The global disruption caused by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has resulted in conspiracy theories and misinformation about the scale of the pandemic and the origin, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of the disease. Falsified information including international disinformation has been spread through various social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and WhatsApp. In some countries such as India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, journalists have been arrested for allegedly spreading fake news about the pandemic.
Misinformation has been propagated by prominent public figures, celebrities, and politicians, while, several religious groups have claimed that their faith will protect them from the virus. Some claim that the virus is a bio-weapon, accidentally or purposely leaked from laboratories, a population control stratagem, the result of a spy operation, or linked to 5G network.
On Jan 30th, several news channels reported about the increasing spread in the conspiracy theories and false health advice in relation to COVID-19. Notable examples at the time include:
“ Bill Gates is behind the COVID-19 pandemic”
“ COVID-19 can be cured by ingesting Clorox”
“ Coronavirus can be prevented by anti-corona sprays”
“ Gargle with an antiseptic and warm water such as vinegar, salt, or lemon for every day to clear your airways”.
On February 2nd, the World Health Organization (WHO) described a “massive infodemic” of incorrect information about the virus, which makes the work of public health practitioners even more difficult and poses risk to global health.
Misinformation is among the most critical issues confronting our frontline heroes. The issue of fake medicines and treatment has become all of the more pervasive in the age of COVID-19. This urges the governments to recognize this serious issue and calls for the development of a unified national and international response and action plan that include comprehensive legal framework, robust reporting systems, and strong national regulatory mechanisms linked to the global regulatory network as well as greater pharmacovigilance capacity
Busting the Myth
The pandemic has created ideal situations for criminals to exploit people’s fears of contracting the disease by advertising falsified information regarding treatments and vaccines, promoting fake tests, and spreading dangerous rumors about potential cures. In some countries, several people have died from drinking toxic alcohol after coronavirus cure rumor. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), has warned against other mythical cures for COVID-19 and confirmed that, to date, there is no specific treatment recommended to treat the SARS-CoV-2 viral infection.
Several countries around the world are struggling with infectious disease and fragile health systems, and the increased spread of false information on fake cures could put these systems under huge pressures and make the situation for physicians and public health practitioners a lot harder than what it already is.
“ COVID-19 is on the rise in Africa, and we are already facing shortages of critical protective equipment and plethora of misinformation,” says Thembeka Gwagwa, ICN’s second Vice-President, and a nurse from South Africa. : Lack of access to care will mean many people will seek cheap, fake medicines which will have devastating consequences”.
Our role as citizens and healthcare professionals
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that videos and posts that trigger an emotional response are shared more and are most likely to influence the public.
As citizens, we have the most important role in curbing misinformation. Social media platforms are a source of immense power that can influence the public and promote awareness about fake cures and false news. Since out-of-context images are a major source of misinformation, citizens can learn to use reverse search image tools such as RevEye and TinEye to locate their origin and verify the truthfulness of these images. Videos can sometimes be misleading and present an even higher level of complexity, however, tools like InVid have begun to make a difference. In general, we should always be vigilant and verify the accuracy of information by looking up a reliable source before we spread the information.
As healthcare professionals, our role is to educate the public on safety concerns related to the use of fake medical products and dispel false rumors about potential cures. Our role is to promote health literacy to support properly informed preventative measures and discourage self-diagnosis and self-prescribing. Although healthcare professionals are under severe pressure during this pandemic, however, the work of educating and informing patients and their families should not be seen as an additional burden but rather as part of safeguarding the health of the community and the public.
Furthermore, there are several campaigns that aim to raise the awareness of fake medicines where victims get to voice their own stories with fake medicines. These campaigns are now a warning of an ever-growing “infodemic” alongside the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Lastly, our fight against COVID-19, future pandemics, and falsified medical information emphasis the urgent need to strengthen the health system, promote health literacy and citizens’ sense of awareness and responsibility, educate healthcare professionals, and better support the ones we have. If we are to be prepared for the next health crisis, and without any doubts, there will be one, we need to better support and invest in our public health and health workforce sector.
- Rochwerg, Bram MD1,2; Parke, Rachael PhD3,4; Murthy, Srinivas MD5; Fernando, Shannon M. MD6; Leigh, Jeanna Parsons PhD7; Marshall, John MD8; Adhikari, Neill K. J. MD8,9; Fiest, Kirsten PhD10–12; Fowler, Rob MD8,9; Lamontagne, François MD13,14; Sevransky, Jonathan E. MD15Misinformation During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak: How Knowledge Emerges From Noise, Critical Care Explorations: April 2020 – Volume 2 – Issue 4 – p e0098 doi: 10.1097/CCE.0000000000000098
- Cuan-Baltazar, J. Y., Muñoz-Perez, M. J., Robledo-Vega, C., Pérez-Zepeda, M. F., & Soto-Vega, E. (2020). Misinformation of COVID-19 on the Internet: Infodemiology Study. JMIR public health and surveillance, 6(2), e18444. https://doi.org/10.2196/18444
- Li HO, Bailey A, Huynh D, et al. YouTube as a source of information on COVID-19: a pandemic of misinformation?.BMJ Global Health 2020;5:e002604
- Citizens’ use of social media in government, perceived transparency, and trust in government. Public Perform Manag Rev.2016; 39: 430-453
- Nicole M. Krause, Isabelle Freiling, Becca Beets & Dominique Brossard(2020) Fact-checking as risk communication: the multi-layered risk of misinformation in times of COVID-19, Journal of Risk Research, DOI: 1080/13669877.2020.1756385
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Noora Alhajri, MD, MPH is a physician-scientist who is interested in advancing research in the field of cardiovascular medicine. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Health/ National Institute of Aging (NIH/NIA), division of cardiovascular science. She led a number of research projects at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Department of vascular surgery and department of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism. She is currently working as an instructor of medicine, epidemiology, and public health at Khalifa university College of Medicine and Health Science in the UAE. Her research interest includes health outcomes of peripheral arterial disease (PAD) in women, causes of mortality in patients with heart failure, coronary artery disease, diabetic foot ulcers, and mobile health technologies.