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Epidemiologists join global fight against “fake news”

Introduction by Croakey: As COVID-19 outbreaks continue in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, with fears growing for Aboriginal families and communities in western NSW, health leaders are increasingly concerned that COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation are hindering the roll-out of the vaccination program.

This concern reflects international research showing that vaccine misinformation spreads faster than factually correct information and can influence people’s decisions about accessing the vaccine.

A recent study found that in both the UK and the USA “fewer people would ‘definitely’ take a vaccine than is required for herd immunity, and that misinformation could push these levels further away from herd immunity targets.”

Concerns about misinformation and disinformation were also high on the agenda of the recent World Congress of Epidemiology, which Nicole MacKee is covering for the Croakey Conference News Service.


Nicole MacKee writes:

Experts and health leaders in Australia and around the world are calling for action to address the harmful impact of COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation.

Following the G20 Health Ministers meeting in Italy this week, a declaration was issued supporting strong multilateral cooperation towards ending the pandemic, including the following specific statement highlighting the need to combat misinformation:

We underline the need to promote vaccine confidence, by implementing the most effective, culturally appropriate, and science-based public communication and listening strategies tailored to the context of communities at the local level, to combatting misinformation and disinformation, and instilling trust in public institutions and experts.”

In Australia, a similar call has come from the Australian Epidemiological Association (AEA), the professional association for epidemiologists in Australia.

Members of the AEA have been providing expert advice to governments and health authorities on measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and they are concerned that the spread of misinformation and disinformation is hindering these efforts.

AEA President, Associate Professor Brigid Lynch, said today that the AEA supports the resolution of the World Health Organization recognising that managing the infodemic of misinformation and disinformation is a critical part of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and calling on Member States to counter misinformation and disinformation disseminated in the cybersphere.

Lynch also stressed the disproportionate impact that misinformation and disinformation about COVID could have on at-risk communities.

Research has demonstrated that there is a negative correlation between a country’s gross domestic product per-capita and the prevalence of misinformation.

This means that mis- and disinformation have an inequitable effect: the communities most likely to believe mis- and disinformation are the same communities that have been and will continue to be worst affected by the pandemic.

The AEA calls on governments and community leaders to uphold their ethical responsibility to their constituents and followers to support evidence-based public health efforts.”

Community leaders are also speaking out on the dangers of COVID misinformation and disinformation.

With the COVID outbreak continuing to impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in NSW, the Northern Land Council this week appealed to communities to “beware false information being passed around in communities and online”.

Looking upstream

This call reflected the 5 September keynote address to the World Congress of Epidemiology by Professor K Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Association of India.

“Has epidemiology addressed how fake news is generated, how it is being tolerated, and with what consequences?” he asked.

Reddy told the 1,000-plus participants at the congress that social media and its role in fake news was set to persist into the future.

“We are seeing this in pandemic denial, in anti-mask protests, we are seeking it in vaccine refusal,” he said, noting it was important to look at the “upstream” drivers of these trends.

“We have to determine who is funding, who is controlling, who is co-ordinating the messaging? Who is countering fake news, who is regulating fake news?

“These are the elements that are often left only to social science, but … social science and epidemiology are Gemini twins, they have to function together to advance public health.”

Local alarm

Reddy’s call was timely, coming as MP Craig Kelly, leader of Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, sent waves of unsolicited text messages to Australians’ mobile phones, triggering community concern and anger.

More than 4,000 people have complained about the messages to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

The text message includes a link to a part of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) website that includes all notifications of possible adverse reactions to COVID vaccines, “without explanations and disclaimers”, said TGA Head Adjunct Professor John Skerritt.

An incorrect picture

Speaking to ABC Sydney Radio on Tuesday, Skerritt said the publication of the data without context made the information “misleading”, adding that the TGA was exploring the legality of the use of the website information in this way and without permission.

“[This] is giving an incorrect picture of the safety of these vaccines, and it actually is discouraging people from being vaccinated,” Skerritt said.

He said the link to notification data included 448 reports of a death (495 as of 7 September) in the days or weeks after a COVID vaccine.

Skerrit said:

Sadly, in Australia 170,000 people die every year, 3250 die a week, so it’s not surprising that two days after, say a Pfizer vaccine, some people will die. The same way that [some people will die] two days after … catching a bus.

It’s not the cause-and-effect thing. When we look at cause and effect, we believe there is a total of nine reports of deaths that can be associated with vaccines, and this is against a background of 20 million doses of vaccines given in Australia.”

Skerritt said it was through these reports that it had been possible to identify extremely rare cases of adverse events associated with the vaccines, and transparency was important.

“We do want people to report, but … there is a degree of responsibility, especially among people who have a public profile, of explaining what it means and reporting it accurately.

“Because the worst thing that can happen, especially with the current outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne, is to discourage people from being vaccinated because they think these vaccines are more dangerous than the data really shows.”

A parliamentary inquiry

Misinformation was also front and centre in the opening days of a Senate inquiry into media diversity, after YouTube last month deleted 23 of the broadcaster’s videos that promoted misinformation about the COVID pandemic.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Inquiry that Sky News and News Corp co-chair Lachlan Murdoch “have a case to answer” for vaccine hesitancy and the promotion of “quack medicine”, SBS reported.

Earlier this week too, the ABC’s Media Watch called out a social media campaign incorrectly claiming that a video of COVID patients talking about their symptoms, organised by a Sydney lung specialist, featured actors not patients.

In a statement to Media Watch, Dr Teresa Anderson, Chief Executive, Sydney Local Health District, said: “It has been highly distressing for Dr Morgan and the patients to see their powerful messages undermined by these baseless and dangerous accusations, and to have their credibility questioned.”

Ivermectin risks

Another member of Federal Parliament, Senator Malcolm Roberts, has been using social media to undermine public health responses to the pandemic and to promote the use of Ivermectin.

On Monday, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) said it was “extremely concerned” by reports that Ivermectin – a veterinary drug used to treat parasites in animals – was being used by Australians to treat COVID-19.

Ivermectin, which is also used in treat head lice, parasitic worms, and head lice in humans, has also been promoted by Kelly as a potentially beneficial COVID treatment, despite not being approved or recommended for this. 

On Instagram this morning, Senator Roberts was interviewed by a social media influencer and encouraged viewers to be sceptical of public health advice on COVID and information coming from the government. “Ignore what comes out of Parliament – Parliament feeds us a whole lot of crap” he said.

Photo credit: Jennifer Doggett