Last weekend, after a relatively incendiary article was published in the Nation newspaper on a self-proclaimed prophet and his bizarre sect, a number of Twitter accounts were activated for a period of two days to initiate attacks on the author of the article and the media house that published it. A number of the account owners claimed to be medical doctors with huge titles and important-sounding roles in the Ministry of Health, and they claimed to have authenticated “miracles” purportedly performed by the leader of their sect.
The most outrageous and insensitive of their claims was that they had somehow authenticated the death and resurrection of one of the sect adherents, who unfortunately went ahead and died a second time and was buried in a low-key ceremony. They lashed out at any one who dared contradict their claims, citing their authority as medical professionals to intimidate lay “doubting Thomases”.
When challenged by actual doctors and other health workers on Twitter as to the veracity of their purported status as “respected senior professionals” (they are not) and their patently ridiculous claims, they tried to intimidate their interlocutors with biblical quotes and appeals to their deity. Threats of fire and brimstone were issued liberally by these “holy tweeps”, whose accounts all appeared to have been registered over the past one month. Indeed, the accounts stopped tweeting as suddenly as they had started once it became clear that they were not making any headway in their attacks on the writer and the Nation.
This Twitter storm may have been hilarious and harmless entertainment, except for the fact that the sect has a large number of followers, many of them seeking cures for debilitating chronic conditions. Over the past several years, whenever the “prophet” pitches camp in a town for one of his famous crusades, some patients have insisted on being discharged from hospital to attend the crusades in search of cure. Unfortunately, some have been reported to die during the crusades, and others suffer significant morbidity because they stop taking their medications and attending clinics in the belief that they are cured.
We need to learn from past cons that claimed many lives and left many Kenyans with serious complications after abandoning treatment for the so-called “faith healing”. The scam involving a religious figure in the Tanzanian hamlet of Loliondo is still fresh in our memories, and dozens of conned Kenyans are still available to tell their tales. Families of con “pastors” also abound in Nairobi, with many making a living out of giving out fake HIV results and then promising a cure for the “newly-diagnosed” illness through divine intervention.
A primary duty of the government includes protecting the population from threats to their health. In my opinion, people making false claims of cure, whether religious or not, must be taken to task in order to protect the public from the danger they pose. We cannot allow charlatans to hide behind the veil of religion (and sometimes of culture or tradition) while profiting off the misery of Kenyans. Any claims of cure must be subjected to the same rigorous testing and proving required of the treatments offered in our health system, and anyone trying to avoid this route must be prevented from conning vulnerable Kenyans.
Lukoye Atwoli is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine; [email protected]