News about a deadly virus that appeared in Wuhan, China in December (now called 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV) is everywhere lately. And as the number of cases rises, it’s understandable if you’re wondering how likely it is that you or a loved one will become ill. And quite likely, you’re also wondering how to prevent this.
So, 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 new virus is well-deserved. As of January 31, there have been
- Nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and 213 confirmed deaths attributed to 2019-nCoV, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 99% of the cases and all of the deaths have been in China.
- 26 countries reporting cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly all of those with confirmed cases either live in China or had traveled from China to other countries.
- six cases in the US in four states (Arizona, California, Illinois, and Washington). Another 160 people in 36 states are being evaluated for suspected infection.
All of these numbers are likely to rise in the coming days and weeks, because each infected person could potentially spread the infection to many others. And it’s possible that a person can spread the infection before he or she knows they’re sick; this has not been proven for this particular virus, but if true, quickly containing its spread may be impossible. That’s why it’s particularly important to get reliable information about what is happening and 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. Already social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, have seen a number of false and misleading posts about 2019-nCoV, 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
- a video with useless advice about preventing 2019-nCoV 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 2019-nCoV.
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.
In the US, the flu is a much bigger threat
While news of a novel and deadly virus spreading across the globe may be terrifying, it’s important to recognize that the most threatening virus in this country right now isn’t 2019-nCoV — it’s the flu. According to the CDC, there have already been up to 26 million cases of the flu this season, leading to hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions and up to 25,000 deaths. And this flu season has not been particularly severe.
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 2019-nCoV.
Reliable online sources on 2019-nCoV
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 2019-nCoV
- 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, contact your doctor if you have symptoms of an infection, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. If necessary, your 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 2019-nCoV 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.
Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing