Passengers wearing protective facemasks arrive at Bandaranaike International airport in Katunayake on January 30, 2020. (AFP / Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)

Health experts refute new misleading claims about coronavirus prevention in Sri Lanka

A lengthy post promoting several precautionary measures which will purportedly protect people from the novel coronavirus has been shared tens of thousands of times by multiple Sri Lankan Facebook users. But health experts have refuted many of the claims, including one that sunlight can kill the virus, saying they are false or misleading; Sri Lankan health authorities have urged the public to refrain from sharing misleading information in order to curb the coronavirus “info-demic.”

The post was published here on Facebook on February 25, 2020. It has been shared more than 24,000 times.

Below is a screenshot of the misleading Facebook post: 

Screenshot of the Facebook post

The title of the Sinhala-language post translates to English as: “ ******Very important, read everyone**** How to prevent Corona".

The post was published just hours after Italy reported a spike in confirmed coronavirus cases. The information shared in the misleading post was addressed to Sri Lankans in Italy, supposedly to inform them how to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus.

A similar claim was also shared on Facebook here, here, here, here and here

But many of the practices detailed in the post are misleading and inaccurate.

--Symptoms--

While detailing coronavirus symptoms, the post states: “If you are having a runny nose and feel congested when you are suffering from a cold, it cannot be coronavirus pneumonia, as the coronavirus pneumonia causes a dry cough, it does not cause a runny nose.”

The claim is misleading; the World Health Organization (WHO) states clearly that while fever, tiredness and a dry cough are the most common coronavirus symptoms, patients may also experience nasal congestion and a runny nose.

Below is a screenshot of the WHO's advice about COVID-19 symptoms on its official website:

--Prevention methods--

The misleading post also claims that “drinking warm water” and going “under the sunlight” are effective preventive practices because “coronavirus is not heat resistant and can be killed in high temperatures.” The post adds that people should keep their clothes in an area “with plenty of sunlight exposure in order to kill the virus.” 

But there is so far no conclusive evidence to suggest that sunlight kills the virus or that the virus would be less infectious in rising temperatures. 

This article published on February 19, 2020 by Caixin, a Chinese financial and business news media group, cites several top Chinese health experts who note that while higher temperatures would decrease the survival time of the coronavirus, they do not affect its ability to infect. 

US-based television channel National Geographic stated in an article published on February 25, 2020 that although milder viruses subside in warmer months due to what scientists call “seasonality,” it remains “highly uncertain” whether or not the coronavirus will behave similarly. 

--Infection--

The misleading Facebook post also claims that the coronavirus is comparatively larger in size and therefore “it cannot enter through a normal mask and will be filtered…”

Yet both international health experts note that masks provide only limited protection from the coronavirus and should only be worn by those already experiencing coronavirus symptoms or by health workers.

“People with no respiratory symptoms, such as cough, do not need to wear a medical mask,” the WHO states here. “WHO advises rational use of medical masks to avoid unnecessary wastage of precious resources and mis-use of masks.” 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also states that it “does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.”

The Facebook post also makes misleading claims about the durations that the coronavirus can survive on different surfaces. 

“The virus can survive a minimum or 12 hours on a metal surface….The virus can stay active on tissue between 6-12 hours...The virus can live on your hands only for about 5-10 minutes,” the post reads. 

The WHO, however, notes that “it is not certain” how long the virus can survive on inanimate surfaces and states that the life span could range from a few hours to several days depending on varying conditions such as surface type, temperature and humidity. 

The post also advises readers to clean their throat three times per day with betadine, a topical antiseptic, to “prevent or minimize risk of the virus entering the lung through the throat.”

Yet Dr. Ashan Pathirana, Sri Lanka’s Health Promotion Bureau Registrar, refuted the claim about cleansing one’s throat. 

“The virus transmits via contact with respiratory droplets. So the key steps to remember are to avoid touching your face if you happen to be at a public space, use an alcohol based sanitizer and wash your hands thoroughly using soap, before you touch your face or consume food etc.,” Pathirana told AFP by phone on February 27, 2020.

--Official guidelines--

Pathirana also urged the public to refer to the Ministry of Health’s precautions listed here in order to minimize the risk of coronavirus. 

Below is a screenshot of the official guidelines: 

Screenshot of the official guidelines