4 Feb 2020

Fears bogus health posts may hinder battle against Wuhan coronavirus

12:56 pm on 4 February 2020

Health experts are warning web-disseminated bogus health advice on ways to avoid the Wuhan coronavirus could compound the current outbreak in Australasia if not put in check.

A woman wearing a protective mask walks on the street outside Beijing railway station on January 22, 2020.

As fears grow over the Wuhan coronavirus, social media posts have included false claims, worrying governments in the Pacific. Photo: AFP

A fake health bulletin that purports to be from the Ministry of Health is advising people should keep their throat moist, load up on vitamin C and avoid fried or spicy food.

Tokelau's government media unit, Te Mana, shared it on Facebook, while in New Zealand the trust of Hawke's Bay iwi Ngāti Rakaipaaka put it on its website.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated the bulletin is false, but that has done little to stop its spread in the Pacific, where it has drawn in other unwitting social media users.

Since January it's been shared hundreds of times on Facebook.

The posts follow other types of misinformation framed as alternative health advice. Last year anti-vaccine disinformation was identified as a factor in the global resurgence of measles and inthe severity of the recent outbreak in Samoa.

Public policy analyst and author of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-truth World, Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, warned some official bodies lacked the ability to counter the spread of the advice.

"Misinformation spreads so quickly. And really, a lot of small organisations don't have the capacity to respond to it," she said.

Tokelau's government media unit took the fake news bulletin down after reviewing the post.

In New Zealand, the trust of Hawke's Bay iwi Ngāti Rakaipaaka put it on its website, but took it down after RNZ fielded enquiries about its content. Ngāti Rakaipaaka did not respond to the emailed questions.

The fake post has been spread by other unsuspecting Facebook users, but with limited followings.

A spokesperson for the WHO said information like it could have "significant negative effects to public health efforts".

As fears grow over the Wuhan coronavirus, social media posts have included other false claims, worrying governments in the Pacific.

Fiji's government on Sunday advised people "against spreading false information and rumours", including a rumour that the country had its first confirmed case of the virus. Last week, Samoa was forced to issue the same denial.

Twelve people in Australia have so far been confirmed with the flu-like deadly illness.

Dr Berentson-Shaw said governments needed to improve policy directives on how to reduce the spread of misinformation online.

"People in government probably need a much more effective evidence-based response to both knowledge sharing ... but also a strategy for this is how you identify misinformation."

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