Journalism and health

07. Information processing: Real and fake cures for COVID /

No doubt that Covid 19 is the health-related news that made the most headlines in 2020. Since the novel virus erupted in Wuhan, many treatments were suggested but none benefited from a scientific approval. We all remember the Hydroxychloroquine advocated by Professor Raoult. Many drugs and treatments promoted by doctors and governments emerged all over the world, for instance Covid Organics, the ancient herbal remedy newly brewed and made of wormwood, a plant found in Asian and African pharmacies that helps cure malaria, also made from other endemic plants in the region.

Amongst these drugs, the Turkish medicine Dornase alfa, used to treat lung diseases and patients affected with cystic fibrosis. The Chinese Tan Re Qing also was promoted, a formula given to patients with acute illnesses in China. Its components? Bear bile powder, goat horn powder and other plant components.

How can we, specialised journalists, inform the public about the ongoing pharmaceutical research? How can we avoid the hazards of taking unsafe medicines and how to dismiss misplaced hopes?

By taking into consideration the prevailing restrictions, the cultural, economical and social contexts and any potential political pressure?

Below are the interviews conducted with some experts. Olivier Marbot, a reporter since 20 years who works currently at “La Revue”, a bimonthly magazine and a publication of Jeune Afrique, and Caroline Paré, journalist and host of the radio show “Priorité Santé” on RFI.

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

Good morning, I am Caroline Paré. I am a journalist at RFI and I host the radio show “Priorité Santé” every morning from Monday to Friday at Issy-les-Moulineaux, at the headquarters.

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France 

Good morning, I am Olivier Marbot, journalist at Jeune Afrique, head of the service called « L’enquête » which covers cross-disciplinary pan-African topics. I live in the southern outskirts of Paris in Arcueil, and my Jeune Afrique office is in south of Paris also, in the fancy 16th district.

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

To date, there is no efficient treatment endorsed by the scientific community against Coronavirus. Of course, we followed up on the many studies conducted so far, which used various products and drugs prescribed previously for other diseases, used this time to combat the complications of Covid-19.

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

We mostly place emphasis, even though we’re based in Paris, on the African treatments, or the ones that already were circulating in Africa back when the pandemic erupted.

This sort of treatment was not unheard of in France and was advocated by Professor Raoult. They, however, resonated strongly among many Africans since they are familiar with anti-malaria treatments there.

We also produced stories about “African” cures, the ancient ones, for instance the use of artemisia plant. 

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

In ‘Priorité Santé’, we tackle traditional medicine topics almost on a daily basis. Since we have a platform connecting north to south, we often interview doctors from the southern hemisphere, and auditors who claim they visit traditional medical practitioners.

But there is a major flaw with the traditional medicine, it often delays care for people suffering critical conditions.

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

We often don’t know what to think, but in this case it was not just about Africa, it was about this unfounded, magical dimension, that is somehow exotic.

 What makes things complicated is the fact that we talk to people who believe in these treatments, whereas at the same time, we deal with down-to-earth organisations such as WHO and Africa CDC.

We also had discussions with African doctors who are active in Africa, and who built a substantive experience after dealing with other epidemics such as Ebola or other less deadly diseases.

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

It’s on a later stage that they have access to these new drugs. We discuss this issue from a research angle, and not from a practical angle, except when we tackle very advanced and targeted therapies, such as the ones used for cancer, which we discussed as well.

But we mainly tackle the research aspect, not the practical aspect.

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

We can’t go more in-depth than that, we are not doctors, nor pharmacists, nor researchers nor chemists. We just transmit, with maximum objectivity and honesty, the diverse opinions of those voicing their views.

With regard to the hydroxychloroquine praised by Pr Raoult which resonated among a lot of people in Africa, some were very sceptical – that was back in April, May – because there were no clinical nor randomised trials.

In my sense, working with the WHO is not easy. They are difficult to reach and are always very wary, as are all United Nations organisations.

Whenever we’d submit a hypothesis, the answer would be « we’re not sure, we need to check, we will find out in two years ».

Working with the African population is not easy either. « We Africans can’t be infected with Covid, we have too much Melanin. » Or « I already had Ebola, I can’t have Covid ».

But again, this happens everywhere, people have rooted convictions, sometimes completely irrational, which they strongly adhere to.

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

We can use Social media to get information, and visit our Facebook page, where our listeners, and some female and male nurses give precise evidence. 

We also read a lot and gather a lot of information before the show.

I personally read 3 books per week, 3 medical weeks, that’s a lot of reading.

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

On that, the WHO, the Africa CDC, as far as I am concerned, did a good job.

They published online material, along with associated university links, it was rather educational.

Caroline Paré – Journalist – RFI – France

Our show, in essence, gives the floor to experts. For that, we have a very busy schedule. It has been the case with “Priorité Santé” for years. Before me, behind the microphone, there was Claire Hédon, and before her, Colette Berthoud.

All this allowed us to build this tight net, this network of doctors in Africa, all fine experts in epidemics and tropical diseases.

When the virus arrived from China, we already had a database of specialists in our records.

We’ve known them for a long time and getting them behind the mike was not troublesome.

Olivier Marbot – Journalist – Jeune Afrique – France

I turned to experts to produce my stories on Covid, of course. Mostly African doctors, but also of other backgrounds. They were not just African doctors since we interviewed Pr Raoult, and representatives from the WHO, who have a broader vision, and representatives from Africa CDC, the equivalent of the WHO in Africa.

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