Health Illiteracy: The second COVID-19 pandemic?

(Lāsma Artmane, Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr. Tomáš Petras, currently a 4th year medical student at the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik in Košice, Faculty of Medicine. He is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

“Misinformation destroys trust. When you destroy trust, you destroy the bonds that hold society together.”

I believe many of you can relate to this quote from Laurence Overmire, when you reflect on your national settings in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, from anti-epidemic measures to prevention via vaccination.

In the past year, the global scientific network has put an immense amount of effort and resources into the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine research, development and distribution, all supported by scientific facts. However, this still wasn’t enough for many, as they were able to find assumptions and undermine the reliability of these efforts.

It is understandable that there will always be some misconceptions and misunderstandings about facts which require immense understanding of virology, immunology, epidemiology, pharmacology, physiology, and many other -logies, but we need to bear in mind that spreading misinformation, amids global pandemic is a serious threat to public health, where vulnerable groups are affected, yet again the most.

Many regulatory, and non-regulatory bodies are trying their best to fight this hidden pandemic: health illiteracy, but many times it’s like fighting the windmills. Putting time, money and workforce to create campaigns supporting the reasonability of vaccination, and in fact supporting any scientific facts related to prevention of public health emergencies, might almost look funny if you think about it. We are literally making graphical designs, with nice colours and simple bullet points for adults, just so we approach the targeted audience as much as possible.

As silly as it might look like, it is nevertheless very important, as it helps to spread the facts, not assumptions. However, the effort should not be only made via campaigning. Health literacy must be taught from the beginning.

During the World Innovation Summit for Health last year, Mr. Morgan Freeman said:

“Health is education, and education is health. You can’t untangle the two, and you can’t solve one without the other. Healthier kids learn more. Well-educated kids live longer, healthier lives. Early childhood education is also a health issue.”

But how can you correctly educate the future generations, if the teachers are the ones spreading misinformation? Sounds unbelievable right? Unfortunately this is the reality in many cases. In my country Slovakia, 31% of elementary teachers believe that vaccination is preparation for mass chipping (implanting microchips) of the population [1]. How can we expect the future generations to act with common sense, if they are influenced by assumptions, rather than facts and knowledge?

It all comes down to an education. Health literacy should be a concept implemented at all levels, from primary, through secondary and tertiary education, and in continuous learning too.

Hopefully, we will be able to learn from the experience once and for all, and all relevant stakeholders will commit to implement a systematic change, because misinformation must be eradicated just as any other virus.



About the author

Tomáš Petras is currently a 4th year medical student at the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik in Košice, Faculty of Medicine. He is a member of Slovak Medical Students’ Association, serving as a National Officer on Medical Education, and also member of International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, serving as Development Assistant of the Standing Committee on Medical Education. He is interested in Meaningful Student Engagement in Global Health and mainly in Medical Education.

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