Jigmi Wangdi

It is the flu season in Thimphu and any topic on the flu would be followed by free advice of home remedies involving the consumption of ginger water or lemon and honey in hot water.

While these are not harmful and tried home remedies to help bear the inconveniences caused by common flu, sometimes good intentions could lead to infodemics – misinformation or disinformation, causing harm.  Traditional medicine to cure alcoholism and tobacco addiction, consuming bleach, cow urine or garlic to treat Covid-19, were some of the misinformation that authorities had to control in recent years.

Misinformation or fake news spread faster in the digital age with social media providing the medium. Unchecked spread of false health information distorts public trust in established sources of advice like doctors, scientists, and public health authorities.

To address this issue, the WHO South-East Asia Regional Office, in collaboration with the WHO Bhutan Office and the Ministry of Health, is conducting the Annual Regional Forum on Community Engagement and Resilience.

About 60 officials and experts from health ministries from across nine countries from the South East Asian country are present alongside partner agencies, and WHO country offices.

The workshop focuses on empowering communities, emphasising cross-border collaborations and enhancing the capacity of Member States and WHO Country Offices in the Region to manage infodemics.

The WHO South-East Asia Region is home to about a quarter of the world’s population. The region faces persistent health emergencies and infectious diseases like dengue, malaria, tuberculosis, Covid-19, Avian Influenza, Nipah virus, and Anthrax, alongside natural disasters and conflicts.

Additionally, the threat from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, mental health issues, and related disabilities is growing.

The forum highlights the importance of combating the spread of infodemics owing to this reason.

Addressing the inaugural session, Health Minister, Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk highlighted the basis of the workshop.

“Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we witnessed the critical importance of risk communication and infodemic management. The pandemic also highlighted the critical role that communities can play in addressing the challenges presented by misinformation and disinformation,” Lyonpo said.

WHO Representative to Bhutan Dr Bhupinder Kaur Aulakh underscored the pivotal role of communities in public health including emergencies and the need to provide correct and timely information to people.

“This year, we put the spotlight on our communities. Communities need to work together to share correct information to avoid falling prey to mis and dis-information and avoid harm to mental health,” Dr Bhupinder Kaur said.

The focus of the forum on infodemics and the importance of community engagement is because authorities can build trust and foster collective action through the active involvement of community members, leaders, and influencers in disseminating accurate information and addressing misconceptions.

Engaging communities allows for tailored communication strategies that resonate with specific cultural and local contexts, ensuring the information is accessible and credible.

This collaborative approach not only counters the spread of misinformation but also empowers communities to make informed decisions, thereby enhancing the overall effectiveness of public health interventions during crises.

The forum was inaugurated by Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk, Minister of Health of Bhutan, and Dr Bhupinder Aulakh, along with officials from the Ministries of Health of Member States, and officials from the WHO-SEARO Regional Office and country offices.