COVID-19: Going mobile to combat misinformation, including on breastfeeding

Nearly one million Nigerians in Enugu receive direct messages on COVID-19 prevention and breastfeeding

Ijeoma Onuoha-Ogwe, Communication Officer, UNICEF Nigeria
A mother breastfeeding her baby
UNICEF Nigeria
03 August 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation about the nature of the disease and what needs to be done to avoid it is rife. Some of the misinformation circulating is about breastfeeding. Mothers who wish to practice it are confused.

Perhaps surprisingly, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria is low - one of the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.  Even before the pandemic, 70 percent of Nigerian infants were not being breastfed – thereby missing out on the potentially lifesaving protection provided by exclusive breastfeeding.

Misinformation about COVID-19 has now been added to the mix of factors impeding exclusive breastfeeding.

Like other breastfeeding mothers, Blessing, 45, has had a tough time making sense of what the COVID-19 pandemic means for her and her baby’s safest and healthiest meal, breastmilk.

COVID-19 has already taken away her main source of income, shutting down the market where she used to eke out a living selling vegetables. She can hear the cries for food from her children and struggles to keep them occupied, especially with schools closed. She has many questions about this frightening virus that is keeping everyone indoors, and it’s hard to know where to find the answers.

Blessing gets second-hand information from the other women, and her children get an eyeful on social media. But it’s hard to sift the truth from the falsehoods, as COVID-19 has brought with it a wave of rumour, mixed messages and deliberate misinformation across Nigeria.

“I don’t know whether it is safe to breastfeed, or whether I would risk transmitting the virus to my baby,” she said.

Mobile messaging in Enugu
UNICEF Nigeria/2020/Isaac
His Royal Highness Igwe Dr. Titus Okolo, Ezeoha I of Amorji Nike Autonomous Community, Enugu East and Chairman Enugu East Traditional Rulers Council, receiving communication materials on COVID-19 during a mobile messaging intervention in his palace.

Despite an abundance of media channels and messaging platforms in Nigeria, helping people get the information they need in a clear way can be difficult, particularly for those in lower socio-economic brackets.

With this in mind, UNICEF, in partnership with National Orientation Agency (NOA), is using mobile vans to communicate directly with community members, providing information on how to stay safe and promoting breastfeeding - a crucial way of keeping babies healthy.

The mobile campaign works with traditional rulers and NOA officers, deploying a van with a large speaker to broadcast prerecorded COVID-19 prevention messages to people across ten communities in Enugu State. As it makes its way through the communities, the van stops at designated points where staffers can talk directly to people, answer questions and share communication materials, all while observing social distancing protocols.

It was at one of these stops that Blessing got answers to her questions, as she discovered it was indeed safe to continue breastfeeding without fear that she could risk passing COVID-19 to her infant.

As some communities are hard to reach by road, messages are also transmitted through UNICEF/Enugu State on-air broadcasts called “COVID-19 Radio Talk,” which is carried on eleven stations. The broadcasts use live interactive radio shows and catchy jingles to reach more than 300,000 households, covering nearly one million people.

During one of the programs, Dr. Ibrahim Conteh, Chief of UNICEF’s field office in Enugu, encouraged listeners.

“Like with every other infectious disease, you can stay safe through social distancing, regular handwashing with soap and water and wearing a face mask. Breastfeeding mothers can also continue to exclusively breastfeed their babies, without fear.”

It’s a clear message that Blessing and other breastfeeding mothers have been waiting to hear.