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Researchers investigated the effectiveness of health information campaigns to correct public misperceptions during disease outbreaks in Brazil.

During
disease outbreaks, a surge of news and public discussion can often lead to misperceptions
and conspiracy theories about the disease. Incorrect messages compete with accurate
information and advice given by public health bodies. This may mean that the
public take misguided inappropriate actions that do not protect them or prevent
disease spread.

It is
essential that health information campaigns are effective in correcting public
misperceptions in disease outbreaks, so it is important to evaluate their
impact. Researchers at Dartmouth College, USA, assessed the effectiveness of health
information campaigns to counter myths about Zika virus and yellow fever in
Brazil. They recently reported their findings in Science Advances.

Conspiracy theories often develop during disease outbreaks

In
May 2017, while the Zika virus outbreak was ongoing in Brazil, the researchers
conducted a face-to-face survey with over 1,500 participants to measure the
prevalence of misperceptions and conspiracy beliefs about the virus. The survey
included questions about the causes and consequences of the Zika outbreak,
beliefs in conspiracy theories and misperceptions, support for disease control
policies, preventative behaviors, and the perceived threat of Zika virus. To
avoid influencing responses, the questions used neutral language rather than words
such as “conspiracy theories” or “misperceptions”.

The researchers
then conducted three online survey experiments. Two surveys (in 2017 and 2018) tested
the effectiveness of public health messages aimed at countering conspiracy
theories and misperceptions about Zika virus. A further survey (in 2018) tested
the effectiveness of public health messages about yellow fever following a
severe outbreak. Yellow fever is a more common disease in Brazil than Zika
virus, so the disease is better-known.

Health information campaigns to counter Zika virus myths not effective

The Zika
virus face-to-face survey showed that most Brazilians correctly understood the
role of mosquitoes in spreading Zika and that the virus was not spread by
casual contact. However, just 40% understood that Zika can be passed by sexual
contact.  In addition, more than 63% of
Brazilians agreed with the misperception (as part of a conspiracy theory) that
the spread of the disease was due to genetically modified mosquitoes and just
over 50% with the misperception that the surge in cases of microcephaly in newborns
(a malformation of the brain caused by Zika virus) was due to pesticides and prenatal
vaccination.

The
online survey experiments showed that corrective health information campaigns
to counter conspiracy theories about Zika virus not only failed to reduce
misperceptions, but also frequently reduced the accuracy of true beliefs about
the disease. The online survey experiment on the better-known disease yellow
fever showed that corrective information was more effective. However, the
corrective information campaigns for both Zika and yellow fever did not affect
support for disease control policies or intention to adopt disease prevention
behaviors.

Alternative approaches needed to combat myths during disease outbreaks

“Our
results indicate that efforts to correct misperceptions about emerging diseases
like Zika may not be as effective as we might hope,” said Prof. Brendan Nyhan,
a co-author of the study. The study gives useful insights as countries develop
public health information campaigns about the new coronavirus (COVID-19).

More
research is needed to understand the prevalence of conspiracy theories and how
best to counter misinformation. The authors suggest that public health
specialists should have realistic expectations about the effectiveness of
health information campaigns. Alternative approaches that do not try to
directly debunk disease myths may be needed. For example, encouraging the
public to participate in educational programs, or developing high-profile
public prevention and protection measures. The authors conclude that in some
cases, the best way to defeat misperceptions may be to avoid challenging them
directly.

Written by Julie McShane, MA MB BS

References:

1.
Carey JM, Chi V, Flynn DJ, et al. The effects of corrective information about
disease epidemics and outbreaks: Evidence from Zika and yellow fever in Brazil.
Science Advances 2020:6:eaaw7449. Doi:10.1126/sciadv.aaw7449 https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/5/eaaw7449

2. Dartmouth College. Press release 27 Feb 2020. “Lessons learned from addressing myths about Zika and yellow fever outbreaks in Brazil. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-02/dc-llf022720.php 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

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