Heavyweights in the medical field have penned an op-ed about the “tidal wave” of misinformation in Alberta during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The open letter was written in response to vaccine concerns and fake information that doctors say is “prolonging the pandemic and preventing access to health systems.”
“Unvaccinated people are being infected, being hospitalized and are dying of COVID-19, which is a largely preventable infection. Misinformation is delaying pandemic control and threatening both our pandemic response, and our ability to function as a cohesive society,” the statement reads.
Included on the signature list was Dr. Verna Yiu, CEO and president of Alberta Health Services.
The Alberta Medical Association , the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta and both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary’s medical faculties also signed the letter.
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It addressed various topics Albertans may have questions about, including vaccine safety for children, pregnant women, as well as adverse and long-term effects
One of the contributors, infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger said the letter underscores that the science is undeniable.
“We were increasingly concerned about the disproportionate attention being paid to a group of outliers — their views on COVID-19 and how to deal with it,” she said.
Saxinger said it’s important for people to understand that groups with a specific expertise– who have dedicated their life’s work to the public health sphere– are involved in decision-making.
“It is a stressful time in Alberta with the current COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the letter. “But there’s a secondary epidemic that needs to be addressed — misinformation is rapidly spreading through our social and digital media platforms.”
The letter pointed the finger at “the people responsible for [misinformation], causing confusion, mistrust and uncertainty with public health responses. ”
“Here are the facts,” the letter reads in list form. “COVID-19 vaccines are effective. COVID-19 vaccines are proven safe. COVID-19 vaccines are not ‘experimental’. COVID-19 vaccines provide more robust protection than infection-acquired (or natural) immunity.”
“[The letter] signifies a bit of a shift. Organizations and leaders are seeing that it’s time for everybody to step up in a more concerted way,” Saxinger said. “We really do have to get a better grip on it now. Sophisticated, smart people can fall down a well of misinformation that leads them to make actively dangerous choices. We have to figure out how to prevent that.”
Timothy Caulfield said misinformation is one of the “defining characteristics of the pandemic”.
“[False information] is killing people,” the Canada research chair in health and law policy at the University of Alberta said. “In some respects, it feels like it’s accelerating.”
Caulfield cited the false narrative that rose out of recent news about an experimental COVID-19 pill reducing hospitalizations and deaths by half in people recently infected with the coronavirus.
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“The people pushing misinformation are incredibly quick, incredibly nimble. [With this new pill] It happened immediately. I’m talking within minutes…facts twisted into misinformation about that drug is really invermectin and they are just doing it for profit.”
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He said the example highlights how important it is to fight information quickly and efficiently.
“It is useful when you have heavy-hitters [like those who penned the op-ed] stepping up and making it clear that this stuff is bunk…we need these groups to become part of the public discussion.”
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Caulfield said it’s complicated to explain who is pushing misinformation, but said it could have motivations tied to profit, individual anti-vaccine “brands” or nation states attempting to create a chaotic environment.
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“Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly about ideology. That makes it harder to be debunked. It becomes part of these individual’s personal identity.”
The researcher suggested a few ways to fight misinformation or call in people who have fallen victim to it.
“We need to teach critical thinking, media literacy. We need to have regulators get involved, like Health Canada and the FDA.” he said. “We also need to have one-on-one conversations and listen to people and get a sense of ‘why’ they are reluctant. Give them a path to credible information.”
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