Nigerian Ebola Hoax Results in Two Deaths

PHOTO: Nigeria health officials wait to screen passengers at the arrival hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 4, 2014. Sunday Alamba/AP Photo
Nigeria health officials wait to screen passengers at the arrival hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 4, 2014.

Two people have died and at least twenty were hospitalized, all because of a social media prank urging Nigerians to drink excessive amounts of salt water to avoid catching the Ebola virus.

The hoax started with a text message sent by a Nigerian student at the beginning of August, according to Edwin Ikhuoria, a development consultant for U2 frontman Bono’s ONE campaign who lives in Nigeria.

"Once the word was out, it spread like wildfire," Ikhuoria told ABC News.

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Within hours of the first text being sent, Ikhuoria said that everyone he knows had received the message multiple times on social media -- including the Minister of Health.

On Aug. 8, the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard News reported two dead and 20 more hospitalized due to excessive consumption of salt water. The deceased were believed to have had high blood pressure, a condition that is especially sensitive to high salt intake.

"Please ensure that you and your family and all your neighbours bath with hot water and salt before daybreak today because of Ebola virus which is spreading through the air," the text said in part, according to Ikhuoria.

The message also urged people to drink as much salt water as possible as protection against catching the deadly virus, which has killed nearly half of the more than 6,000 infected throughout West Africa.

Symplur, a company that tracks health information trends on Twitter, said that Nigerians first began sending tweets using the words "Ebola," "salt water" and "drinking" starting on Aug. 4 with social network activity ramping up to a peak of about 450 tweets on the day of Aug. 8.

"People seem to [have been] woken up by friends and relatives in the early morning in order to drink and bathe with salt because the local town doc said you needed to do this before sunrise," said Thomas Lee, co-founder of Symplur, noting that much of the activity took place overnight.

And then, just as quickly as the rumors proliferated, they were quashed.

Ikhuria said as soon as the government got wind of the hoax, it immediately began its own campaign using both traditional and social media to reiterate the fact that there is no vaccine or cure for the virus.

"Other people also amplified the message from the ministry and it was all over," he said.

By Aug. 10, there were almost no tweets mentioning the bogus treatment, Symplur data revealed.

"The power of social media to rapidly spread information, both accurate and inaccurate, is enormous, and nowhere is that more impactful than on topics related to our health," said Lee.

According to Informa Telecoms, nearly 70 percent of the Nigerian population owns a cell phone, a typical onramp to popular social media platforms such as texting, Twitter and Facebook. The ability to mobilize information quickly through social channels has contributed to an effective campaign against the Ebola virus in that country, Lee speculated.

Nigeria had only 17 confirmed cases of Ebola and there are currently no new cases, the Nigerian Health Ministry reports. Nearby Sierra Leone, where under 2 percent of the population uses the Internet, has seen nearly 2,000 Ebola cases, according to the World Health Organization.

Toheeb Ojulari, a Nigerian blogger who also received the salt water tweets, said that when the prankster realized what she had done, she immediately took to social media again to apologize.

"All efforts to tell people that I was the one who started the joke failed," reads the message Ojulari and thousands of other Nigerians reposted. "Even my mum [called] me this morning, I did not know what to tell her."