News about the new and deadly virus that appeared in Wuhan, China in December of 2019 is everywhere. The virus is now called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes is called COVID-19.
Where should you turn for the latest information on a rapidly changing situation? It’s hard to beat the convenience of the internet, and we know there’s a lot of useful and reliable information online. But there’s also a lot of misinformation. The trick is to figure out which is which.
Why you need to know about this new virus
The concern regarding this rapidly spreading virus is well-deserved. At this writing, statistics on infections and deaths worldwide are truly sobering.
Unfortunately, the numbers are likely to rise as efforts to quickly contain its spread have proven unsuccessful. So, it’s particularly important to get reliable information about what is happening and to find out what you can do to protect yourself.
Beware: Misinformation is rampant
Just as the number of people and countries affected by this new virus have spread, so have conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about it. Social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, have seen a number of false and misleading posts, such as:
- “Oregano Oil Proves Effective Against Coronavirus,” an unfounded claim
- a hoax stating that the US government had created and patented a vaccine for coronavirus years ago, shared with nearly 5,000 Facebook users
- a false claim that “coronavirus is a human-made virus in the laboratory”
- sales of unproven “nonmedical immune boosters” to help people ward off 2019-nCoV
- unfounded recommendations to prevent infection by taking vitamin C and avoiding spicy foods
- dangerous suggestions that drinking bleach and snorting cocaine can cure coronavirus infection
- a video with useless advice about preventing infection with the new coronavirus by modifying your diet (for example, by avoiding cold drinks, milkshakes, or ice cream). This video, which demonstrates the removal of a parasitic worm from a person’s lip, is many years old and has nothing to do with the current virus.
Facebook is trying to fact-check postings, label those that are clearly false, and reduce their ranking so they are less prominently displayed. Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have also taken steps to limit or label misinformation. But it’s nearly impossible to catch them all, especially since some are in private social media groups and are harder to find.
Don’t forget about the flu
While news of a novel and deadly virus spreading across the globe may be terrifying, it’s important to recognize that there’s another, more familiar virus in this country to be concerned about: it’s the flu. According to the CDC, there have already been up to 51 million cases of the flu this season, leading to hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions and up to 55,000 deaths.
Getting a flu shot is a great first step if you’re worrying about avoiding illness. Other measures to protect yourself from the flu (such as staying away from others who are sick and taking care to not infect others if you’re sick) are basic strategies that can also help you avoid the new coronavirus.
Reliable online sources on the new coronavirus and COVID-19
While no one source of information is perfect, some are undeniably better than others! It’s best to look for sites that:
- rely on experts who use well-accepted scientific analyses and publish their results in reputable medical journals
- have a mission to inform and protect the public, such as the CDC and the WHO, which recently added a myth busters page to its information on the virus
- are not promoting or selling a product related to the information provided.
Other good online sources of information on the virus include:
- Medline Plus, from the US National Library of Medicine
- the UK’s National Health Service
- the US Food and Drug Administration
- major news outlets with deep expertise in health reporting, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe’s STAT News.
While gathering information online may be your easiest initial option, isolate yourself and contact your doctor if you have symptoms of an infection, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. (If you don’t have a doctor, call the nearest clinic for advice.) If necessary, a doctor may recommend that you see a specialist at an academic medical center (such as a hospital affiliated with a major medical school) who is likely to have the most recent information about a previously unknown infectious illness like this one.
The bottom line
When considering a new infectious disease about which so much is still unknown, it’s important to seek out reliable information and act on it. Be skeptical of implausible conspiracy theories or claims of “fake news” that dismiss recommendations from public health officials. Addressing the concerns surrounding the new coronavirus requires accessible, reliable, and frequently updated information; the best we can do is to look to the experts whose mission it is to protect public health.
For more information about the new coronavirus and COVID-19, please see Harvard Health Publishing’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
Author: Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, is the Faculty Editor of Harvard Health Publishing and the former Clinical Chief of the Division of Rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He served for more than two decades as the Robinson Firm Chief in the teaching program of the BIDMC internal medicine residency. As a practicing rheumatologist for over 30 years, Dr. Shmerling has engaged in a mix of patient care, teaching, and research. His practice has included challenging patients, both in the clinic and the inpatient consultation service. His research interests center on diagnostic studies in patients with musculoskeletal symptoms, rheumatic, and autoimmune diseases. He has published research regarding infectious arthritis and how well diagnostic tests perform in patients with suspected rheumatic disease.