The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic led to a large amount of misleading and false information about SARS-CoV-2. This is common, especially on social media. It forced the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn of an ongoing “infodemic” or an overabundance of information—especially misinformation—during an epidemic. In order to understand more about it and how to tackle misinformation related to health and wellness, HealthWire spoke to Sudipta Sengupta – Founder and CEO of The Healthy Indian Project (THIP), a health literacy platform. Excerpts:
How dangerous misinformation and myths related to health and wellness can be for common people?
In our numerous interactions with doctors across India, we realised that health misinformation is one of the biggest problems that they face. From patients distrusting doctors to treatment methodology to aborting treatment midway – the problems are innumerous.
It hurts the patient-doctor communication and ends up hurting the overall patient health.
Another problem is India’s fixation with Ayurveda and a tendency to believe everything green is effective and side effect free.
While, Ayurveda can be a great treatment for many health conditions and also a great complimentary treatment to many other serious conditions, not everything is Ayurveda.
Home remedies or just eating plant based diet is not Ayurveda. This blind trust is being misused by many miscreants to spread disinformation.
As a result people end up losing money and risk their health.
Fact checking misinformation in the health space, especially in the era of COVID-19 pandemic, must not be easy. What are the challenges?
Not at all easy. For starters, it has been a very confusing environment even for the doctors and medical professionals who support us.
There weren’t enough medical research to support or debunk any kind of claim related to the spread of the disease or cure.
Then came the wave of vaccine misinformation. We had data from the authorties and some medical research available till then to tackle misinformation related to vaccines.
But, the huge amount of conspiracy theories floated around is not always easy to fact check convincingly. The dangerous thing about conspiracy theory is that the claimant doesn’t need to give any proof, it plays with the readers’ mind and make fact checkers look as collaborators of the crime.
How you win over the reader and save him from falling prey to the misinformation is a very difficult job.
Finally comes the issue of mental health of the team – most of whom are young fact checkers. People do not take it kindly when Fact Checkers tell them they are wrong.
The amount of hate they face from the online trolls whose posts they fact check, is immense. Keeping them motivated daily is indeed challenging.
Are there incidents, please share some examples if possible, where misinformation proved to be fatal.
There’s been a number of incidents where health misinformation has resulted in direct loss of life.
As per a study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene about 5800 people were hospitalised and at least 800 died from health misinformation across the world during pandemic alone.
There had been reports about people becoming blind or dying after drinking methanol from multiple countries.
The dangerous part about health misinformation is it doesn’t always lead to loss of life on immediate basis. Some wrong practices, some wrong treatments, some wrong diet suggestions may have a long term effect on your body. Example, a lot of vision loss in India happen from cataract which is a easily reversible health condition.
Yet, the myths around them push people not to opt for the correct medical guidance and stay away from surgery when required.
What can a layman do to check misinformation and myths related to health and wellness (If possible please share in bullet points as it’s easier for readers to understand)?
There are a number of free tools and simple methods one can learn to identify fake news and claims. There are a number of free online courses that can help you learn them.
However, some medical claims may require professional help to be identified as fake.
Start by learning to disbelief online health information. Even the most credible media websites make mistakes in health information.
Make a list of verified health information websites and refer to them only when you need to research about health.
If you are unsure about which websites to refer to, ask your doctor to help.
Take help of Fact Checkers to verify information. It’s a free service. There are a number of WhatsApp tipline where you can forward any social media message and the fact checkers will help you find the truth behind it.
Even The Healthy Indian Project has a WhatsApp Chatbot called RAKSHA where anyone can can ask any health question or submit a health message to be fact checked by simply sending a message on whatsapp to 85078-85079
Is there any initiative by the govt to fight this misinformation or as WHO said ‘infodemic’?
Yes. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) has a Fact Check division. It’s listed on their website and messages are broadcasted through Twitter.
World Health Organisation (WHO) also has been busting myths related to Coronavirus on their website.