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Opinion

Editorial: Misinformation has become a secondary infection in the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

People wear facemasks to prevent contagion during the coronavirus outbreak in China.
Passengers in a Hong Kong metro station wear face masks to prevent contagion during the coronavirus outbreak in China.
(Associated Press)

Scattered in with the legitimate news headlines circulating on social media regarding the deadly coronavirus outbreak are a worrisome number of fake news items and outright hoaxes.

Here’s are a few egregious examples: The outbreak is much worse than the government is admitting. Millions have been infected and thousands of people are literally keeling over in the streets of China. Bill Gates’ foundation predicted this outbreak (maybe even created it) and projects that it will kill 65 million people. You won’t be one of them if you have oregano oil on hand, because it can prevent coronavirus infections.

It’s scary enough that despite intensive efforts to stop it, this infection has spread so far and wide since it was first identified in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 9. But the last thing public health officials need as they work to track down and treat new cases is to have to address all the fake news that whips up unfounded fear and seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself.

Though rumors and misinformation have been a side effect of viral outbreaks for as long as humans have been plagued by them, social media networks now amplify irresponsible and hysterical memes that might otherwise remain on the fringes. A tweet or post with dubious information can spread to all corners of the internet in minutes. Facebook, Twitter and Google have taken steps to steer people toward legitimate information and sites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Wuhan coronavirus fact page, but misleading items are still available online.

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No doubt some of the people who share bad information do so unwittingly and truly intend to be helpful. But those who make up stories or peddle obvious untruths amid a public health crisis for their own sick purpose or to make a buck deserve a special place in hell. Scaring people with false information or soothing them with fake remedies puts them in real danger. Just look at the harm done by people sharing false information about the risks of childhood vaccinations. Parents shied away from immunizing their kids, and measles — a deadly disease once declared eradicated — roared back to life.

So far, the new coronavirus has mostly been contained in China. But it is spreading. Though its movement has probably been slowed by the steps China and global health officials have taken to isolate Wuhan’s inhabitants, limit travel to the region and screen travelers from affected areas, new cases are cropping up across the globe. On Wednesday, public health officials announced that the coronavirus cases have reached 6,165, with 133 deaths connected to the infection. Most of the cases, and all the deaths, are in China, which has now logged more cases than were seen with SARS — another deadly coronavirus that originated in China in 2002. There are five coronavirus cases in the U.S., including two in Southern California.

Clearly, the risk posed by the coronavirus is real. And there is no vaccine for it yet, though researchers are working to develop one. That means the best defense in the early stages of the outbreak is solid, trustworthy, science-based information. Kudos to the journalists, public health officials and social media platforms that are working to disinfect the false outbreak memes and inoculate the information channels with authentic and helpful information from actual health professionals.


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