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'Drink water every 15 minutes': The dangerous coronavirus myths circulating online

As coronavirus spreads around the world, so too has misinformation about the virus and the COVID-19 disease it causes.

One of the latest pieces of misinformation is viral Facebook post which claims to contain information from Stanford university as well as health authorities in Taiwan and Japan, and has seemingly fooled an untold number of people who continue to share it.

The post falsely tells people they can perform a simple test to see if they have contracted COVID-19 by taking a deep breath and holding it for more than 10 seconds.

“If you can this successfully without coughing, discomfort, or tightness ... it basically indicates no infection,” it says. This is simply not true.

The post also tells people to drink water every 15 minutes to flush the virus into the stomach where it will be killed by stomach acid. Again, demonstrably untrue.

Lisa Kim, a spokesperson for Stanford Health Care and the Stanford School of Medicine said in a statement that the “widely distributed” post attributed to Stanford Hospital board member did not come from the university and contained “inaccurate information”.

Health authorities are warning people against false information that continues to spread online about coronavirus. Source: Facebook/Getty
Health authorities are warning people against false information that continues to spread online about coronavirus. Source: Facebook/Getty

Instead, she is pointing people to Stanford Health Care’s dedicated coronavirus page which is consistently updated.

As the post has been doing the rounds, medical experts have been warning against the falsehoods it contains.

Professor of Global Health at Oxford told the BBC there was “no biological mechanism” whatsoever that would support the idea you can just wash a respiratory virus down into your stomach to kill it.

The World Health Organisation has also moved to repeatedly tell people that drinking water (while always a pretty good idea) will not do anything to interrupt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Nor will drinking alcohol, the WHO says. Nor will drinking bleach, or garlic water, or silver water, or ‘miracle minerals’ – all myths that continue to spread online.

Social media platforms grapple with flood of fake news

The explosion of misinformation that has accompanied the coronavirus outbreak highlights the difficulty tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have in monitoring the content that appears on their platforms.

The New York Times highlighted the scale of misinformation in an article this week which reported on how the social media companies were overwhelmed in trying to combat it.

“First, there were conspiratorial whispers on social media that the coronavirus had been cooked up in a secret government lab in China. Then there were bogus medicines: gels, liquids and powders that immunised against the virus,” the Times wrote.

“And then there were the false claims about governments and celebrities and racial unrest. Taiwan was covering up virus deaths, and the illness was spiralling out of control. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who now runs a philanthropic organisation, was behind the spread of the virus. Italians were marching in the streets, accusing Chinese people of bringing the illness to their country.

“None of it was true.”

It’s really the first time the world has faced a global pandemic of this nature in the age of social media – and the likes of Facebook and Twitter have fuelled a steady stream of conspiracies. Even though most of them appear to spread organically rather than with malicious intent, the companies seem at a loss to stop the spread of misinformation.

Such is the scale of the problem that the UK’s National Health Service announced this week it is launching a new initiative to fight coronavirus misinformation online.

A spokesperson for the NHS said Tuesday, local time, it was “fighting bad advice and misinformation about the virus in the media and online” and working with Twitter to suspend false accounts posing as health workers, and homeopaths promoting false treatments.

A man wears a face mask and surgical gloves to prevent Covid-19 spread on a New York City subway train. Source:  AP
A man wears a face mask and surgical gloves to prevent Covid-19 spread on a New York City subway train. Source: AP

In a statement to Yahoo News Australia, Facebook Australia’s Head of Communications Antonia Sanda said the company was in continued conversations with global and regional health organisations to better understand what information in problematic.

“We’re focused on ensuring people see credible information related to COVID-19 across our platforms and are evolving our approach in real-time as this situation progresses,” she said.

“We’re removing harmful misinformation, connecting people to expert information through educational pop-ups in our products, and supporting health organisations like the WHO to get their message out – including through free advertising.”

However, even if posts are deemed false the company is still reluctant to remove them. Instead, once a conspiracy is rated false Facebook says it reduces its distribution so less people see it while also adding a label to people who see it, or those who try to share it.

As well as a team of fact checkers, Facebook has introduced other measures including temporarily banning ads selling medical face masks and giving free online ads to the World Health Organisation.

Virus is here to stay

Scientists around the world are still learning all they can about COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

For now, it’s clear the mortality rate is significantly higher in the elderly, with those over the age of 80 particularly vulnerable to the worse symptoms. Children can carry the virus but don’t appear to exhibit the worst of it and predominantly have very mild symptoms, if any. Early research also suggests there is no extra danger for pregnant woman who are not more adversely affected than normal.

With a vaccine at least 12 months away, medical experts are simply advising people to maintain good hygiene practices and a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Professor Ian Mackay, virologist and associate professor at The University of Queensland, says it’s clear the COVID-19 disease isn’t going away any time soon.

“We’ll just see this virus bounce around, looking for new hosts,” he told Yahoo News Australia earlier this month.

“This virus, I think, will stay with us because it’s so effective at transmitting – like the other four human coronaviruses we live with right now,” he said.

“Those cause relatively mild disease at the moment because we’ve lived with them for so long... this virus may settle down to be more like them, or it may not.”

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