Want to Stop an Epidemic? Start With the Facts.

February 7, 2020

Rumors can cause chaos during public health emergencies. Lessons learned in UNICEF's fight against polio can help health workers battle the coronavirus outbreak.

Unpredictable and dangerous, rumors can cause chaos during public health emergencies. As the global health community rallies to contain the novel coronavirus, bogus information about the outbreak is going viral as well.

Health officials around the world are struggling to keep up with unconfirmed reports about death toll numbers and how the virus is spread. The rise of misinformation during emergencies leads to mistrust of health systems and the diversion of critical resources needed to stop transmission.

What is the coronavirus?

The new coronavirus disease COVID-19 was first identified after a mysterious respiratory illness appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. It is transmitted through direct contact, coughing and sneezing, and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breathSome patients experience only mild symptoms. In more severe cases, infection can lead to pneumonia and sometimes death. To date, more than 31,000 confirmed cases have been reported in 25 countries. There is currently no cure, and researchers say it will take at least a year to develop a vaccine.  

How misinformation is handled can be just as important as how the virus is contained

Hoaxes and inane advice about coronavirus have spread so rapidly that Facebook is now taking down posts like the one shared 16,000 times that warned people to "avoid spicy food." The World Health Organization (WHO) is actively combatting the spread of misinformation — including posts touting the prophylactic powers of garlic and sesame oil — using the hashtag #KnowTheFacts. 

One meme or post shared on social media can endanger many people. The spread of misinformation prevents communities from taking steps and actions to protect themselves and forces public health agencies to redirect resources and attention to stop the spread of misinformation.

Whisper campaigns during public health emergencies are nothing new

Social media accelerates the spread of misinformation around viruses, but whisper campaigns during public health emergencies are nothing new. At the height of the polio epidemic in the United States in the 1950s, after some researchers floated the notion that there was a correlation between ice cream consumption and the spread of polio, ice cream sales plummeted.

The rollout of the polio vaccine in 1954 led to a worldwide campaign to eradicate the deadly viral disease. As a member of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, UNICEF has helped to reduce the number of children affected by polio by 99 percent since 1988. Today, polio remains endemic in just two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When UNICEF fights disease, we are also fighting false claims and fears 

Public fear can lead to divisive behaviors and toxic responses. In Pakistan, the country with the highest number of wild polio-virus cases — 135 cases in 2019, up from 12 in 2018 — misinformation continues to be one of the greatest challenges to the program. To eliminate polio, every child must be vaccinated. The reality remains that thousands of households are missed due to fears caused by propaganda and rumors about the vaccine. 

In April 2019, a fake video went viral. In the video, a man claimed that the polio vaccine was harmful while pointing to a group of boys who appeared to faint. Although the government quickly intervened, issuing a statement condemning the false claims, the video had already spread across social media, including WhatsApp. The damage was hard to undo.

Fake news like this makes it difficult for health workers conducting house-to-house campaigns to vaccinate children. The door-to-door approach relies on building trust and sharing useful information to strengthen community resilience. UNICEF outreach workers are specially trained to build a rapport with parents and caregivers and educate them about how vaccines work to protect their children from disease. 

UNICEF is supporting the rapid response to the coronavirus outbreak with supplies and expertise

By the time the WHO had declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on January 30, UNICEF had already rushed six metric tons of medical supplies to aid rapid response efforts. More supplies are set to be delivered where they are needed most. In the days and weeks to come, the distribution of useful, accurate information will also play a vital role in containing the coronavirus outbreak. 

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Tala Mansi is the UNICEF USA organizational focal point for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). The largest public-private partnership in global public health, GPEI is led by national governments with five core partners: the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. GPEI's goal is to eradicate polio worldwide.  

Top photo: A UNICEF-trained health worker, right, vaccinates a child against polio outside the family home in Quetta, Balochistan Province, Pakistan. © UNICEF/UN0324971/Zaidi