It is the year 2020, and we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the availability of online platforms, claims ranging from the origin of the virus to medical and political conspiracies have disseminated globally at rates which parallel the virus itself. Here we will focus on infectious disease prevention by exploring claims related to face masks and vaccination, and mitigation strategies to combat misinformation.
The Great Mask Debate
Universal masking has sparked significant debates. Comments such as “masks are useless and only protect healthcare professionals” have been prevalent on social media throughout the pandemic. But how can something seemingly useless miraculously provide protection for a certain group of people?
In fact, a correlation between mask usage and successful control of community outbreak is evidential. With a mask usage compliance of 96.6% from December 31, 2019 to April 8, 2020 in Hong Kong, the incidence (cases per million population) of COVID-19 was significantly lower (129.0, p<0.001) compared to countries with lower compliance such as Spain (2983.2) and the U.S. (1102.8). Another study demonstrated a reduction of coronavirus particles to undetectable levels in respiratory droplets exhaled by symptomatic mask-wearing patients.
In Asia, even before the pandemic, masks were often worn in instances of illnesses and allergy, as it is common knowledge to shield the respiratory tract from invasive agents. However, such practice was not recommended by the WHO or the West until April/May 2020, and those who wore masks in public faced heavy discrimination and criticism.
In addition to cultural stereotypes, initial disregard was attributed to a scarcity of supplies and a need to prioritize vulnerable healthcare workers. These supply problems would have been best addressed amongst manufacturers, rather than putting the blame on individuals who wear masks as a safety precaution. Concurrently, governing bodies should continue to deliver proper mask-wearing instructions while encouraging physical distancing.
A coronavirus vaccine is urgently needed to draw a close to the current pandemic and prevent future outbreaks. In Canada, millions of dollars are being invested in accelerating research and development. However, being referred to as “the devil’s work” and “the government’s invasion of individual liberties”, vaccination has been a topic of debate for centuries. Nowadays, skeptics are claiming that a fast-tracked coronavirus vaccine is dangerous and provides a means for microchip injection.
These beliefs contrast the reality of vaccinating for preventable diseases, where the immune system is trained to combat actual infections. Particularly, smallpox was eradicated, and annual cases of many diseases such as measles have been reduced by over 90%.Vaccines contain antigens, adjuvants, preservatives, and stabilizers, which help elicit an immune response, prevent contamination, and accommodate different storage conditions. They need to pass pre-clinical and clinical testing before being approved by regulatory authorities for public use. Whether the safety and the efficacy of an accelerated vaccine are compromised is unknown, but the overall effectiveness of vaccination must not be overlooked. A way to promote understanding is keeping testing data, safety profiles, and ingredients transparent among scientists, industry, and the public.
An Information War
The spread of misinformation can fuel movements that put public health at risk. When safety guidelines are set based on the intertwining interests of political, scientific, and business bodies, false claims can arise from misunderstanding and distrust.
Education and veracity are fundamental to disease prevention. For example, having learned from SARS, rather than blindly relying on government-issued COVID-19 guidelines, some citizens in Hong Kong were promoting evidence-based preventative measures and others were verifying the information by utilizing scientific knowledge and consulting experts. Although coordinated efforts ultimately minimized a community outbreak, a prompt informative response undoubtedly played an important role. Similarly, scientists can leverage their critical thinking and analytical skills into educational initiatives. They can verify the credibility of the jargonistic and constantly evolving scientific publications, then translate them into lay, accessible language while keeping the information up-to-date for the general public. For instance, some graduate students at the University of Toronto’s Department of Immunology have made pamphlets covering immunology-related topics of COVID-19. Knowledge, if properly delivered, is a powerful weapon against diseases.
False claims arising from ignorance and fear can impede preventative measures, putting public health and safety at risk. Knowledge is the ultimate power to combat diseases, and scientists play a key role in validating and delivering the information to the public.
1. Feng, S., C. Shen, N. Xia, W. Song, M. Fan, B. J. Cowling. 2020. Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine 8: 434-436.
2. Cheng, V. C. C., S. C. Wong, V. W. M. Chuang, S. Y. C. So, J. H. K. Chen, S. Sridhar, K. K. W. To, J. F. W. Chan, I. F. N. Hung, P. L. Ho, K. Y. Yuen. 2020. The role of community-wide wearing of face mask for control of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic due to SARS-CoV-2. Journal of Infection: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinf.2020.04.024.
3. Leung, N. H. L., D. K. W. Chu, E. Y. C. Shiu, K. H. Chan, J. J. McDevitt, B. J. P. Hau, H. L. Yen, Y. Li, D. K. M. Yip, J. S. M. Peiris, W. H. Seto, G. M. Leung, D. K. Milton, B. J. Cowling. 2020. Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks. Nature Medicine 26: 676-680.
5. Benecke, O., S. E. DeYoung. 2019. Anti-Vaccine Decision-Making and Measles Resurgence in the United States. Glob. Pediatr. Health 6: 2333794X19862949.
7. Orenstein, W. A., R. Ahmed. 2017. Simply put: Vaccination saves lives. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114: 4031-4033.
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