The Health Literacy Challenge of Controlling Ebola Spread in Nigeria

There is no doubt that Nigeria faces a number of health challenges. The unfortunate and scary emergence of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in the country has not only compounded the problem, but has also exposed the inherent lapses in our public health system.

There is no known cure for EVD at the moment. However, the furor surrounding the deadly EVD and its attendant casualties has naturally stimulated people’s instinct of wanting to steer clear and seek preventive measures by all means.

First, there is the publicly touted Bitter Kola remedy. While this has been refuted and dismissed by the Federal Minister of Health, it is understandable that some individuals, in a ‘leaving-no-chances’ attempt have continuously snacked Bitter Kola ever since. This is because of its link with a stalled research led by Nigeria’s renowned Professor of Pharmacognosy – Prof. Maurice Iwu. It is important to emphasize that this research ended in the laboratory and was never tested on animals or humans.

The second and more recent rumour of a preventive measure for EVD is that of bathing with salt water and drinking a portion of the mixture. This sounded funny at the wake of its peddling, considering the fact that there are no previously known human health benefits of bathing with salt water. The resultant effect of the rumour on some individuals however turned out otherwise. For instance, my grandmother in the village deprived herself of adequate sleep and expended her call-credit on spreading a false story in a bid to ensure her children and grandchildren remained healthy in the supposedly EVD ravaged city they lived in. She now knows better. However, as reported in the media, several individuals  were not so lucky, as excessive consumption of the salt- solution led  to their untimely deaths; about 20 others are learning the hard way on the hospital bed.

The foregoing points to the fact that in the wake of an outbreak like the EVD in Nigeria, a greater health challenge has surfaced – that of health literacy. The popular saying “Illiteracy is a disease” resounds here, but even more resounding is the realization that health illiteracy is deadlier.  The mere fact that people died as a result of the salt-water rumour is a challenge that calls for serious campaigns on having not just information literate citizens, but also health literate ones.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined health literacy as “the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways that promote and maintain good health.” More lucidly, the United States Institute of Medicine (IOM)  defined it as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Analysing these definitions poses a number of questions which we need to answer as a country if we intend to make progress as healthy individuals or even curtail the spread of the EVD. That people can act on rumours and die as a result, calls for urgent steps in ensuring that citizens are imbued with the skills needed to be rightly informed. These skills will in no doubt help individuals to make appropriate decisions regarding their health. Rumours will always spring up in the society. However the responsibility lies with individuals to verify the authenticity and credibility of whatever information they intend using. This again calls for information literate citizens, but more importantly health literate ones in times like this.

There are a number of challenges surrounding the attainment of a completely health literate citizenry. In fact, it is an ongoing discourse in academic circles. However, as a matter of urgency, the health information use dimension of health literacy should be brought to fore by the government and agencies alike. This, I believe will help in curtailing the spread of diseases during times of epidemics and also help people make informed decisions concerning their health.

Information access and sourcing is one aspect of the health information use dimension that needs to be taken seriously. While one may be quick to point out that we live in a ‘Google-is-your-friend’ age, many Nigerians, especially those in rural areas (like my grandmother) do not have access to the internet or are not literate enough to utilize it. That most rumours originate and spread via today’s social media, and that some of these so-called Google generations are gullible enough to bite them is a matter of discourse outside this piece.

There is therefore a credibility demand on all health information access portals. Government and its agencies should ensure that timely and accurate health information is readily available and widely disseminated  in all formats and media. Health professionals,  the print, broadcast and electronic media, telecommunication companies, business organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics, social media influencers, traditional rulers and religious leaders all have a role to play in ensuring that we have a more health literate society.