Why do official health organizations change their advice?
The year is 2020 - we live in an age dominated by 24-hour news, alleged facts, contradictory ‘expert’ opinion, and fake news. Combine this with a global pandemic and it presents a clear but vital question: How do we know who and what to believe? In the field of COVID-19 scientific research, accurate and trustworthy sources are important to inform us on how to stay safe and slow down the spread of the virus. But where do you begin with the overwhelming amount of data at your fingertips? A good place to start is large, reputable official public health bodies such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but even they seem to change their mind regularly. One minute we shouldn’t be wearing masks and the next we should all be wearing masks. So, why has it all become so confusing?
The changing story of emerging science.
COVID-19 took everybody by surprise and rapidly spread around the world at breathtaking speed. As it is a new, novel strain of coronavirus, not previously identified in humans, very little is known about it. Understandably, people quickly demanded evidence-based information regarding prevention, treatment, diagnosis, and vaccination in order to make informed decisions. Ordinarily, getting scientific research published is a lengthy process taking an average of 244 days to reach publication from submission. This whole process, including peer-review, usually takes place behind closed doors before public release. Since the dawn of COVID-19, 'preprints' have become more popular. A preprint is a completed scientific manuscript that has not been peer-reviewed. Does this really make such a difference? Well, going through the peer-review process means that only high-quality, valid, and original research is published. With research emerging at a significant speed, preprints have become a popular way for scientists, at the forefront of developments, to share their findings quickly. However, this has led to research being debated and peer-reviewed in the public eye, particularly on social media platforms.
The media covers scientific debates in real time.
It is only right that scientific research is challenged. Methodology, data, and results should be questioned to ensure dangerous conclusions are not made. As previously mentioned, these discussions are now happening in the public eye which can be misleading. The mainstream media can be quick to jump on new scientific releases, without full understanding, thus misleading the public. Also, with social media comes personal attacks and fake news which can spread worldwide in a matter of minutes. This doesn't mean to say that all social media discussion is negative. Platforms such as Twitter can allow scientists to share their research, promote discussion, and gauge public opinion.
Global health authorities need to provide policy advice quickly.
Public health authorities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), change their mind too. The face mask debate has been ongoing for many months and recently the WHO has changed their guidance. Does this mean they were wrong before? No, it means that they are adapting their guidance based on new evidence and information available. COVID-19 is a new, novel strain of coronavirus and through the passage of time, with more analysis being conducted, the bank of knowledge will increase. As more evidence becomes available, more decisions will be taken forming the roadmap of how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. However, global health authorities sometimes need to provide advice on government policy very quickly, even without robust evidence. No doubt, mistakes may have been made along the way and policy makers may be held to account in the future. With a lack of evidence available at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, decisions were made based on the knowledge of similar coronaviruses. In the field of science, especially regarding public health, open and honest debate should always be encouraged, particularly when identifying lessons learned. A simple mantra is: Do, Review, Apply.
Advice on the need to keep hands clean has never changed.
Although science and the advice around it continue to alter, there are some staple good practices that always stay the same. Handwashing is one of these practices. When using a good technique, hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of germs and viruses. Since the early 19th century, evidence has shown that washing your hands has a significant impact on reducing the spread of infection. The WHO 'SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands' campaign just shows how important keeping your hands clean really is. Hands are well recognized to transfer viruses and hand contact with infected hard surfaces is a significant cause of spreading infection. However, as you know, sinks are not always readily available when you are out in public places. This problem can be approached in two practical ways: reduce your contact with hard surfaces as much as possible, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you can't wash your hands. Carrying a helpful safeguard for your hands like No Knob, and a 60% alcohol sanitizer gel will enable you to be prepared when you can't wash your hands. One thing you can be certain of, keeping your hands clean is one piece of advice that stays the same.
Key points to remember:
- Remember, research is changing daily. You modify your perspective as you learn more.It’s ok to change your mind!
- Is it fake news? Do your research before sharing news or advice on social media.
- Err on the side of caution. Unsure about medical advice? Then discuss your concerns with your physician. They may be able to guide you through any confusing information.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Scientific research should be challenged.
- Don’t lose faith! Changes in medical practice can only mean there is more information available.
- Some advice never changes. Good hand hygiene will always be good practice.
- If you have been staying healthy with your current protocols - keep doing what you have been doing to protect yourself. Right now - wearing face masks in certain situations, social distancing, frequent hand washing and wiping down hard surfaces is recommended good practice.
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