Sometime in April 2015 in the rural community of Ode Irele in Irele local government of Ondo State, death came calling as the town turned into a funeral pyre.
On the afternoon of the 13th, about 20 able-bodied men lost their lives in Ode Irele with symptoms ranging from headache, dizziness, sudden blindness and then the inevitable death.
Wherever there is mass death in a community with little education, superstition spreads like wildfire in the dry season.
The situation in Ode Irele became tinder for mass hysteria and it was not helped by the recent scourge of the Ebola Virus Disease that had dealt massive blows to populations in Liberia and Sierra Leone and had also claimed precious lives in Nigeria the year before.
As news spread around the country of the deaths in Ode Irele, talk of the deaths resulting from the desecration of the shrine of the local Malokun deity blew.
It was alleged that the young men had stolen some artifacts from the grove of the powerful goddess and then met their untimely death as swift judgment from the orisa.
Immediately, unsightly images of diseased men began to be shared on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs which further spread panic across the land.
Back in Akure, the Ondo State capital, officials at the Ministry of Health had swung into action to investigate the deaths.
While they arrived at an early assumption that the deaths related to the consumption of alcohol by the dead men, they were losing the battle of telling the true story of the events on ground.
They knew that to beat the fearsome news that was already out in the public domain they had to take charge of the social media landscape with their counter argument.
“There can’t be a better interface to disseminate information to a greater majority of people than social media,” Dr Dayo Adeyanju, commissioner of health, says with hindsight.
“We underrate the endless possibilities that abound in the social media. I might not get to read my newspapers for two weeks, I might not get to turn on my TV for 48 hours but I would always be with my phone. And in every free second that I have, something would pop up and that would be my interface with what is currently happening.”
Dr Adeyanju and his team in the ministry’s Computer Department set up an Emergency Situation Room and went to work with their Twitter handle @OndoStateHealth and their website.
— john-paul (@akinduro) April 18, 2015
At first the outbreak was referred to as #OndoX as the public awaited news on a formal name. Eventually when it was established that it was caused by alcohol consumption as the men drank to celebrate the announcement of election results, the hashtag #IreleOutbreak was used to address all inquiries and Twitter chats.
The Ondo state team was eventually able to assert that the deaths had been caused by methanol poisoning in the community’s favourite local brew. It also disabused the minds of all that the photographs that had emerged online were those of victims.
“That was why we were able to cover a lot of ground, we were able to reach out to as many people as possible, both home and abroad, as well as allay fears that the situation was under control – particularly those who lived abroad,” Adeyanju said.
— Dr Ketch (@ketchilola) April 19, 2015
What could have constituted another major health scare was quickly brought under control via social networks as word spread on Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and blogs that the #IreleOutbreak was not contagious but toxic.
The state then moved to ban the production, sale and consumption of local alcoholic drinks in its domain. This brought about some problems as locals felt they were being denied cheap pleasure in favour of commercial brands.
In June, more than 70 people have died in Rivers state after consuming another locally brewed drink. It seems they did not take a cue from the success made in Ondo.
The Ondo State Ministry of Health has written two documents on its handling of the Ode Irele case and Dr Adeyanju has used every opportunity to speak about their success.
He was recently invited to speak in Orlando, South Florida about the manner the scare was successfully handled with the use of social networks.
It is a case study that would interest many in the developing world.
— MyStipends Nigeria (@MyStipends) April 22, 2015