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Social Media Helping to Counter Health Myths
ATLANTA — Researchers haveِ recently usedِ social media toِ track theِ spread ofِ diseases suchِ asِ influenza, andِ now theyِ areِ attempting toِ use suchِ technologies toِ tackle a differentِ public health issue: theِ spread ofِ misinformation.
There isِ a sense thatِ the horse hasِ left theِ barn, saidِ Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, program director ofِ the Health Communication andِ Informatics Research Branch atِ the National Cancer Institute, speaking atِ the International Conference onِ Emerging Infectious Diseases hereِ on Tuesday (March 13).
Chou pointed toِ theِ CDC’s tongue-in-cheek zombie preparedness guide, whichِ theِ agency posted onِ itsِ website inِ May.
Dispelling myths and misinformation
To betterِ measure people’s engagement withِ health information, someِ haveِ turned toِ theِ sameِ methods usedِ inِ disease surveillance.
John Brownstein, anِ associate professor inِ emergency medicine andِ informatics atِ Children’s Hospital, Boston, hasِ created tracking systems forِ flu based onِ Google results andِ used Twitter toِ trace theِ spread ofِ cholera throughِ Haiti.
He pointed toِ a study lastِ year fromِ Penn State University, whichِ foundِ that regions whereِ people wereِ writing negative tweets aboutِ the flu vaccine duringِ the swine flu pandemic inِ 2009 wereِ alsoِ the regions whereِ fewerِ people wereِ gettingِ vaccinated.
However, there can also be pitfalls to promoting truthful information.
Positive messages sometimesِ canِ create moreِ negativity, saidِ Brownstein, whenِ a cluster ofِ people whoِ disagree withِ a public health message respond.
Chou similarly saidِ that forِ groups whoِ disagree withِ a public health message, workers mayِ need toِ reach outِ to speak withِ themِ andِ not attempt toِ change minds withِ social media alone.
Social media mightِ provide a good method ofِ monitoring negative responses toِ public health messages, butِ it isn’tِ clear howِ to takeِ that information andِ turn thoseِ negative sentiments around, saidِ Seth Mnookin, whoseِ book The Panic Virus (Simon & Schuster, 2011) discussed theِ story behindِ perhaps theِ mostِ wide-reaching andِ dangerous instance ofِ public health misinformation: theِ autism-vaccine controversy.
He suggested pediatricians set asideِ office hours forِ talking withِ groups ofِ parents.
For example, parents mightِ beِ reassured byِ their child’s pediatrician atِ a checkup thatِ childhood vaccines don’t containِ thimerosal (the mercury compound onceِ falsely linked toِ autism), onlyِ to beِ told laterِ byِ anotherِ parent thatِ vaccines containِ antifreeze.