As the coronavirus continues to infect millions and claim the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide, the myths about the disease also continue to increase consequently creating an ‘infodemic’.
As the world races to find a vaccine, most countries (including Ghana) are having to fight off myths, rumours and misinformation which do not auger well for the campaign to bring the pandemic under control.
Speaking on Joy News’ PM Express, some Ghanaian health experts exposed some of the myths for what they are – false!
Myth #1 – ‘Young people cannot die from Covid-19, only elderly people’
Dr. Michael Owusu, Virologist at the Department of Medical Diagnostics at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
Looking at the trend of the data, the virus seemed to cause severe disease among the elderly. But then the trend in the US started showing a different picture to what we saw that young people, some with underlying conditions and some without underlying conditions have died from the coronavirus.
One of the scientific interpretations for this, though not published, is that it is possible that there could be two or more strains of the virus circulating.
Some groups of scientists believe that there is a lethal strain that could be aggressive and cause more deaths among old people. Then there are other mild strains which in asymptomatic carriers would have a very mild [manifestation]. And those could be better at recovering from this.
I’m not too sure of the strains that we have, which of those four. I think that we recently had the genome sequenced for covid from the West African Cell Biology research group.
Understanding the strain and the nature of the strain to see whether this strain is different from asymptomatic carriers and those who have mild disease would help us know whether we could have some of this lethal strain which could form clusters of strains in the US. That will help us to understand the epidemiology of the virus circulating Ghana.
The myth that says it’s solely for elderly people, I think that we should begin to review this. So that if you are young and you have an underlying condition, it seems it may be severe in you.
But it is possible to be young without any underlying condition but you may have a more aggressive strain that will complicate your life if you don’t take care of yourself.
Things are evolving as data accumulates, we will understand better what the virus does.
Dr. Yaw Bediako, Research Fellow, West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens:
With Covid-19 we are learning new things each day because it is a novel coronavirus; a virus we’ve never seen before.
Yes, it is true that if you look in general at most of the deaths globally they do occur in individuals who are older and that would suggest that people who are beyond 60 are more at risk of dying. It doesn’t mean younger people are completely protected from death.
They may be less likely to die but there are cases where young people do die. We have to be clear that none of the data suggests that young people are immune from the severe disease. It’s just that if you look in general at the distribution of cases you find that in general older people appear to be more at risk.
There are indications that young people, whether it is [through] underlying conditions or genetics, can succumb to the disease.
Dr. Bertha Serwaa Ayi, Specialist in Clinical Infections:
I don’t think age particularly predisposes someone per se but I think it’s more of the manifestation of the illness. The best example I can give is a family in China where the couple presented very ill and they had a 10-year-old who was playing. I think the hospital decided to test the child and not only did he have a very high viral load, they did the scan of the chest, he actually had pneumonia and yet he was playing while his parents were sick. So I think it’s more of an expression of the illness.
For some reason, in Asia only 2% of disease was found in people below the age of nine but once it got to Europe and America the picture was completely different because in Spain, you had a 21-year-old soccer player who died and then the United States has reported deaths in 16-year-olds. So I think it’s the expression of the illness that is different.
Titus Beyuo, Deputy General Secretary, Ghana Medical Association:
I would state it emphatically that age alone is not protective and in Ghana here a lot of us do not know our health status. A lot of these young guys have never been to any hospital and do not even know if they have any underlying condition and so to live in that false belief just because we are young, ‘when we get it, we will survive’ is very dangerous.
The fact is the young can die and the elderly can die. I think the most predictive factor for mortality is underlying health conditions and in a country where you are walking around with no clue, in addition to not knowing how the disease will manifest in you, don’t live with the expectation that ‘even if I have it, I will survive’.
Myth #2 – ‘Black people are immune to coronavirus’
Dr Ayi: I spent the good part of January and February trying to convince people that the fact that one Cameroonian recovered in China does not mean that black people are immune. You cannot make a generalisation for a whole race just based of one recovered patient. I was trying to tell people that the fact that he got infected shows that blacks are equally susceptible.
Fast-forward, now in most cities in America up to 83% of the deaths are in people of colour. So it is a very simple explanation.
People who have diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity and heart disease have a higher chance of being pushed to death. Actually for diabetes the rate is 30% and for diabetes it is easy to understand because if you do a blood smear of the blood of somebody with diabetes, in the process of an infection, the white cells move very slowly to attack any virus so we’ve always known that diabetics are more predisposed to infections which is why they get foot infections and all that. Their response to covid-19 is no different.
