In West Africa, there is no shortage of health advice dispensed in videos posted online. These videos spread across social media faster than chickenpox in a classroom – despite the fact that some of these bogus claims are not just false but dangerous. FRANCE 24 joined forces with fact-checking site Africa Check to talk about these false claims and techniques to identify false health advice.

From a miraculous recipe for weight loss concocted in Senegal to an incredible homemade cure for cancer, there are some pretty surprising health claims circulating on Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. They might sound bizarre, but that doesn’t keep some people from taking the advice seriously. In this article, we talk about four examples of fake health claims circulating online in West Africa.

 

1. The Okra miracle

One of the most recurrent stars of these videos is okra, a vegetable widely eaten in several African countries.

Each October, which has been named Breast Cancer Awareness month, articles appear claiming the magical, miraculous properties of okra.

Several different videos cite a 2016 article which claims that okra can eliminate 72% of cells responsible for breast cancer. The article itself was shared more than 150,000 times, most often in Facebook pages and among groups in West Africa, according to Crowd Tangle.
 

This video claims that “okra kills 72%” of breast cancer cells (You can find the video by clicking here).


Why it is false

As explained by Africa Check, there are no scientific studies that establish the link between prevention of breast cancer and okra. Doctor Mame Mbayame Guèye Dione, who is a nutritionist, explained the matter fully in an interview for Africa Check’s radio show.

I have only seen two scientific studies on okra. The first, which was carried out on mice, showed that okra can decrease the level of glucose in your blood. The second study was part of the thesis work of a Nigerian student in the science department of University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Her study, which was conducted in the animal biology lab, demonstrated that okra could reduce cholesterol and blood pressure – but nothing more than that.


The initial article was published in September 2016 on Santé-nutrition.org and later picked up by several other sites.


Advice from Africa Check: 'Always check the source of the studies'

The original article, which was shared many times on social media over the past two years, doesn’t cite any scientific sources. That’s often the case, says Diagne:

Each time that we have a doubt about a "miracle" product mentioned in articles and videos that are being shared widely online, we try to look at the studies.

Almost 100% of the time, these articles don’t reference any studies. If they do, they often cite fake names. Our advice is to always check the source of the study cited in article. You can start with a quick internet search. If you can’t find this study on a serious website, then you know to be wary.

As for okra, well – let’s just say that there are a lot of wild claims about this vegetable circulating online. Some videos even claim that okra is better than Viagra. But don’t get too excited – those videos also cite studies that don’t exist.


2. 'Onion in your socks': beware of robot voices and photo slideshows

There are also a lot of fake claims about the health benefits of common items used in novel ways.

Case in point: in 2017, one of the most widely shared health claims was that putting an onion in your sock would do everything from absorbing bad bacteria to purifying your blood. Altogether, articles and videos espousing these claims were shared several hundred thousand times. Very often, the videos featured photo slideshows and subtitles and were sometimes narrated by a robotic voice.

Why it is false

Once again, these claims have been disproved numerous times, most recently by an article published on fact-checking website Snopes. Tired of seeing chain emails claiming that the onion had magical properties, a chemist from the University of McGill named Joe Schwarcz even wrote a paper about it.

He explains:

Saying that onions are "bacteria magnets" doesn’t make sense. When you cut an onion, that releases sulphuric acid. That’s what makes you cry! But this acid also prevents the proliferation of bacteria. Moreover, if you cut an onion, the surface dries quickly, which reduces the humidity necessary for growing bacteria!

 

Africa Check’s advice: 'This kind of video should ring warning bells'

This video continues to circulate widely on several different Facebook groups in Senegal, according to the Editor-in-Chief of Africa Check, Assane Diagne:

 

These videos often look the same. Most aren’t filmed by professionals but on smartphones. Some just show a slideshow of images explained by subtitles with spelling or grammar errors. Sometimes, they are narrated using the voice of Google Translate. When you see this kind of video, it should ring warning bells and keep you from blindly sharing it. And, if you have a doubt, you shouldn’t share it without watching it from beginning to end.

This video lauding the health benefits of putting an onion in your sock isn’t the only of its kind. Others claim that mixing garlic with milk has healing properties… once again, a false claim.


Tomorrow, check out the second part of our investigation into fake health claims circulating online in Africa.


If you think you’ve spotted questionable health information being shared, then reach out to our team on Facebook or send an email to observateurs@france24.com !

Article written with
Alexandre Capron

Alexandre Capron , Journaliste francophone