The World Health Organization and a network of fact-checking organizations and leading public health bodies on Thursday launched Viral Facts Africa, a first-of-its-kind African initiative to combat health misinformation online.

According to Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, Viral Facts Africa will leverage the insights and reach of a unique network of 14 organizations to counter health misinformation as it spreads and to inoculate people against falsehoods. The initiative is starting with engaging health fact checks, explainers, myth busters and messages on misinformation that are optimized for sharing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“False claims can spread faster than COVID-19 itself, often because they are simple, visual and tap into our emotions. Viral Facts Africa aims to debunk myths fast, right where they spread, and to help people sort life-saving facts from noise. Together, we can stop viral rumors by sharing viral facts,” Moeti said.

The announcement came as the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 4.2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases on the African continent, with more than 3.8 million recoveries and 113,000 deaths, cumulatively.

Information on COVID-19 was shared and viewed over 16 billion times and mentioned more than 6 million times on Twitter and web-based News sites between November 2020 and March 2021 in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region, according to UN Global Pulse, the UN secretary-general’s global initiative on big data and artificial intelligence.

Similarly, in the WHO African Region, mentions of vaccines rose by over 300 percent to over 675,000 between December 2020 and February 2021 when compared with the previous two months. The Viral Facts Africa launch comes as 90 million more COVID-19 vaccines are set to arrive in Africa in the coming months.

COVID-19 is not over, and as vaccines are rolled out across Africa, mask wearing, hand hygiene and physical distancing are still key to saving lives. We need a whole-of-society push to keep these messages fresh in people’s minds and everyone has a role to play as viral health misinformation costs lives,” Moeti said.

She added that Viral Facts Africa is a part of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance, a WHO-hosted network that coordinates actions and pools resources to combat misinformation and fill information gaps around the COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies in Africa.

Launched in December 2020 with 12 organizations, the alliance brings together the Africa-CDC, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, UNICEF, UNESCO, UN Global Pulse, the WHO and the fact-checking organizations Africa Check, PesaCheck, Agence France Presse Fact Check, Dubawa and Meedan. The alliance is growing, with Gavi, the vaccine alliance, and Ghana Fact also recently joining.

Tracking the focus of misinformation circulating on social media is difficult, but African fact-checking organizations say they have debunked more than 1,300 misleading reports since the onset of the pandemic. Widely shared misinformation includes conspiracies around unproven treatments, false cures and anti-vaccine messages.

Moeti said that during the testing phase, Viral Facts Africa products were viewed over 20 million times on social media. All products are open for anyone to use and are available in English and French, with more languages planned.