Specifically, in relation to African-Americans or black people, it’s always been known that we have a higher rate of diabetes, a higher rate of heart disease and hypertension. Black people have more high blood pressure, it has been studied in Ghana for years in fact.
But when it comes to diabetes and obesity there is a secondary layer that puts people of African-American descent in the US at higher risk because there are social conditions which are influenced by other factors like access to physicians, access to education, access to good housing, and a whole load of social determinants of health.
Because if you don’t know to be checking every month, checking your blood sugar, you’re going to have uncontrolled diabetes. If you don’t go and see a physician, you don’t know when to change your diabetic medication, for example.
So it’s two layers of problems creating the ripple effect that we see. All these social determinants coupled with the fact that because of the social determinants they have all these other problems and so when Covid-19 kicks in they are more predisposed.
And also, generally, black people love being together. Like with all this social distancing, people would still want to go and see a cousin or pass by and say ‘hello’ to someone and so it’s all these other factors together. The actual thing is that a majority of them are predisposed to die but in terms of susceptibility they are as equally as susceptible as their Caucasian counterparts.
Dr Bediako: In Africa, generally, the cases were reported a bit later on than in Asia and in Europe and I think that’s partly to do with the movement of people. There are many flights across China straight to the US and it took a little bit longer for the virus to make itself visible in Africa.
So if you look at our timeline, we are not in the same place for instance that Italy is because the virus has been there longer.
I would also say in Africa we don’t test as much as other countries. There are certain countries in Africa that are not testing at all. Burundi for example only recently recorded its first case. Ghana is probably one of the best in Africa to test.
So people may be dying, but their deaths are just not attributed to Covid-19 and so it would look like Covid is not killing people. We have to be careful with that.
Generally I think the virus has gotten here a bit later and we are a few weeks, if not, a month or so away from seeing whether or not the virus will have the same effect.
We do have a younger population. The average age in Africa is 19. We don’t know our underlying conditions so just because we are younger doesn’t mean we necessarily mean we are more protected.
However, we do have a younger population, so there is a chance we could see a fewer deaths. But I think we have to be very cautious because this is an evolving situation. Ghana today has recorded over 600 cases and that number is sure to rise.
So, if you look at the percentage of deaths, the number of cases and we have eight deaths, that percentage is not that different from a country that has 500,000 cases and has 20,000 deaths like the US does.
We have to be careful. As our case numbers rise it is likely our death numbers will rise. We have to look at it in terms of proportions and not absolute numbers and also remember that we are a few weeks at least behind the likes of Italy and Spain.
Let’s give ourselves a few weeks and see where we stand before we make conclusions about whether the virus has skipped us or has been less severe in our part of the world.
Myth #3 – ‘Africa is too hot or humid for the virus to operate’
Dr Owusu: We’ve known coronaviruses for years and weather does not play any significant role in terms of infections. For human coronaviruses, we had about 5-10% of Ghanaians who were infected by the normal four types of human coronaviruses in 2014. There was hot weather yet about 10% of [Ghanaians] had it.
What I think, not based on data, is that the climate may slow the spread of the virus and this is why I think in Africa we are progressing at a very slow rate. But eventually we’ll hit the peak. It is possible it’ll take you up to a month or six weeks or two months to hit the peak.
This is why it is important that we must be aggressive. It is a window period now and we have the luxury to put in all the systems that we have to put in. We need to put in all the infrastructure, we need to use all the mobile technologies and do everything we have to do now. Else if we don’t activate the systems and just hold on to these myths I think we are going to surprise ourselves.
Dr Beyuo: I think we should treat it as a myth that must be busted immediately and that it is not the truth. If you follow the history of the disease you realise that it is really based on movement of people. It took a much longer time for people to move with the virus into Africa.
If you take Ghana in particular, I think we have done a few things right even though some of the things were a bit late. The fact that we are getting people into quarantine and diagnosing the people when they are not really sick, in itself is a very good thing for us.
I think maybe luck is also shining on us because our health systems cannot support us when we get to that terrible stage.
If you look at a lot of countries, take Europe, the Americas, we have analysed it and it looks like the youthful people travel to these other countries and bring the disease and come and infect the elderly, other people and the deaths start to rise.
If you take Ghana we are in that phase where most of the people with the disease are those who have returned and those who had contact with them. These could be youthful people, very strong people walking around.
