Addressing the rumors on immunization in Nigeria
Opinion piece by Dr Shola Dele-Olowu, Public health specialist
Let us be honest for a moment, rumors thrive and spread quickly in Nigeria because of our love for ‘gist’ and all things sensational. It has been said ‘rumors are the spice of life’. If they could talk, social media like Whatsapp and Facebook, would let us know how sensational Nigerians are. Every now and then, you get the odd message about ‘poisonous imported rice or drinks, free surgeries in non-existent hospitals, the harmful effects of drinking cold water amongst others. Health related rumors seem to rule the ‘media waves’. A case in point was the spate of rumors during the Ebola crises in 2014. My phone was flooded with message s advising me to ‘drink with or have a shower with salt’. Remember how people had complications because of excess salt intake? The one good that came from that was the reminder on hand washing and sanitary practices. Manufacturers, distributors and marketers of hand sanitizer made a fortune at the time. Are the sanitizer businesses still booming? Or have we moved on? That’s how sensational we are. Furthermore, the average Nigerian is highly opinionated. There always seem to be ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ usually with no verifiable source. But as interesting and juicy as the stories can be, they have very telling implications on our lives and wellbeing. Let us face it we are a special breed .When it comes to witticisms, the messages are usually hilarious but for something as simple yet extremely serious as immunization, the joke is on us.
When the rumors about harmful vaccinations in the south east began, I thought this will blow over soon because people are more enlightened than that. But I remembered that it’s the same enlightened folk who drank salt water for Ebola. How can we blame anyone who uses information they receive, whether good or bad? Until the right messages are widely spread, more people are vulnerable to false information and rumors as that is the only information they have. We must also acknowledge that these are sensitive times across the country. All the talk about restructuring and ethnic consciousness is lurid. However, we also care for our individual wellbeing and even if health seeking behavior may be poor, most Nigerians will avoid what they know will cause harm, the key word being ‘know’. How much do we know? What then is true and what are the right messages?
The truth about immunization
Immunization is one the most cost effective lifesaving interventions of human creation. Vaccines have been proven to reduce deaths and disability around the world and WHO estimates that 2-3 million deaths are averted every year as a result of immunizations. There are so many benefits but the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has summarized it simply with five important reasons to immunize your child:
- To save your child’s life; immunization protects against major deadly diseases including tuberculosis, measles, polio, pneumonia, hepatitis B amongst many others
- Vaccination is safe and effective: vaccines cause initial pain and discomfort typical with injections but this is insignificant in comparison with pain, worry and suffering of the diseases and death cause by not vaccinating.
- Immunization protects others you care about; by protecting family, friends and all around us to reduce incidence and spread of diseases
- Immunization saves you time and money. Vaccine preventable diseases cost money to treat, robs you of productive time which will be spent in hospital.
- Immunization protects future generations. This generation does not know the deadly small pox which was eradicated with vaccines. Many other diseases have been reduced because of vaccine use.
Immunization has had a tumultuous history in Nigeria; in the last decade, no more than 25% of children under 2 years of age in Nigeria have received all the recommended vaccinations by their first birthday according to the National demographic health surveys and National immunization coverage surveys; rumors about harmful effects of vaccines have made headlines in the northern part of the country reducing uptake. Nevertheless, these poor results have not deterred the Ministry of Health and the National Primary Health Care development Agency as well as the immunization development partners from working hard towards achieving better immunization coverage. But the government cannot do it alone.
A rumor, an unverified piece of information, is usually the opposite of a fact. And a fact is a piece of verified information supported by data. When information is not backed by data, it has no bounds and is almost always exaggerated. For instance you can only have one child, you cannot have one and three quarters of a child. That is a fact. There are a few things we should do when we get a piece of information we are unsure about:
- Verify and clarify: Ask. Ask. Ask before you spread, spread, spread. A popular pidgin slang says ‘ person wey ask for road no de lost’
- Focus on positive thinking. Remain optimistic and think positively so that you can get the most accurate information instead of the false and usually negative rumor
- Set positive examples. We all know the phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’. Dare to be different and do not follow the band wagon to spread information you are not sure about
- Make policies clear and keep communication lines open: for policy makers so that the issues do not arise in the first place. When people keep speculating without correct information, rumors have a fertile ground to thrive.
We cannot avoid rumors but we can manage the way they are spread. A simple act of restraint can make life easier and reduce the potential catastrophes that can be caused by spreading a lie. Immunizations are safe and are important for our general well-being. Let us disregard unverified information about immunization and health more broadly. For more information about immunizations, call the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) hotlines 08031230415 and 08031230416
Shola Dele-Olowu is a public health physician with Direct Consulting and Logistics Nigeria (www.dclnigeria.com) who implements projects for the Johns Hopkins International Vaccine Access Centre and provides support to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency on Immunization