Teach health literacy at schools to combat fake news, expert says

“It's much more difficult to deliver a scientifically checked message but it takes 10% of the time for someone to produce fake news.” [joel bubble ben/Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Europe’s health after COVID-19.

Social and traditional media, patient organisations and policymakers have all a role to play in providing clear messages when it comes to public health. But without proper investments in health literacy at school, fake news cannot be combatted, according to the European Patients Forum (EPF).

“If we don’t restart teaching basic science in our schools, if governments continue underinvesting in schools, then we will keep on creating people that will be facing more and more difficulties in understanding messages that are made on a scientific ground,” EPF president Marco Greco told EURACTIV in an interview.

For Greco, the social media sector is important but is not enough to target a wider population which still has no access to them.

One of the main problems, he said, is that fake science is much easier to be understood than real science.

“It’s much more difficult to deliver a scientifically checked message but it takes 10% of the time for someone to produce fake news,” he warned.

Europe is currently experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and citizen movements across the bloc have already started questioning the several restrictive measures put in place to slow down the coronavirus.

Anti-vaccination movements have also re-appeared, spreading doubts over the safety of a much-awaited COVID-19 vaccine.

Greco said the pandemic found Europe unprepared on a communication level, but overall the EU reaction has been positive, especially once the situation became clearer.

He pointed out that in the beginning, even the scientific community found it difficult to send a common message. He cited as an example the use of masks, and the differing opinions of various experts, which confused people, as well as the guidelines for schools, which in many cases were provided to people only a few days before the start of the academic year.

In an effort to provide as much clarity as possible during the pandemic, EPF has established a cooperation with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and created scientific committees sending weekly newsletters to its members with information about the state-of-play and ongoing studies on COVID-19.

“The objective was to deliver the same information to patients, to reassure them that this message was controlled by scientists and also by regulators,” Greco said.

Vaccine: a critical moment

For Greco, despite the initial shortcomings, the communication strategy followed by the EU executive and EMA was positive in sending clear messages.

“I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has obliged us somehow to accelerate in this type of communication because it is necessary to provide information everybody can understand,” he said.

The turning point of this communication challenge will be the vaccine, once it becomes available.

“It will be essential to maintain the same level of communication that we applied for prevention, once the vaccine will be ready. The vaccine will be a very critical moment, not only because it’s essential for the public safety […] but also because you know how difficult the perception on vaccination has been in the last few years,” he said.

That is why, he said, a clear message from the EU authorities would be essential to guarantee that everything has been done to ensure patients’ safety.

Anti-vaccination groups are focusing on the urgency of a COVID-19 vaccine, claiming that a fast-track process entails risks.

But for Greco, transparent, clear and science-based messages about the COVID-19 vaccine could pave the way for a general change of attitude on vaccination.

“This is why EPF is working on maintaining the bar of scrutiny high on the safety of a vaccine […] this can make a change in the perception of vaccine”.

“Many of us will be facing the choice of taking this vaccine when it’s ready. It will be an enormous opportunity for communicating better about vaccination and the importance of vaccination and the scientific solid base on which vaccination is grounded,” Greco concluded.

Earlier this month, nine pharmaceutical companies signed a joint statement saying any coronavirus vaccine will be developed with “high ethical standards and sound scientific principles.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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