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Coronavirus

WHO: 12 facts to know to avoid coronavirus misinformation contagion

U.N. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, Antonio GuterresTedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during an update on the situation regarding the COVID-19  at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, (24/02/2020)
U.N. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, U.N. Secretary General, Antonio GuterresTedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during an update on the situation regarding the COVID-19 at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, (24/02/2020) Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via REUTERS

As the new coronavirus spreads globally, the online battle to keep misinformation about the disease is also stepping up with organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) updating its information pages on the virus as more about the deisease becomes known.

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This as myth and rumor spread about the disease and the death toll in France rises to 17. In the digital world, Google, Facebook and other platforms are struggling to keep ahead of scammers, trolls, and others with ill intent who routinely use major tragedies or disasters as opportunities to swindle or manipulate people.

"The public concern about coronavirus is being used as a vehicle to get people to transmit misinformation and disinformation," said University of Washington biology professor Carl Bergstrom.

Internet companies took part in a meeting with the World Health Organization last week at Facebook offices in Silicon Valley to discuss tactics such as promoting reliable information and fact-checking dubious claims about the coronavirus referred to as COVID-19.

Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok have also taken steps to limit spread of misinformation about coronavirus.

Facebook said in a recent online post that it is focusing on claims which, if relied on, could increase the likelihood of someone getting sick or not getting proper treatment.

Some virus misinformation is "people trying to sell snake oil products" such as bogus cures or treatments, while others use attention-grabbing deceptions to drive online traffic that yields money from advertising. So what are the facts, and what do people need to know?

Symptoms of the new coronavirus

According to the WHO website the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell.

Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.

Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. About 2% of people with the disease have died. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.

How do you catch coronavirus?

People can catch the new coronavirus from others who are infected. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with the virus coughs or exhales.

These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch it by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets. This is why it is important to stay more than 1 meter (3 feet) away from a person who is sick.

Contagion misinformation

The problem is that a great deal of information being pushed around the Web is misleading and even dangerous, the WHO adds. In a Q+A page on the WHO website some of the most common questions (and their answers) go as follows:

1. Q. Are hand dryers effective in killing the new coronavirus?

A. No. Hand dryers are not effective in killing the 2019-nCoV. To protect yourself against the new coronavirus, the WHO says you should frequently clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.

2. Q. Can an ultraviolet disinfection lamp kill the new coronavirus?

A. UV lamps should not be used to sterilize hands or other areas of skin as UV radiation can cause skin irritation.

3. Q. How effective are thermal scanners in detecting infected people?

A. The WHO points out that thermal scanners are effective in detecting people who have developed a fever (i.e. have a higher than normal body temperature) because of infection with the new coronavirus. However, they cannot detect people who are infected but are not yet sick with fever.

4. Q. Can spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body kill the new coronavirus?

A. No. Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body. Spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e. eyes, mouth). Be aware that both alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces.

5. Q. Is it safe to receive a letter or a package from China?

A. Yes, it is safe. People receiving packages from China are not at risk of contracting the new coronavirus.

7. Q. Can pets at home spread the new coronavirus?

A. At present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus. However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets.

8. Q. Do vaccines against pneumonia protect you against the new coronavirus?

A. No. Vaccines against pneumonia, such as pneumococcal vaccine and Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) vaccine, do not provide protection against the new coronavirus.

9. Q. Can regularly rinsing your nose with saline help prevent infection?

A. No. There is no evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline has protected people from infection with the new coronavirus.

There is some limited evidence that regularly rinsing nose with saline can help people recover more quickly from the common cold. However, regularly rinsing the nose has not been shown to prevent respiratory infections.

10. Q. Can eating garlic help prevent infection?

A. Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.

11. Q. Does putting on sesame oil block the virus?

A. No. Sesame oil does not kill the new coronavirus. There are some chemical disinfectants that can kill the 2019-nCoV on surfaces. These include bleach/chlorine-based disinfectants, either solvents, 75% ethanol, peracetic acid and chloroform.

12. Q. What age-group can be infected?

A. People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

"(We must) combat the spread of rumors and misinformation," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the French news agency AFP recently.

Facebook reaction

For its part, Facebook said in a recent online post that it is focusing on claims which, if relied on, could increase the likelihood of someone getting sick or not getting proper treatment.

"This includes claims related to false cures or prevention methods - like drinking bleach cures the coronavirus - or claims that create confusion about health resources that are available," Facebook head of health Kang-Xing Jin said in the post.

"We will also block or restrict hashtags used to spread misinformation on Instagram, and are conducting proactive sweeps to find and remove as much of this content as we can."

(with Wires, WHO)

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