Opinion: The danger of misinformation in a global health emergency

12 February, 2020

Here is an article [*see note below] that I wrote about the dangers of misinformation and a counter-strategy "inoculation theory". Given the current barrage of information and sifting through the accurate news, faced with infodemics it must be quite overwhelming for the average citizen.

I would like to hear the view of others on counter strategies for misinformation (infodemics).

HIFA profile: Vivianne Ihekweazu is Head of Strategy and Business Development at Nigeria Health Watch. Professional interests: Health Communications and advocacy. vivianne AT nigeriahealthwatch.com

[*Note from HIFA moderator (Neil PW): Thank you Vivianne. HIFA does not carry attachments but this excellent article is freely available here: https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-the-danger-of-misinformation-in-a-glo...

Fo the benefit of those who may not have immediate web access, I have cut and pasted generous extracts below:

Opinion: The danger of misinformation in a global health emergency

By Vivianne Ihekweazu // 05 February 2020

The global response to the novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, is being viewed in real time, on 24-hour news channels and radio stations as well as multiple social media platforms, with tweets and Facebook posts shared at breakneck speed across borders.

More reading:

- Q&A: WHO's global strategy to tackle health misinformation [https://www.devex.com/news/q-a-who-s-global-strategy-to-tackle-health-mi...

- Coronavirus: WHO sets the record straight on facts and misinformation [https://www.devex.com/news/coronavirus-who-sets-the-record-straight-on-f...

- Opinion: It's time to rebuild public confidence in vaccines [https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-it-s-time-to-rebuild-public-confidenc...

The rapid flow of information can be seen as a manifestation of the heightened awareness in the global health community that an infectious disease outbreak or pandemic was imminent. The outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2002 and Ebola in 2014 drew attention to the fact that infectious diseases do not respect borders.

The rumor mill spreading misinformation about the novel coronavirus has now been put into action, with claims of concoctions to cure people of the virus. The World Health Organization rapidly dispelled the rumors, urging countries to be proactive in putting into place an outbreak and risk communications strategy to update the public about coronavirus, combating misinformation.

The conception of “fake news” has brought with it a loss in the confidence people had in the media, and unfortunately, government institutions are increasingly scrutinized through a similar lens.

This brings to mind one of the challenges faced at the height of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. When the first case was reported in Nigeria, social media channels were advising people to protect themselves by bathing in and drinking a salt and water solution. In their desperation, many people in Nigeria took this poor advice, with devastating consequences...

So how can you convince the public not to succumb to misinformation?

First, so-called inoculation theory may hold a possible solution: persuading people not to be persuaded. In practice, this means getting ahead of misinformation and countering its destructive effect by providing regular public health advisory notices and other information from WHO, national and regional public health institutes such as the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and other sources that have access to the latest research on outbreaks.

Second, there is a collective effort to democratize access to the latest research as more details of the novel coronavirus are known. Research institutions in China and information analytics businesses are making a greater commitment to share data, knowledge, and research findings, with WHO coordinating the international response to the virus, which the organization has declared a public health emergency of international concern...

Third, trust can be further reinforced if endeavors to protect the public — such as the development of a pipeline of vaccines — are communicated. Visible effort should also be put into preventive preparedness and not just emergency responsiveness.

And lastly, political leadership can further strengthen trust by ensuring that the virus is prioritized and that required funds are made available to accelerate the response.

To convince someone of something true, you need to keep repeating it — probably many more times than the untruths are repeated — and make sure to support it with all available evidence. Trusted sources of information, such as WHO and public health institutes, must remain visible across multiple communication channels, remaining vigilant for rumors and inoculating the public against misinformation.

About the author

Vivianne Ihekweazu is the managing director of Nigeria Health Watch, a health communication and advocacy organization based in Nigeria. She has over 15 years’ experience as a communications professional, having worked at some of the world’s leading media communications and research agencies. She holds a master’s degree in development economics from the University of Sussex.]