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Fake health news worsens infectious disease outbreaks, research suggests

The research also suggests that taking steps to keep people from sharing dangerously misleading information about a contagious disease could help save lives.

People in protective masks
“Misinformation online is typically much more exciting,” a factor that often fuels the spread of disease, the researchers point out.
REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The proliferation of fake health-related news — particularly misinformation spread on social media — could be making infectious disease outbreaks worse, according to new research.

The research also suggests, however, that taking steps to keep people from sharing dangerously misleading information about a contagious disease could help save lives.

The research — two separate studies led by researchers at Great Britain’s East Anglia University — examined the effects of fake news on three infectious diseases: influenza, monkeypox and norovirus. But the researchers say their findings also apply to outbreaks of other diseases, including the current coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).

“Fake news is manufactured with no respect for accuracy, and is often based on conspiracy theories,” says Paul Hunter, a co-author of both studies and a professor of medicine at East Anglia University, in a released statement.

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“When it comes to COVID-19, there has been a lot of speculation, misinformation and fake news circulating on the internet — about how the virus originated, what causes it and how it is spread,” he adds. “Misinformation means that bad advice can circulate very quickly — and it can change human behaviour to take greater risks.”

According to a 2014 study, one in two Americans believe in some kind of medical-related conspiracy theory — that vaccines cause autism, for example, or that drug companies and the medical community are deliberately withholding information about a cure for cancer. Almost one in five believe in three or more such conspiracies.

How the studies were done

For the current studies, Hunter and his colleagues devised theoretical simulations for outbreaks of the flu, monkeypox and norovirus. The simulations took into account how each disease is spread and its incubation and recovery period. Other data fed into the models included research on how people behave in real-life situations and how quickly and frequently information is shared via social media.

The simulations also considered people’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, the phenomenon of online “information bubbles” (which discourage alternative viewpoints), and the fact that people are much more likely to share information that is false — including bad health advice — than information that is true.

“Misinformation online is typically much more exciting,” a factor that often fuels the spread of disease, the researchers point out.

“Believing bad advice could mean increased physical contact, more intimate types of contact, less hand-washing, less disinfection, sharing food or touching contaminated [objects or materials]: effectively, taking fewer precautions to avoid disease,” they explain.

Key findings

The simulations found that the spread of misinformation during infectious diseases outbreaks affects the spread of the illnesses.

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During flu and monkey pox outbreaks, reducing the amount of bad health advice being circulated by just 10 percent — from 50 percent to 40 percent — would mitigate the harmful influence of that information on the outbreaks’ outcomes, one of the studies found.

A similar positive effect could be achieved, the study also found, if 20 percent of people during a flu or monkey pox outbreak could be kept from sharing or believing bad health advice about the diseases — in other words, by “immunizing” them against the fake advice.

The other study, which focused on norovirus, had comparable results. It found that reducing bad advice during a norovirus outbreak to 30 percent of the total information being circulated about the disease — or making at least 30 percent of people fully resistant to that advice — counteracted the negative impact that misinformation has on the outbreak’s outcomes.

“While we used very sophisticated simulation models, it is important to remember that this is not an observational study based on real behaviour,” acknowledges Julii Brainard, another co-author of both studies and a senior research associate at the University of East Anglia, in a released statement.

“The efficacy of implementing such strategies to fight fake news needs to be tested in real world settings, with costs and benefits ideally compared with real world disease reduction,” she adds.

What you can do

The spread of fake news about COVID-19 has become an “infodemic,” according to a World Health Organization (WHO) official. Misinformation about the disease includes all sorts of false advice about “cures” or “preventions,” such as recommendations to eat garlic, take vitamin C, use homeopathic products or even drink products containing chlorine dioxide (which, as health officials have pointed out, is highly dangerous, as it’s the same as drinking bleach).

None of that advice is based in reality.

As officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) point out, the best protection against COVID-19 — or any other respiratory disease — is to avoid being exposed to the disease and to practice the following everyday preventive actions:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.
    • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
    • Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to  others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

FMI: The University of East Anglia studies were published last Friday in two highly specialized, peer-reviewed journals: Simulation: Transactions of the Society for Modeling and Simulation International and Revue-Depidemiologie-Et-De-Sante-Publique.