People, wearing masks, seen at Ernakulam General Hospital on 3 June 2019 (PTI)
People, wearing masks, seen at Ernakulam General Hospital on 3 June 2019 (PTI)

Nipah-hit Kerala wants to beat fake news first

  • Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan came out with a Facebook post that warned of stringent action over spreading misinformation on Nipah
  • The move stems from Kerala's experience in handling Nipah in 2018, when an avalanche of lies and rumours on social media hit the state's efforts to tackle public anxiety

Bengaluru: The deadly virus Nipah that has hit Kerala may not have a vaccine, but rumours and panic-mongering on news media and social media around Nipah do have a solution, or so the state government think. From issuing warnings against fake news creators, to setting up an internal army to scout fake news, to regulating the flow of information in the news media and publicising vigorously the official channels of information, to get top faces in the medical field to calm the nerves of the public, Kerala is throwing everything it can at stopping the spread of misinformation during a crisis.

Leading the attack from the front, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan came out with a Facebook post on Tuesday that warned of stringent action over spreading misinformation on Nipah.

"We request everyone to follow the instructions of the health department. Stringent action will be taken against those who spread misinformation. We are in constant contact with the Union ministry for health. A team of experts has arrived in Kochi. Their inputs will also inform the efforts against Nipah outbreak. Together, we overcame the battle against Nipah in 2018," he said.

The move stems from Kerala's experience in handling Nipah in 2018, when an avalanche of lies and rumours on social media hit the state's efforts to tackle public anxiety. "Nipah virus to AP chicken centers" says one such fake news video created in 2018 and still resting on Youtube with 2,400 views, whereas the virus is simply not known to transmit through chicken. With the benefit of hindsight, when a Nipah case was confirmed on Tuesday, the first thing the state health officials were asked to do was to prepare an army to tackle fake news on social media.

The scourge of fake news has not vanished this time too. "There is no such virus as Nipah," Jacob Vadakkanchery, a self-styled naturopathy advocate, posted on a Facebook live video on Tuesday, which has gathered more than one lakh views. Vadakkanchery was arrested last year for campaigning against the medicines distributed by the state to prevent rat fever in the aftermath of 2018 Kerala floods.

He alleged that Nipah is a conspiracy touted by allopathy medicine lobby for profits. "If you have fever, don't go to a hospital and have allopathy medicine. People who suffering now are only those who rushed to a hospital when they had a fever and had 'English' medicines. Don't take paracetamols (tablets). If two paracetamols are mixed with rice and given to rats, five to eight of them will die in three to four days. The paracetamols they give you can destroy your liver," he said. "If you have fever, just drink a lot of pure water and have complete rest," he added.

"We are moving our local health officers, who are equipped both in journalism and medical knowledge, to set up a team that will issue timely medical bulletins and act as a hub to monitor fake news on social media. We are also asking all state departments to aggressively promote the official social media accounts of the health department and the CM's office as the only trusted source for information related to Nipah," said an official who is privy to the talks, requesting not to be named. The team will operate under the 'Arogya Jaagratha' platform — set up by the state for tackling misinformation and spreading health awareness after Nipah in 2018.

Kerala's health minister K K Shylaja also stressed this point during her interaction with reporters while confirming the first Nipah patient on Tuesday, a 23-year-old student admitted in a Kochi hospital.

She asked reporters to refrain from tracking the family members or the patient's location. She added that only people who are specially trained should go to the areas where Nipah has been reported.

"We will issue a medical bulletin by 11am every day and will have a press briefing by 5pm held either by the minister or by someone senior in the health department. Media is advised to only provide information from press briefings and medical bulletins. The health department will not hide any information from the media. Please don't try to get exclusives at this point in time," said Shylaja.

Incidentally, one news channel in Kerala reported the patient in Kochi ilwas confirmed being infected by Nipah on Monday, even before the government was handed over the official test results.

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