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Does a Malawian Herb Cure HIV? ‘Africa Check’ Knows the Answer

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Media & Journalism

Are Afrikaners being killed like flies in South Africa? Do 80 percent of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers? How many countries are on the African continent?

These are some of claims that new website Africa Check [1] tries to answer in an effort to sort fact from fiction and promote accuracy in public debates around the continent.

According to the website, Africa Check is [2]:

…a non-profit organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate. We test claims made by public figures around the continent, starting in South Africa, using journalistic skills and evidence drawn from the latest online tools, readers, public sources and experts, sorting out fact from fiction. We publish our findings on this site.

Africa Check logo. Image source: africacheck.org

Africa Check logo. Image source: africacheck.org

The sites invites public [3] members to suggest claims to be investigated. The site explains [4] why fact-checking matters:

Fact-checking is not an abstract interest. It affects real lives.

In mid-2003, a group of religious and political leaders in northern Nigeria advised their followers against having their children vaccinated against polio on a claim that the vaccine would make them infertile.

The immunisation drive was part of a Western-led plot to reduce the population in the Muslim world, they alleged. Tests on the vaccines showed the claims were baseless, and those who spread the claim unchallenged would later withdraw it. But by then, the damage had already been done.

Polio, which was on the retreat worldwide in 2002 , surged in northern Nigeria and spread from there to a swathe of countries around West Africa and the world. And almost a decade on, the disease is still crippling people in Africa and elsewhere today.

False claims affect lives

And fact-checking is what they do. In a blog post titled “My tribe is dying [5]” [afr], popular South African actor, writer and musician Steve Hofmeyer claimed [6] that the number of white South Africans killed by blacks would fill a soccer stadium, that white Afrikaners are being killed “like flies” and that a white farmer is murdered every five days.

African Check investigated Hofmeyer's data and concluded [7] that Hofmeyr was wrong:

But the claims are incorrect and grossly exaggerated. In fact, whites are less likely to be murdered than any other race group.

An update of the post on July 2, 2013, read [8]:

On 1 July Steve Hofmeyr issued a written response to both this report and an article confirming Africa Check's findings which was published by the Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport.

The numerous claims Hofmeyr made and the “statistics” he presented do not add up. Since it was published, his post has had to be updated several times, removing, among other things, data that he claimed related to South Africa which actually came from another continent (and was also misconstrued).

Hofmeyr’s strongest argument boiled down to this: “Far more than facts, it is people’s emotions and experiences that matter … So ‘our people die like flies’ is still applicable, emotionally – and does not need to be supported by facts.”

Africa Check understands that perceptions do of course matter. As stated in our report, South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world and all murders are to be abhorred. Crime data, like all data everywhere, could and should be improved. This is something Africa Check is campaigning for. However, this is not a reason to dismiss inconvenient facts as Mr Hofmeyr does.

Another claim the site has debunked: Do 80 percent of South Africans regularly visit traditional healers [9]as is always claimed by many media sources including the BBC and the South African Medical Journal?:

A South African traditional healer popularly known as Sangoma in Zulu. Photo courtesy of africacheck.org

A South African traditional healer popularly known as Sangoma in Zulu. Photo used with permission from africacheck.org

Here [9] are the facts:

A 2011 General Household Survey found that while 70.7% of South African households favoured public clinics and hospitals, almost a quarter (24.3%) of households said they would first consult a private doctor. The least favoured options were traditional healers (0.1%) and pharmacies (0.3%).

Further analysis showed that 81.3% of black South African households first consulted public sector health facilities, 17.2% first consulted private sector health facilities and only 1.5% first consulted “other” health facilities, which include spiritual healers and traditional healers. Interestingly, 1.5% of white South African households reported that they consulted “other” health facilities first.

These statistics disprove the claim that 80% of black South Africans will first seek the assistance of a sangoma for health care. Contrary to this claim, surveys show that most black South Africans will first seek care from a public health facility.

The website also dug into a mystery drug from Malawi discovered by an employee of the Malawian Ministry of Health called “Garani-MW1″ has been promoted by Malawian newspapers and websites as a cure for HIV and AIDS. There is no evidence [10]to support the claim:

A mystery “wonder herb” that has never been subjected to independent clinical trials or reputable studies is being touted unquestioningly by a number of leading Malawian newspapers and websites as a “cure” for HIV and Aids.

Named Garani-MW1 by the Malawi health department bureaucrat who says she discovered it, the “HIV and Aids herb” is described on the official product website as “a herbal preparation that is being used to treat people that have HIV and Aids”.

There is no evidence that Garani-MW1 is a cure for anything, let alone HIV and Aids. The substance has not been subject to any independent clinical trials, no data has been published and none of the claimed “success stories” appear to have been independently documented.

The conclusion [11]:

The fact remains that there is no cure for HIV or Aids. Anti-retrovirals are the only reliable means of managing the virus that we know of. If a cure is ever discovered, you can be certain that international pharmaceutical giants will be falling over one other in their eagerness to license it and the story will be the subject of an international media frenzy, the likes of which we have rarely seen before.

Like so many other quack cures, the story of Garani-MW1 preys on the desperation of people diagnosed with HIV and Aids.

The fact that supposedly reputable newspapers in Malawi have chosen to give the claims credence with sycophantic and sensationalist reporting is particularly appalling. It is the kind of reporting that causes real damage and costs lives. It should be condemned.

And how many countries does Africa really have? [12] 54 or 55 or 57?:

How many countries does the continent have in its entirety?” asked a message sent to us last week by a group of information security advocates.

The sender, @Infosecafrica, noted that Africa’s regional political organisation the African Union has 54 members but had seen a report claiming the continent is home to 57 countries.

So how many countries does Africa have? The AU claims to represent all African countries. So are there 54 or 57? How hard – we thought – can the question be

Disagreement over number of countries is not a unique African problem [12]:

While it might seem a quirk not to be able to say, for sure, how many countries there are on the continent, the disagreement over numbers is not limited to Africa.

In Asia, there is disagreement about whether Taiwan, which split off from China in 1949, is an independent nation, or not. Worried by threats of retaliation from Beijing if it were to declare formal independence, it has not done so. But from its capital, Taipei, it maintains its own, democratically-elected, government and currency and runs itself independently of China; a country in all but name.

And in Europe, while most powers recognise Kosovo as an independent state, Serbia, its neighbour, does not. So in Europe too, there is uncertainty about how many countries there are.

The answer is [12]:

The best answer to @Infosecafrica’s question that we have come up with is to say there are 55 states that are internationally recognised and members of either the AU or the UN or both. Fifty-three of these belong to both the AU and UN lists. Morocco is not part of the AU but is a member of the UN. The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic is part of the AU.

In addition, while there are various other territories that claim independence, there is also one de facto state, as described under the normal definitions of what makes a country, which is Somaliland. It is not, however, a recognised state.

The main partners for Africa Check are the AFP Foundation [13] and the Journalism Department [14] of the University of the Witwatersrand. Financial support comes from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa [15] and the African News Innovation Challenge [16].

You can follow the project on Twitter [17]and Facebook [18].