As the world deals with COVID-19, the death toll rises along with the number of affected people globally. This scare, which has reached India as well now, reminds us of two old outbreaks caused by other variants of coronavirus: SARS in 2002-03 and MERS in 2012-13. Both these times, in spite of best efforts to contain the outbreak, mass panic was on the rise. Similarly, this time as the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the coronavirus a public health emergency, the outbreak of myths and misinformation around the illness seem to outpace the virus itself.
Any new pathogen tends to baffle the public, especially when the causal deaths are high. Uncertainty leads to doubts, which eventually gives way to panic that paves the path for misinformation to creep in. Most of these facts get circulated on social media and in public meets/forums, and unfortunately gets established by flimsy hearsay evidence lacking adequate scientific backing. These false claims about any illness are harmful as they distort true facts, make people neglect precautions, contribute to wrong treatment and even the spread of the illness.
‘Misinfodemics’ is a phenomenon through which any form of health-related misinformation contributes to the spread of illness. Patterns like this have happened in the past, contributing to the spread of tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, SARS or the outbreak of Nipah virus in the recent past. It is true that as online connectivity increases, more and more individuals resort to online content as the primary source of health-related information.
The sad part is that the authenticity of the source is mostly left unverified and clarification rarely takes place with experts in related fields. It has been well-studied in the past how misinfodemics has adversely affected the practice of vaccination, thus affecting herd immunity, and falsely normalised ‘depression’, leading to increase in suicides. It is the collective responsibility of us all to fight the prevalent misinformation around us when an environment of tension already exists.
Keeping this in mind, we address some of the false facts commonly in circulation about the outbreak:
1) Despite popular belief, the virus does not spread through the consumption of chicken or seafood. Only human to human transmission is possible, mostly through coughing, sneezing and touch.
2) Another school of thought believes the virus can be spread by cattle, reptiles and insects. Till date, bats are the only animals whose link with the coronavirus has been established.
3) While certain-high risk countries like China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Germany, etc., are better avoided, there is no generalised ban on travelling. One does not need to cancel trips due to the virus, as long as proper precautions are taken.
4) A very popular myth in India is that you will get infected by the coronavirus if you get a cold. The influenza virus is very different from the coronavirus. There are certain symptoms that overlap between the H1N1 influenza and coronavirus, but there is no study that suggests that catching the flu will make you susceptible to the coronavirus.
5) Many believe that death is inevitable once you get COVID-19, but the mortality rate is just 2%, that too mostly due to pneumonia. It is much lower than that of the earlier SARS outbreak (10%).
6) Many people have been trying to propagate that consuming hot water, herbs, garlic, turmeric, ginger and fresh fruits can treat and prevent the virus. Many ayurvedic, allopathic and homeopathic medicines are also being used over the counter as preventive measures. One must realise that there is no scientific evidence to prove that such measures will work, and it is highly recommended that one consult an expert before using the wrong medicine. This can adversely affect body resistance and immunity.
7) There is also the belief that India has had a lot of COVID-19 cases. This is not true. India only had three confirmed cases through the initial surge of outbreak, all of which were cured. In the past week, the number of active cases has risen to 28, 15 of them Italian tourists. There have been no deaths so far.
There is also a conspiracy theory floating around that the virus is being used as a biological weapon as aerosolised sprays and in water. There is no evidence for this as on date and it has been refuted by multiple credible sources like the CDC, WHO, UN, etc. Rumours like these add to the already-existing global tension, causing chaos, anxiety and mass hysteria.
So far, using protective N95 face masks, preventing body contact as much as possible, regular hand-washing and covering your face while coughing/sneezing are the recommended strategies. Certain anti-viral drugs and plasma transfusion from recovered patients have shown initial promise but there is no approved medication yet.
It is very important that we all rely on set public health communication that has been standardised by authentic national and international platforms. Mindless forwarding of a wrong message on social media can create havoc if it hits the wrong audience. Rumours can create wildfires. Also, ‘fear’ creates a gullible state of mind that tends to experiment on anything to feel safe. Correcting or clarifying a false fact can be done by anyone irrespective of profession, provided we are interested in knowing the truth ourselves. At difficult times, mutual hand-holding and care serve more than medicines. Let us prevent this epidemic of misinformation just like we want to prevent the viral outbreak, to keep ourselves happy and healthy.
Dr Debanjan Banerjee
MD, Geriatric Psychiatrist, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru Email: firstname.lastname@example.org