TORONTO — Even before Canada's first coronavirus case was announced in Toronto over the weekend, Canada's medical community was on alert — and not just for the disease.
Public health officials said they were keeping an eye on social media because misinformation has become a threat against illness prevention and they were cognizant of the impact it could have on addressing the respiratory illness that has sickened at least 2,000 people and killed dozens of others.
"In health care, in general right now, we are struggling a little bit to combat misinformation about health care from social media and from all fronts and I don't suspect this will be any different," said Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association.
"We have a media staff that are actively monitoring different emerging trends...If they feel there is too much misinformation particularly on one matter, we will speak out against that."
The information monitoring by the OMA and other organizations during an outbreak is a relatively recent development. After all, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat were still years away from being founded when in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) rattled southern China, infected more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800, including 44 Canadians.
In the age of coronavirus, however, there is a plethora of places for Canadians to get their news — and not all are credible or being vetted by medical experts. A tweet or snap can easily convince someone to disregard proper hygiene or even create fearmongering about the risk of contracting an illness.
"People may actually take the wrong course of action and engage in what they believe are protective measures that are in fact not warranted and in some cases may be harmful," said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health.
Coronavirus misinformation, she said, is especially important to watch out for because our understanding of the illness is only just developing.
Doctors and researchers are still looking into the coronavirus's origins, how it reached humans, is transferred and what can be done to eradicate it.
"Those are the kinds of areas where there's some uncertainty and I think when there is some uncertainty, there is often fear and anxiety associated with that," she said. "That's where you see some misinformation."
To combat the spread of misinformation, the federal government is keeping in touch with ethnic media and trying to be as transparent as possible with updates on the illness, said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu at an Ottawa news conference on Sunday, where she revealed more coronavirus cases are expected in Canada, but cautioned the risk to the public is low.
"Misinformation is difficult to combat online," she said. "It's unfortunate that misinformation is creating a perception for Canadians that belies the reality that the risk remains low."
Meanwhile, Toronto Public Health had set up a coronavirus webpage with information on symptoms, risk level updates, treatment information and federal and provincial resources.
De Villa said that adds to the organization's constant practice of watching for health misinformation on social media.
"Fundamentally as public health officials, this is our purpose and our goal," she said. "It is our objective to ensure the people we ensure are given evidence-based, credible information, so they know what is happening and what to do in order to protect their own health."
De Villa and Gandhi urged Canadians trying to verify what they may see online about coronavirus to pay attention to official health sources, including Toronto Public Health, the World Health Organization, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2020.