Health misinformation is always harmful: Dr. Gagandeep Kang

Last Updated on August 9, 2023 by Neelam Singh

Dr. Gagandeep Kang stands as a prominent figure in the realm of scientific research, with a remarkable focus on childhood viral illnesses and the pioneering development of rotavirus vaccines. Her groundbreaking work in understanding the intricacies of childhood viral infections, particularly rotavirus, has been pivotal in shaping global healthcare. Her dedication to unraveling the mysteries of these illnesses led to the development of innovative and life-saving rotavirus vaccines, significantly reducing the burden of disease in young children worldwide.

In 2019, Dr. Kang became the first Indian woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a testament to her exceptional scientific accomplishments. Teaming up with Dr. Randeep Guleria, the then director of AIIMS, New Delhi, and distinguished Indian physician Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, she co-authored the enlightening book titled Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic.

The virologist joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as director of global health earlier this year after retiring from her position as professor of microbiology at the Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory, Division of Gastrointestinal Sciences at the Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore.

In an interview with The Healthy Indian Project (THIP), Dr. Kang shares her views on COVID 19, health misinformation, and health literacy.

WHO has declared an end to COVID-19 as a public health emergency, but how do you envision the COVID illness developing?

SARS-COV2 has the ability to cause asymptomatic infections and to move from humans to animals and back again. Any infection with these characteristics will not disappear. But fortunately, our immune systems are able to handle infections we have seen before very well. Therefore, even if the virus changes a little, as it will, those who are vaccinated or previously infected will have some protection against this severe disease.

How would you assess the entire pandemic from a global and Indian perspective? What are the few things we might have done differently?

I think the biggest global and Indian lessons are on sharing and trusting science. Sharing resources where they are most needed. Could we have helped out by sending healthcare professionals quickly to places where there were surges and hospitals were overwhelmed? Could we have shared diagnostics, vaccines, drugs, and expertise? I think we could have (and would have wanted to) help those who needed it most, but with borders, nationalism, and processes for import and certification, it can be hard to share even if there is willingness. In the future, I hope we will proactively establish mechanisms to lower these barriers.

The other important area is trust in science, rather than belief in unproven facts shared by those with little or claimed expertise. Even in uncertain situations and with new pathogens, the broad principles of disease, infection, and protection still apply. Science for the development of new interventions has moved rapidly, and we need to provide scientists with the resources to be strong and ready before and during emergencies.

Do you think, post corona now we are more ready for any other pandemic, keeping in mind our healthcare ecosystem and how viruses are evolving?

In a changing world, our patterns of interaction with other humans and with the living environment are changing. These changes will result in both contact with pathogens, particularly viruses, that we do not usually encounter and a more rapid spread than was feasible in the past. This is why it is important for us to expand our investment in healthcare and preparedness. We are going to need them.

Health infodemic appears to have caused parallel chaos during the pandemic. But why do you believe that in the present situation, it hurts more?           

Health misinformation is not new, but social media has led to our being able to live within our bubbles, where our world view is reinforced. Someone who does not believe in vaccination or believes in alternative therapies can ensure that they never interact with those with another point of view, or can choose with other like-minded individuals to attack those who try to put across a different viewpoint or emphasize facts.

Questioning and asking for evidence are always valuable and are the foundation of science. But when a group questions and then refuses to accept strong evidence, instead relying on weak constructs that align with their preconceptions, a lot of effort and energy is wasted in conveying what is known and what is uncertain repeatedly. But more than that, misinformation leads to harm for those who believe it.

Do you believe that fact-checking can help counteract the health misinformation spread on social media? Can fact-checkers correct health disinformation more effectively?

Fact-checking is valuable. But if we think about people who accept information, there are those who have a strong understanding of science and ‘get’ what new information is communicated to them and act on it. There is also the opposite end of the spectrum, where all science is suspicious and people have strong beliefs about what could be called pseudoscience, and it is even harder to change their point of view even with fact checking. And we also have people in the middle who hear information and disinformation but do not know how to distinguish between the two—this is where, I think, fact checking is most valuable.

Illiteracy is undoubtedly one of the main factors contributing to the dissemination of false information. Can health literacy aid a country like India, and if so, in what particular areas?

I don’t think we should think of health as being different from other forms of science. For our society to be health literate, we have to be science literate as well. I think two areas really matter here, the first is building credibility and trust, and the second is conveying information that is accurate and understandable. I do not think it is hard or impossible to convey the process and results of science to any part of our society. It just has to be conveyed by trusted people using a process that respects people.

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