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How to debunk health misinformation

During the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has repeatedly shown how quickly health misinformation can spread. However, new research led by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has found that there are good health communication strategies that can debunk misinformation. The study, focused on misinformation about typhoid in Sierra Leone, proves that addressing falsehoods explicitly appears to be more effective in busting misbeliefs than simply stating scientific facts. 

“Misinformation, amplified by social media, is a growing public health challenge. It can potentially reduce protective actions, encourage risky behavior and with that, promote the spread of infectious diseases,” said study corresponding author Maike Winters, a researcher at the Department of Global Public Health at the Karolinska Institute. “Fortunately, our study shows that there are effective tools to counter its impact and spread.”

In Sierra Leone, there are widely held misbeliefs that typhoid is caused by mosquitoes and always occurs together with malaria. In fact, the two diseases are very different, even if they share some symptoms such as fever. While typhoid is a bacterial infection mainly transmitted through contaminated water and food, malaria is caused by a parasite that spreads through mosquito bites. Since health centers in Sierra Leone have often diagnosed patients with “typhoid-malaria” due to unreliable testing, it did not take long for the false notion that the two diseases are linked to spread all over the country.

In order to find reliable ways to debunk health misinformation, researchers from Sweden and Sierra Leone devised two communication campaigns where local actors playing physicians and nurses were recorded in videos sent on Whatsapp to 736 participants from Freetown, Sierra Leone. One group of participants received videos where the misinformation was explicitly mentioned and debunked, while another group only focused on providing correct scientific information without mentioning the false belief that typhoid and malaria are related.

The scientists found that, although both methods significantly reduced belief in misinformation, the approach of initially acknowledging and then debunking misinformation was more effective. Contrary to previous studies, this study found no evidence that discussing false information might inadvertently end up spreading it.

“These findings advance our understanding of the effectiveness of public health messaging strategies about a specific health-related myth that is not subject to politicized debate,” said Winters. “If the same strategies would work to reduce beliefs in heavily polarized misinformation surrounding COVID-19 remains unknown, but is definitely worth exploring.”

The study is published in the journal BMJ Global Health.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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