The next phase is that these people are going to carry the disease throughout the community, infect their parents, their grandparents, they’ll infect more elderly people who would be more prone and that is when we are going to begin to see the terrible picture in numbers dying.
So if you are able to contain it now before that spread level gets to the more vulnerable part of the population, I think the better it will be for our country.
Let no one kid themselves that our environment protects us, our genes protect us or the humidity protects us; no. It has been found in Burkina Faso, which is relatively warmer than Ghana, and in the northern part of Ghana where it’s warmer we found it and we found it in the south.
It tells you that, really even though temperature may play a role, these are really not founded as of now. We should just brace ourselves and contain this early.
Dr Ayi: The virus will die at 56C which means if you boil your food it will die but if you think about it there’s nowhere in the world that is as hot as 56C.
Unless it’s in the middle of a volcano I don’t know any part of the world that gets to 56C, not even in Texas or the desert. I think that the temperature issue is not a big one.
We also just have to look around the equator of the world and you’ll find that countries that are on the same level as we are have had lots of cases so we just cannot use that.
If you think about the fact that the virus can survive for up to 40 days in an airconditioned room at 72F then it shows that it is not an issue. Look at our own body temp. Our temp is about 36.7C, the virus is able to survive in us. So the fact that we’re thinking at degrees outside the body, it won’t be able to survive, is quite a big myth.
Myth #4 – ‘5G networks somehow causes the virus spread’
Dr Owusu: Viruses are ultramicroscopic organisms so they are with us. The organism needs to move and it needs to attach itself to the surface of the body. It needs to interact with the cells of the body and it needs to enter into a cell and then trigger a whole process.
I don’t see the role of 5G in coronavirus. Viruses don’t travel through radio waves. It doesn’t work like that. Some think that 5G has effects on your immune system. This is false. We don’t have any data to support this that 5G has anything to do with coronavirus. It’s a myth that should not even worry our heads.
Myth #5 – ‘Neem and steam therapy could help eliminate Covid-19 from the body’s system’
Dr Bediako: No. It’s not true. I think this comes from the idea that neem is thought to be antimalarial and I think all the noise making in the US about hydroxychloroquine has raised this association between coronavirus and malaria.
So people are thinking that things that will help with malaria will help with coronavirus. I think this is just an old tale conflating malaria and potential benefits of neem itself perhaps as an antimalarial but usually that is a herbal remedy.
I think even against malaria it has some effects but it’s not entirely what I recommend to treat against malaria.
Myth #6 – ‘hydroxychloroquine can be used to cure covid-19’
Dr Bediako: Even against coronavirus, hydroxychloroquine, is not proven to help. There have been small studies that show perhaps some benefit and another study showed no benefit and I think the biggest concern about hydroxychloroquine is that it has some severe side effects.
So it’s not recommended as a prophylactic and there are patients who have lupus, who depend on chloroquine.
So people contributing to the global rush to go for chloroquine have put people at risk and now there are shortages of chloroquine. The main thing is, it’s likely not going to help you.
Dr Beyuo: It is part of our current treatment protocol but like suggested elsewhere there is data to back it, which is not very conclusive. I know that trials are underway but currently our national treatment protocol in drugs which we are using for managing the Covid-19 includes hydroxychloroquine.
However, mindful of its effects it is potentially lethal. Our recommendation is that this must be done in a hospital setting and not for prophylactics.
We strongly recommend that no one should take hydroxychloroquine on their own. It has to be prescribed for you by a doctor and you should take it in hospital. It causes the heart to beat irregularly so it can essentially cause your heart to stop beating and it can be deadly. Therefore taking it on your own is not advisable.
Dr Ayi: Several hospitals in the US, including mine are using chloroquine. I’ve had to dig up my pharmacology book and read all about chloroquine over again and I found it interesting that you could literally kill somebody by giving them a dosage of 5grams of chloroquine, at once. So it is not to be taken lightly. The doses that we used for malaria were a very small dose and we used it under very controlled conditions.
I have had patients on chloroquine who have had elevated liver enzymes and it’s not supposed to be used on people with liver diseases.
There are a lot of people with hepatitis B in Ghana, a lot of people with chronic liver diseases have to be careful using it. People with seizures, or people who are taking anti-epileptic medication should be very careful.
Myth #7 – ‘If you drink a lot of akpeteshie, it will kill the virus?’
Dr Bediako: Akpeteshie on your hands might act as a hand sanitiser but if you drink it you’re just going to get drunk and probably end up with the coronavirus anyway.
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