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Study: Pandemic rumors may have killed hundreds of people
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
- An "infodemic" describes a dangerous time when an overload of information makes evaluating that information difficult.
- A new study found that pandemic rumors and conspiracies lead to people mistrusting governments and health agencies, leading to hundreds of avoidable deaths.
- Experts recommend that health agencies track misinformation, while individuals take steps to protect themselves from the infodemic.
The reason sanitizer kills novel coronavirus is that it contains north of 60 percent ethyl alcohol. To kill any viral invaders swarming your body, you need to drink enough alcohol to sterilize your system. According to research by Dr. John Lee Hooker, it only takes one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer to begin feeling the salutary effects.
That is, of course, utter bunkum. Dr. Hooker's field of study was the blues, not epidemiology, and a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40 percent can be fatal, a level well below antiseptic action. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), excessive alcohol consumption during the pandemic increases your risk as it can compromise your immune system.
But those facts didn't stop similar pandemic rumors from assailing social media and offline social networks. Other rumored "remedies" espoused ingesting bleach, garlic, and hot peppers or exposing the body to extreme temperatures. Such cures can have dire consequences: None of them kill the coronavirus, some are actively harmful to a person's health, and even the benign ones can provide a false sense of protection.
These pandemic rumors, and many more, are the dark side of the "infodemic," which the WHO defines as "an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
Recently, an international team of researchers sought to determine the impact of this "infodemic" on public health. They combed the internet for COVID-19-related rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories, and their findings suggest that hundreds of people have needlessly died as a result of the misinformation found online.
The dark side of the information age
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
On December 31, 2019, the researchers began chronicling COVID-19-related posts circulating the internet. They examined agency websites, online newspapers, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, extracting reports until April 5, 2020. They then compiled and analyzed their data.
In total, the researchers discovered more than 2,300 reports of COVID-19-related reports. These reports were mostly classified as rumors (89 percent) followed by conspiracy theories (7.8 percent) and stigmas (3.5 percent). They came in 25 languages and from 87 countries. However, most of the false and hate-filled news spread from five countries: China, India, Spain, Brazil, and the U.S.
Of their accumulated reports, 2,276 had text ratings available, and these show the vast disparity between the dark and illuminating sides of the infodemic. False claims consisted of 82 percent of text-rated reports, while misleading and unproven claims took 8 and 1 percent, respectively. Correct claims made up a paltry 9 percent.
Their finders were published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
"Rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories have the potential to decrease community trust in governments and international health agencies. Rumors can mask themselves as credible infection prevention and control strategies and have potentially serious implications if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines," the researchers write in the study.
In their discussion, the researchers point to a telling anecdote from Iran. There, a rumor spread that ingesting methanol—non-drinkable alcohol that is even poisonous when absorbed through the skin—would disinfect the body of novel coronavirus. After the rumor gained purchase in the milieu, the country saw a 10-fold increase in alcohol poisonings. Close to 800 people died, thousands were hospitalized, and as many as 60 developed blindness. Other countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and India, have witnessed a similar, if less severe, trend.
In another story, also relayed in the study, a South Korean church told congregants they could be cleansed by spraying special saltwater into their mouths. The church soon became a viral hotspot as they used the same spray bottle on church-goers without disinfecting the nozzle. Nor are WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies immune to pandemic rumors. In April, the FDA issued a warning to Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy, to stop peddling fake coronavirus cures, including a silver-laced gargle and toothpaste.
The researchers do note their study's limitations. For example, the speed at which COVID-19 information changes, especially during the study's report-gathering phase, means some report categorization could be subject to misclassification. Also, the researchers did not follow up on the misinformation, so they could not say how many people on average believe any rumor or conspiracy they came across online.
But the connection between the infodemic and real-world actions, as seen in Iran and other countries, shows the lethal implications if people cannot discern sound information from the flimsy. As we've seen with other outbreaks in the past, such as the HIV epidemic and the 2019 Ebola outbreak, when people are afraid, they will grasp for beliefs that return a sense of control to their lives. In that desperation, rubbish can be just as appealing as reality.
As Michael Shermer told Big Think in an interview earlier this year: "Whenever there's a high level of anxiety or uncertainty in an environment, your personal life or society at large, conspiracism goes up. That is to say, people find comfort in attenuating the anxiety or uncertainty they are feeling by concocting some overarching plan."
The cure for bad information is good
That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.
"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, told Yale Medicine. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."
In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages.
In the Yale Medicine article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline).
When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.
"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources."
She recommends following health agencies like the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's COVID-19 mythbusters page. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, take a mental break.
We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>