Region Developing Strategy to Combat Misinformation about Coronavirus as WHO Also Battles Rumours

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Wednesday February 5, 2020 – Regional Health Ministers and other officials have agreed to draft an aggressive communications strategy to combat misinformation on the novel Coronavirus.

The Council for Human and Social Development held an emergency meeting via video conference on Monday, and it was agreed that the comprehensive communications strategy would provide citizens with accurate information on how the situation is being addressed. It will target various audiences and include information about the ways in which the virus can be prevented, transmitted and controlled.

It was also recommended at the meeting that the region agree to a coordinated, standard approach for handling of entry to air and sea ports. Issues such as the roles and functions of personnel at the ports; transporting of samples for testing; dialogue with airlines and cruise lines; and action to be taken before, during and after an outbreak, were all discussed.

The Member States have agreed that they will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves internationally, and are on standby to meet again as required.

Meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it has taken steps to ensure that the epidemic that has claimed hundreds of lives in central China does not spark a dangerous social media “infodemic” fuelled by false information.

And in the face of concerns that people of Chinese descent are being discriminated against as fears grow over the spread of the disease, United Nations (UN) chief António Guterres called for international solidarity and an end to any ill-founded discrimination of the outbreak’s victims.

WHO Director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, Dr Sylvie Briand, told journalists in Geneva yestrday that the agency has already moved fast to dispel an online rumour that the virus can be caught from an infectious “cloud”:

“People had suddenly the impression that the virus was in the air and…there is this cloud of virus” that can cause infection, she said. “This is not the situation. Currently the virus is transmitted through droplets and you need a close contact to be infected…So we try to clarify what we know about the science – what is still unknown – and provide recommendations that can help people to protect themselves and their families.”

Dr Briand’s comments echo those of WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who on Monday said that the agency was working with major internet platforms to ensure that WHO’s information about the coronavirus appears first in online searches.

The respiratory illness has claimed almost 500 lives and there are more than 24,000 reported cases in China and 158 cases outside the country.

In an appeal for global cooperation, Dr Briand said it was important not to censor information, but rather communicate what is known about the virus, and what is not known. She said that those most at risk were those with reduced immunity because of underlying illnesses such as cancer and other chronic illnesses, in addition to senior citizens.

In the two weeks since the virus was declared a global health emergency by the WHO’s Emergency Committee, Dr Briand said there is no evidence that the virus has mutated significantly.

She added that it was also too soon to assess how dangerous the virus is, she added, reiterating the WHO’s advice that handwashing and wearing facemasks when coming into contact with infected individuals, remain the recommended practice.

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