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Is it real or fake? What’s the fake news in the Ebola outbreak?

Twitter, Facebook, etc. Social media that we use everyday in life, do you ever think about their function during infectious diseases outbreak?
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Now, just to finalise, I will discuss a little bit the case of Ebola, which is something quite new. In the vary HealthMap map, they are tracking the deposit in media about different outbreak disease. And actually, as you can see in this quotation from a magazine, Scientific America, they found outbreaks and information about some strange fever in Guinean news even before the official outbreak was reported. That’s because they are tracking symptoms of disease online continuously that they can get very, very early warnings about new potential outbreak spreading.
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And also, people working in the ground, they have reported in the Lancet that it will have been very beneficial to have a smartphone applications in those West African countries to better track the outbreak and also to help in the management of the outbreak in the point of care.
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Another application of mobile technology is actually the collection of data.
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They have reported in the BBC news that researchers have been looking into the antenna logs regarding where the mobile phones are connected to the network as a way to measure them, well, the movement of the population. So the goal is actually using the data by the location of the phones, you can infer either people are moving from one area to the other. And this is very important for the outbreak management, because you can actually see in this picture that there has been a lot of movement between Guinea and Sierra Leone, and also Liberia. So actually, that the border control, it didn’t work so well in certain areas, while in other areas, it has been working quite well.
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Shabbir also reports of fake cures for Ebola is spreading in social media, especially in WhatsApp. And this is a sample of a WhatsApp I got from a colleague in Taipei that somebody has been saying in India that there is a case of Ebola in India, which is not true. And also that honey can be a cure for it. There are many other sample, like chocolate, Nescafe. And this is very important to issue, because if people are trying fake cures, then they may not believe that you have to go to the doctor if you have symptoms.
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Also, this is a sample from Spain that people are creating fake news, and thus disrupting local businesses. Like in Spain, they create a fake newspaper, just copying the picture from the very popular one year bite, and then have said that they change the headline of the newspaper. So, you know, there was a case of Ebola in a a university, which was not true. So a lot of students, they didn’t show up in the exam, because they were afraid Ebola was at the University.
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And there have been also reports saying that most of the tweets regarding Ebola published in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, they have misinformation. It was actually, I think, 40%. And one of the many rumours was in Nigeria, regarding the use of salt to cure Ebola, which is not true that you can cure Ebola with salt. But anyway, a lot of people started to follow that, and people died because of drinking too much salt, salty water. You also have a lobby that they have natural fake cures for Ebola, and they are using social media to promote their products.
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So they are selling, for instance, silver cure, some kind of natural silver compound that they are promoting to cure Ebola, as many other disease. And they are using social media to spread these news about a new cure for Ebola.
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Then the FDA actually has to put a ban into the exportation of the natural supplement for Ebola, because it has not been tested. There is no science behind. And then there is a community that is promoted by this company selling these natural supplement, saying that the FDA is banning natural choices, et cetera.
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There are also sample of the use of SMS for communication regarding Ebola. The BBC has a top very popular WhatsApp number and channel to provide information about the status of the Ebola outbreak and also health education. And just to finalise some point for the discussion.
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The massive health misinformation can be a challenge. And actually, in the world economic forums two years ago, they said that one of the major global challenges right now was massive digital misinformation. Somebody spreading a health rumour in Taiwan may create a public health crisis in India, or Nigeria, because nowadays, we are highly connected.
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And a other key points for discussion, internet is flowing. It’s growing a lot. It’s being used for health purposes, for good and bad, and we don’t really know how health social media is interacting with all the public health aspects and how it’s being adopted in each country. We are speaking about an area, which needs highly complex, multi-disciplinary research, mathematical modelling, computer science. We had a huge role for sociology, anthropology. And at the end, we have an immense amount of data. We have mobile phone data, electronic health records, social media that we need to analyse.
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And first of all, we need to identify good research questions, so that we can use big data to make better decisions, both at global, national, local, and corporate level. And that’s all. Thank you very much.
Ebola hit the news headlines in 2014 yet information about some strange fever was tracked even earlier. Watch the video to hear Luis discuss how data can help to provide early warning signs about potential disease outbreaks.
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