Novel coronavirus (39) The Lancet: Fighting panic with information (1) What can HIFA do to address health misinformation? (4)

22 February, 2020

The lead editorial in this week's print issue of The Lancet is on misinformation. Citation, extracts and comment from me below.

CITATION: Editorial, volume 395, issue 10224, p537, february 22, 2020

COVID-19: fighting panic with information

The Lancet

Published: February 22, 2020



As governments and health officials worldwide grapple with the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, new developments in the accounting of and response to cases are occurring as part of a swiftly evolving crisis... How key information is relayed to the public during the next phase of the epidemic is critical.

With as many as 72 000 cases, the national security strategy for COVID-19 within China has shifted to so-called wartime control measures...Harsh criticism has been levied about the silencing of dissenting voices in China, including Dr Li Wenliang, who was arrested after raising concerns about the virus on social media and subsequently died from COVID-19...

Addressing the Munich Security Conference on Feb 15, 2020, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “we're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic.” The ease through which inaccuracies and conspiracies can be repeated and perpetuated via social media and conventional outlets puts public health at a constant disadvantage. It is the rapid dissemination of trustworthy information—transparent identification of cases, data sharing, unhampered communication, and peer-reviewed research—which is needed most during this period of uncertainty. There may be no way to prevent a COVID-19 pandemic in this globalised time, but verified information is the most effective prevention against the disease of panic.

COMMENT (Neil PW): I am hopeful that there will be at least one positive outcome to this scenario, one major lesson learend. Namely, that the fundamental importance of access to reliable healthcare information and protection from misinformation will at last be recognised as an urgent global health issue. For too long it has been neglected, and our voices have been ignored. International health organisations, funding agencies, governments and others now need urgently to convene all stakeholders and build a global action plan to improve the availability and use of reliable healthcare information and to protect people from misinformation. This is not simply an issue for coronavirus, it is not even an issue for disease outbreaks (we have seen it before with Ebola in 2014/15, but failed to take adequate action even then); it is a fundamental issue for all areas of health care. Many people believed that increased connectivity would solve the problems of access to reliable information. It is clear that, in many ways, we (the 'international community') have allowed increased connectivity to do exactly the opposite, flooding people with dangerous misinformation. The fractures in our dysfunctional global healthcare information system, which we highlighted in our Lancet article in 2004, have been laid bare by the cancer of misinformation.

Each of us on HIFA (and beyond) has a role to play, but this needs to be better coordinated and supported as part of a global strategy. WHO is best positioned to convene all stakeholders and lead on such a strategy. HIFA stands ready to assist. It is time for international health organisations, funding agencies, governments and others to step up and commit to work together for a world where every person will have access to the healthcare information they need to protect their own health and the health of those for whom they are responsible. This means access to reliable healthcare information in a language they can understand, and protection from misinformation.

Best wishes, Neil

Let's build a future where people are no longer dying for lack of healthcare information - Join HIFA:

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: