Well-Being Prevention & Cures

WHO warns of coronavirus ‘infodemic’ — an epidemic of too much information

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Story at a glance

  • The World Health Organization says the coronavirus outbreak is accompanied by an “infodemic,” or an epidemic of information.
  • There are harmful rumors going around about the coronavirus.
  • WHO is posting about the outbreak, including myth busters on its social media and website.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we’re not only going through an epidemic, but also an “infodemic.” In the Feb. 2 WHO Situation Report for the novel coronavirus, currently being called 2019-nCoV, the WHO writes, “The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ — an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

This epidemic with global pandemic potential has us all shaken up. Many people are worried or are trying to decide if they should be worried. How worried you need to be in epidemic situations like this usually depends on where you are living and how many people are sick in your region. But that can get lost in the sea of stories about the rising case counts, new person-to-person transmission cases and deaths outside of China.

The Wuhan coronavirus has become one of the biggest stories of 2020, with media outlets pumping out multiple stories about it each day, Changing America included.

It becomes a chicken or egg problem: Is it the voracious appetite of the public pulling media to publish more? Or are more people reading these stories because more are being published?

It doesn’t help that experts quoted in articles are recommending strategies such as banning all wild animal markets, even though there isn’t any evidence yet that definitively suggests the outbreak originated in wild animals or that banning markets would help. The general public can become fatigued with this kind of language and may not be able to know how seriously to take it. But the WHO is on it.

The WHO report continues to state:

“Due to the high demand for timely and trustworthy information about 2019-nCoV, WHO technical risk communication and social media teams have been working closely to track and respond to myths and rumors. Through its headquarters in Geneva, its six regional offices and its partners, the organization is working 24 hours a day to identify the most prevalent rumors that can potentially harm the public’s health, such as false prevention measures or cures. These myths are then refuted with evidence-based information. WHO is making public health information and advice on the 2019-nCoV, including myth busters, available on its social media channels (including Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest) and website.”

The danger of a situation cannot be measured by the volume of stories about it, or by the number of people talking about it. And as one person who visited China recently pointed out, the media coverage in China isn’t nearly as racked with fear-mongering as the media coverage in the U.S. is.

Many experts are worried and may express their opinions — because at this point they are opinions, not facts — in ways that may feel alarmist, but there are also many who are more measured in what they say. Experts are people too, and they are not all created equal. They may be affected emotionally by these events, and that may come through in what they say to journalists.

People in China are rightly concernedBut people outside of China should continue to keep track of the information coming from WHO before they let themselves get caught up in the infodemic. For example, in the U.S., the flu is still a bigger concern than the coronavirus.

Even early research is not for certain. A recent paper saying that people may get the virus from asymptomatic people is reported to be based on faulty data, so it’s still unclear if asymptomatic people can transmit the virus. With so much happening with the outbreak, it’s easy for misinformation or incomplete data to get passed around.

As a reader in the U.S., general good practices apply: Be careful where you get your information, beware of clickbait headlines ,and it’s probably good to stay away from social media.

For up-to-date information, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.