Much like the coronavirus, fake news is spreading, and the vaccine is an informed mind

By Tran Van Thuan   February 3, 2020 | 11:22 pm PT
Regulating information is sometimes the key to controlling an epidemic outbreak.
Tran Van Thuan

Tran Van Thuan

I remember when Vietnam had to fight SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and social media and TV channels weren't so ubiquitous. The little information people had about the disease at the time all came from official and verified sources, which provided a clear and objective picture of what was happening. People were informed without fear-mongering and hysteria-inducing false headlines and fake numbers. And thanks to that, along with the tireless efforts of doctors and nurses and scientists, Vietnam was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first country to successfully contain SARS.

Flash forward to 2014 and the battlefield had changed. There was a measles outbreak among children, and now almost every person had a smartphone, which gave them access to the Internet at their fingertips. Information now took many forms and came from many sources, not just official ones, making it an ideal breeding ground for fake news. Anyone could become a "doctor" or "scientist," providing links to unfounded diagnoses and non-existent miracle cures.

The fear then spilled from cyberspace into real life, causing people to flock to hospitals in droves for no good reason, overloading them and increasing the chances of cross-infection. Those were hard times.

And today it feels like that all over again with the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak. Its rapid spread since last December to dozens of nations and territories all around the world has prompted WHO to designate it as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. This time, the government is making active efforts to combat the disease, promptly informing the public what it needs to know while screening, testing and quarantining those suspected of infection. That’s a good thing.

But with the ubiquity of social media nowadays, information about the disease is everywhere on the Internet, and with that comes fake news as well. There are those who were willing to publish false information just for clicks and giggles without worrying about the consequences of their actions. Many have been punished for doing so.

But for us in the field of medicine, who fight the disease on the frontlines, a single sentence from a fearmonger could send thousands to hospitals, eating away our resources and morale. Fake news spreads just as quickly and widely as a virus. For us, it just might be the worst pathogen of all.

So we implore you all to stay informed. Before spreading any piece of information, sit back and think. Evaluate it, verify it, cross-check it and don't fall for shock headlines and punch your panic buttons without giving it careful thought. We understand that a viral outbreak is indeed a scary situation. And the fact that people are scared is good because it impels people to take better care of their health. But please don't let that fear overwhelm you to the point that it severely impacts your life and others'. An informed mind is the best antidote to unfounded fear.

A medical personnel wears a protective suit in Saigons Cho Ray Hospital, February 3, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

A medical worker in protective garb at Saigon's Cho Ray Hospital, which is treating two nCoV-infected patients, February 3, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Let me provide you with some facts. Humanity has survived multiple outbreaks, some extremely deadly. We had SARS in 2003, which spread to 29 countries and territories, infecting around 8,000 and killing 800. H1N1 in 2009 killed 18,000 out of the 575,000 people it infected. Ebola, one of the worst epidemics, killed around 7,000 in 2014. Even your run-of-the-mill influenza affects millions every year and kills at least 12,000 in the U.S alone.

With modern advances in medicine, we have gotten better and better at dealing with new diseases. The 2019 nCoV was isolated soon after it was first discovered, representing an important step in developing a vaccine for it. Thousands of scientists around the world are working day and night to figure out a way to defeat it once and for all. We have all the historical evidence we need to conclude that this new outbreak would soon be a blip in the history of humanity, like many other outbreaks before it.

Vietnam is not slacking off. We have declared it an epidemic and have quickly detected, quarantined and monitored infected cases. There is just one thing that we still lack, and that is an effective preventive method and tools to forewarn of an approaching outbreak. To address this, we need to invest more in our medical equipment and systems to prepare ourselves better before and during an outbreak, to see them coming and act accordingly.

Believe in us. Believe in humanity's resilience and ingenuity. Believe in science.

*Tran Van Thuan is the director of Hanoi's K Hospital. The opinions expressed are his own.

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