Epidemiologists: 5 ways to determine accurate coronavirus information


  • Dr. Syra Madad is an infectious disease epidemiologist in NYC, Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and member of the COVID19 Taskforce at the Federation of American Scientists.
  • She says that disease outbreaks are often accompanied by infodemic, where unreliable information spreads quickly.
  • As a public health expert, she says that she always has to fight the “contagion of misinformation” — but there are ways for people to vet their sources.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Infectious disease outbreaks often come in parallel with the rise of infodemic – the rapid spread of information that is typically unreliable and not based on scientific merit. 

We live in a society of instant gratification – we want information at our fingertips and leverage all forms of technology and platforms from social media networks to blogs and news outlets to word of mouth. 

But the problem with misinformation is threefold. 

One, it matters where you seek your epidemic information. There are hundreds of websites that have been labeled “red-rated sites” – sites that publish false information on SARS-COV-2. 

Second, misinformation costs lives and increases risk of infection and hospitalization. In just the first three months of this pandemic, at least 800 people may have died and an additional 5,800 people admitted to hospitals around the world as a result of misinformation. 

And third, misinformation makes combating the pandemic that much harder. It undermines the public health response, erodes confidence and trust in measures to control the pandemic (e.g., wearing a mask), perpetuates the outbreak, and jeopardizes public health interventions (e.g., test-isolate-trace-quarantine).

Having responded to multiple epidemics and pandemics over the years, from Ebola in 2014 to Zika in 2015, and measles in 2018 – one thing is for sure – we in public health always have to fight parallel wars when an outbreak starts, be it a new or novel disease or an old foe. We battle the contagion itself, and then the contagion of misinformation that follows.

With Ebola the misinformation was everything from fear-mongering, demagoguery, to rumors of its airborne spread in the US (hint: it’s not airborne). A vivid memory from my experience responding to the Ebola outbreak in Texas: My dentist calling to cancel my routine cleaning appointment in 2014 because of my involvement in the Ebola Surge Team.

With Zika, it was misinformation of its emergence through genetically modified mosquitoes to its intentional spread to ruin the 2016 summer olympics in Brazil. 

And with measles and the plague of vaccine misinformation from causing the disease itself to ingredients in the vaccine causing autism (note: the measles vaccine is very safe, with 93-97% effectiveness).

Given the unprecedented amount of misinformation on COVID-19, I began debunking myths starting back in February – merely just one month after the start of this pandemic to help address and provide the most current scientific, epidemiological and data-based information. 

As we learned more about the virus and its associated illness, public health guidance continued to change and the scientific and medical community continued to update their recommendations (e.g. wearing a mask due to asymptomatic spread of the disease).

Nine months into this pandemic and my colleagues and I continue to spend a substantial amount of time addressing misinformation. I’ve received questions from all types of audiences – frontline healthcare workers, news media outlets, and the general public through my social media accounts. Questions have ranged from spraying bleach on fruits to kill the virus (no, please don’t this!), to contracting the disease through cell phone towers.

It’s important to stay informed of current events and aware of local trends as it relates to COVID-19. This helps with making informed decisions (e.g., travel) and knowledge of any updated public health guidance. 

To find trusted sources that deliver timely, reliable, and consistent information, here’s a way to evaluate the source for its authenticity: ask the 5 W’s.

Whose website is it (government, company or individual), and do they have a track record of sharing credible information? 

What is the source offering (recommendations, selling a product, making a claim)? 

When was the information written or reviewed and by whom? 

Why does this source exist, and what is its purpose? 

And where is this information coming from — is it based on the latest scientific literature, data, and other pieces of tangible evidence?

Arming yourself with accurate information helps protect you, your family and your loved ones.

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