Surgeon General: Misinformation 'Urgent Threat to Public Health'

Lindsay Kalter

July 15, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The US surgeon general issued a warning Thursday on the dangers of health misinformation, calling it an "urgent threat to public health" in the fight against COVID-19.

Vivek Murthy, MD, urged the American people and social media companies to crack down on inaccurate information, particularly as it relates to the COVID-19 vaccines. He called for an "all-of-society" approach to fight misinformation.

"Misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones," Murthy said during a press briefing. "Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives."

The warning comes as vaccination rates stall and coronavirus cases — many from the highly transmissible Delta variant — continue to increase in communities where immunization rates are low. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, reported last week that in the 173 counties with the highest case rates, 93% have less than 40% of residents vaccinated.

"Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic," Murthy wrote in a 22-page advisory. "As surgeon general, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk."

He continued, "From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread on their platforms, to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation, tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation."

According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation in May, 67% of unvaccinated adults had heard at least one COVID-19 vaccine myth, and either believed it or were unsure of its accuracy. A February study found that exposure to false information — no matter the duration — led to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Murthy noted in the advisory that misinformation proved to be deadly in past outbreaks, including measles and HIV/AIDS. He said the "rapidly changing information environment," like social media platforms, only makes it easier to spread false ideas and lies.

He called on social media companies to be more thorough in removing posts that contain harmful misinformation. The advisory also encourages people to think twice about liking or sharing posts online that may not be accurate, urging, "If you're not sure, don't share."

After a pause and a heavy sigh, Murthy revealed his own personal fears and losses.

"On a personal level, it's painful for me to know that nearly every death we're seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented," Murthy said. "I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID-19, and who wishes each and every day they had the opportunity to get vaccinated. I say that also as a concerned father of two young children, who aren't yet eligible for the vaccine."

Lindsay Kalter is a health freelance journalist who has held positions with Politico, the Boston Herald, and the American Heart Association. Aside from WebMD and Medscape, her work has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine and Business Insider.

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