Medical students tackle coronavirus misinformation

Through their #MOREVIRALTHANTHEVIRUS campaign, med students around the world are spotlighting myths about COVID-19

By Ian Evans - May 15, 2020
MoreViral meeting of med students
Med students from around the world have an online meeting for their #MOREVIRALTHANTHEVIRUS compaign (from top row): Juan Pablo Scarano Pereira, Aaron Goh, Tasfeen Billah, Derrick Fernando, Elizabeth Gil White, Michelle Navarro, Martin Ryll and Maria Ahmad.

Can drinking bleach cure COVID-19? Did coronavirus originate in a lab? Does it exist at all, or is it it a conspiracy designed to achieve something for a shadowy cabal controlling the world?

As coronavirus seizes the headlines, it brings with it waves of misinformation, from causes to cures to its effects and mortality rate. Frustrated by the amount of misleading or incorrect information being shared and aware that fake news can cost lives, a group of medical students have rallied together to build a campaign aimed at replacing myth with fact.

Aaron Goh is a medical student at Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore.Aaron Goh, a medical student at Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore who is part of the group behind the #MOREVIRALTHANTHEVIRUS campaign, explained:

It was really just a way of getting people our age to take the situation seriously. We were seeing quite a few people dismissing the virus, and unfortunately a lot of that was coming from youths. As things have progressed, the myths have moved from comments like ‘it’s not that serious’ to dangerous advice on things like injecting bleach.

Aaron had formed a large international network of contacts while taking part in Elsevier’s ClinicalKey Global Challenge. The event brought together international teams of students to answer clinical medicine questions on the ClinicalKey Student platform.

When COVID-19 struck, these medical students found themselves in a frustrating position – wanting to take a role in addressing the pandemic but not yet ready to take to the frontlines of care. The group comprises medical students from more than 30 countries who are keen to use their expertise to promote good practice and verified health advice. Aaron continued:

We’ve got some clinical skills, but not enough to be functional in helping out in the frontlines. The question we asked ourselves was, ‘How could we contribute in some meaningful way to this?’ We thought about the years to come, how we would look back on this. Would we be able to say that we played the biggest part that we could?

Maria AhmadThat led the group to focus on information. As Maria Ahmad, a medical student at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, explained:

I know a lot of clinicians, particularly in the UK, who are anxious about the situation with regard to personal protective equipment. That is really worrying, and it’s hard to hear when you’re a medical student and not in a place to help with that issue. But what I can do is use my knowledge, my resources, and my position as an advocate to raise awareness of coronavirus, particularly among young people, persuade them to follow advice and dispel myths around the virus, which can be destructive in their own way

Aaron pointed to a recent post from the group about drinking bleach. At the end of April, calls to poison centers in the US spiked following comments from the US president about using disinfectant to treat coronavirus.

“We really wanted something that would grab people’s attention, so with the mythbuster examples, we went for a kind of cognitive dissonance, leading with the shocking statement,” he explained. “That’s probably the one that’s been shared the most.”

The international nature of the group also means that members can address the misinformation that pops up in different geographies.

The group is also aware of the toll that the pandemic and its attendant lockdown is taking on people’s mental health. Earlier in the month, they held the LifeStream event, which brought together creators from 19 countries to share tips and activities for staying active and healthy at home.

“It was a way of supporting our peers,” Aaron said. “We wanted to show that even in the midst of all this, life still has to happen. It just has to happen at home.”

Their advice to you

For Maria and Aaron, their own education continues with some major differences. Maria herself has been doing an intercalated degree focusing on pre-hospital medicine, which saw her working with London’s  Air Ambulance. Many of the opportunities that presented are being compromised.

“I still have all my major deadlines and all my exams – what’s missing at the moment is some of the experiential stuff,” she said. “I don’t have any placements, which is where we’re able to take a role in treating patients with the pre-hospital teams. I miss that – it’s one of the most interesting and valuable elements. But for the most part, I’m happy that the medical school has carried on with online teaching. Learning is really important to me and I’m glad to still have it.”

One of the reasons the group behind More Viral than the Virus was able to form so quickly and with such significant international reach was through the connections forged at the ClinicalKey Global Challenge.

“That was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Maria said. “We all stay in contact, which is fantastic, and we had a big call just last week – it’s such an incredible network of talented students.”

Of course, right now it’s now longer possible to form a network in the same way, with students currently restricted to their homes and large events unlikely to be held any time soon. So, what advice do Aaron and Maria have for people looking to expand their networks from their desk? Aaron shared his thoughts:

I think doing anything in the current environment is going to be difficult, but it’s not as severe as it could be. The main thing I would say is, ‘Be brave.’ You can still reach out to people, ask them for help with your project, or reach out with a shared question or idea.

Most of the people in this group are people I’ve never met, but we reach out to people and ask them if they want to get on board, because the worst that can happen is you get rejected. So yes: Be brave.

Follow #MOREVIRALTHANTHEVIRUS

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The team is also holding a fundraiser for the WHO

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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