017

Raila appears prominently in conversations about vaccines from news data gathered, garnering more mentions than even the Church.

Examples of some of the comments we found

Politicians wield large influence over Kenyans and having them actively participate in spreading misinformation about the vaccine could have far-reaching effects. Our research shows that very few politicians so far, have shared views digitally about vaccines. But as with everything in politics, this could change in an instant.

3. Prominent coverage of misinformation agents by mainstream Kenyan media lends credibility to the information and spreads it beyond Kenya’s borders.

Kenya has become a leading case study among anti-vaccination communities around the world. Many have used information reported on mainstream Kenyan media to lend credence to their claims of vaccines as tools of depopulation. Videos of the Raila Odinga press conference on the tetanus vaccine were shared by anti-vaccine sympathisers across the world. The content has been used to create several videos on Youtube, with the most popular having over 93,000 views.

Infowars, the infamous conspiracy theory website founded by Alex Jones, also picked up on these claims and wrote an article and even did an entire video which is also available on YouTube.

4. Several members of the public often make attempts to correct the misconceptions of others that they see in the comment sections of vaccine stories.

In the absence of a proper system of fact checking to counter the vaccine misinformation and misconceptions, we are seeing members of the public trying to correct misconceptions when they encounter them. However, while this is positive, it also runs the risk of misinformation being countered with more misinformation.

Methodology:

Data collection: Historical Keyword data collection off of Twitter to do with terms relevant to vaccines
Facebook: Data collected from Daily Nation, The Star and Standard Facebook pages by mining stories to do with vaccines then collecting the comments in the comment sections.

Time period: 2016–2018

Odipodev is a data analytics and research firm operating out of Nairobi. They can be contacted on team@odipodev.com

Odipodev is a data analytics and research firm operating out of Nairobi.

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Where Do Kenyans Seek Medical Treatment?

In Kenya there are about 15 medical doctors for every 100,000 persons, a ratio that is quite low. Due to this, people seek other alternative sources of health care. For this reason, over 70% of Kenyans rely on traditional healers as their primary source of health care.

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Where Do Kenyans Seek Medical Treatment?

 

In Kenya there are about 15 medical doctors for every 100,000 persons, a ratio that is quite low. Due to this, people seek other alternative sources of health care. For this reason, over 70% of Kenyans rely on traditional healers as their primary source of health care. This number is high because healers respond to diverse needs – they work as herbalists and birth attendants and they’re within reach of ordinary citizens. Estimates suggest that there is one healer for every 950 patients operating both in the rural and urban settings. legitimacy and authority are bestowed on them particularly because they act as custodians of precious biodiversity and the bearers of traditional knowledge.

According to a national household survey released  by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 57 percent of the population seek treatment from traditional healers and herbalists compared to 28 percent who accessed from health facilities.  

Population distribution by who diagnosed the illness

Population distribution by who diagnosed the illness

 

The same study also revealed that as compared to their counterparts in urban areas rural folk visit traditional healers more by a 13 percent difference, largely due to the distribution and accessibility of health centres in the rural areas viz. urban centres.

Population distribution by who diagnosed the illness

Population distribution by who diagnosed the illness: Rural v. Urban

At 76 percent, 59 percent and 57 percent respectively, West Pokot, Siaya and Migori Counties reported the highest numbers as regards treatment by traditional healers and Baringo and Kirinyaga Counties recorded the lowest at 36 percent and 39 percent respectively.

Counties with highest proportions of population that reported diagnosis by a traditional healer

Counties with highest proportions of population that reported diagnosis by a traditional healer

For those who seek treatment in the health facilities only 1 in 4 Kenyans have access to private hospitals or clinics while the majority of the population are reported to access treatment through public health government hospitals, dispensaries and health centres.

Population distribution by type of healthcare provider

Population distribution by type of healthcare provider

Urban constituents recorded a higher access to private hospitals at 78.2 percent than their rural counterpart  at 64.2 percent.

Distribution Population by Type of Healthcare Provider: Rural v. Urban

Population distribution by type of healthcare provider: Rural v. Urban

The government of Kenya seeks to have universal healthcare to all Kenyans by 2022 to guarantee access to quality and affordable health care. As the data suggests, government should therefore lay its emphasis in investing in public health systems and traditional medicine which have the potential to transform primary healthcare and make it more affordable and accessible.

Written by Joe Kobuthi
Data by Juliet Atellah
Graphics design by Mdogo

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A Timeline of Terror Attacks in Kenya Since 1975

Since 1975, about 350 terror attacks have occurred on Kenyan soil. Data compiled by JULIET ATELLAH, YVONNE MASINDE and graphic design by MDOGO.

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A Timeline of Terror Attacks in Kenya Since 1975

The narrative around terror attacks makes them seem like a rare event. However, since 2011, Kenya has faced 321 terror attacks; that is a new attack every 9 days.

Here’s a look at 29 of the deadliest attacks.

Visualization by OdipoDev

Clean Data: Here
Raw Data: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)

 

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Is the Media Setting the Right Agenda?

For two straight months, the Kenyan media covered the Obado and Maribe trials more than any other issue. Between September and October, 32% of all main headlines across Daily Nation, The Star and People Daily were about the trials. Should we be concerned about this?

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Odipodev is a data analytics and research firm operating out of Nairobi. They can be contacted on team@odipodev.com

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