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WHO launches new alliance to combat false information on COVID-19

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Kampala, Uganda |  THE INDEPENDENT | The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a new alliance, the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), to coordinate actions and pool resources in combating misinformation around COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies in Africa.

Digital platforms have been flooded with COVID-19-related information since the pandemic began in late 2019. Information about the virus has been shared and viewed over 270 billion times online and mentioned almost 40 million times on Twitter and web-based news sites in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region between February and November 2020, according to UN Global Pulse, the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence. 

A large proportion of information shared on online media platforms since the pandemic started global agencies say is inaccurate and misleading and continues to be shared by social media users intentionally or unknowingly every day. 

The COVID-19 infodemic is amplified online through social media but health misinformation is also circulating offline.  

Measuring precisely how much of what is circulating is misinformation is difficult, but fact-checking organizations in Africa say they have debunked more than 1,000 of such misleading reports since the onset of the pandemic. Some of the widely shared misinformation includes conspiracies around unproven treatments, false cures and anti-vaccine messages. 

“In health emergencies, misinformation can kill and ensure diseases continue to spread. People need proven, science-based facts to make informed decisions about their health and well-being, and a glut of information with misinformation in the mix makes it hard to know what is right and real. This crucial new alliance brings unique reach, knowledge and skills to help stop the impact of dangerous misinformation,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Among others, the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance will work collaboratively to counter false information around COVID-19 vaccines and complement on the ground public health awareness-raising and community engagement efforts by creating demand for vaccines in the region.

The Alliance will encourage proactive disclosure by data holders and support journalists and media outlets to effectively share lifesaving information based on scientific evidence and debunk disinformation on health issues.

According to Dr John Nkengasong, Director, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) they have realized that to beat misinformation and mischaracterisation, they must work with the community continuously a reason they are under the initiative supporting individual countries to develop tailored infodemic management strategies, including analyzing trends and behaviours, recruiting specialists and refining systematic engagement strategies rooted in research and analytics.

The network is the first initiative of its kind and it brings together 13 international and regional organizations and fact-checking groups with expertise in data and behavioral science, epidemiology, research, digital health, and communications.

The Alliance members are Africa CDC, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the United Nations Verified initiative, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Global Pulse. 

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