KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 13 — There are two viral battles waging simultaneously at this juncture in Malaysia.
Unlike the straightforward fight against new viruses in previous outbreaks, such as the H1N1 (first identified in 2009), MERS-CoV (2012) and the Nipah (1998/99) viruses, the Health Ministry has to contend with fake news on social media following the identification of the Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) in December in China.
Its director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said people lack defences and antibodies against Covid-19.
“But, the difference between this new virus and the new viruses in the past is having to deal with fake news going viral on social media which creates mass panic, fear and racial stigmatisation.
“Even the World Health Organization in Geneva (Switzerland) too is addressing the fake news, ” he said in an interview with The Star.
Dr Noor Hisham said the ministry is working round the clock with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and the police to allay public fears caused by fake news.
He said one of the ways to verify information is to check the Health Ministry’s website and its Facebook page and mainstream news websites. Yesterday, Bernama reported that a retiree was fined RM5,000, in default 10 months’ jail, by the Magistrate’s Court in Sandakan for spreading fake news on Covid-19.
It also reported yesterday that a total of 23 investigation papers on fake news relating to Covid19 on social media had been opened.
Three cases have been charged in court, in Kuala Lumpur, Terengganu and Sabah respectively, said Bukit Aman Criminal Investigation (Intelligence and Operations) deputy director Datuk Mohd Roze Shaari.
The most recent was a case in Tumpat, Kelantan, he said.
He urged the public not to share any unverified statement or article relating to the Covid-19 infection.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization named the novel coronavirus disease as Covid-19, replacing the temporary name 2019-nCov.
On Monday, a Malaysian man who had visited China before returning home this month became the 18th person to be diagnosed with Covid-19 in Malaysia, said the Health Ministry.
Dr Noor Hisham said the majority of Covid-19 patients in Malaysia had mild symptoms such as fever, sore throat, runny nose and cough.
While all patients were isolated and their condition monitored closely, those with mild symptoms were given supportive treatment and were hydrated.
For severe cases, antiretroviral “off-label use” of the lopinavir and ritonavir combination drug (used for HIV cases), was prescribed for patients here and it seemed to have worked on two patients, he said.
A few of the patients with other medical conditions (such as diabetes, asthma) ended up with more severe symptoms, he said, adding that the young and old were also more vulnerable.
Less than 4% of patients deteriorate and become critical, he said, adding that the ministry also provides oxygenation if needed.
“The virus is self-limiting and self-immunity is an important factor. Some responded well when they have good immunity, ” he said, stressing on the need to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
Dr Noor Hisham said that anyone can get infected with Covid-19 if no precautionary and infection control measures are taken, especially with family members and healthcare workers who have close continuous contact with patients.
“More importantly, those with symptoms must take care of personal hygiene such as washing hands frequently, wearing a face mask to protect others from getting infected and washing hands after sneezing, ” he said.
People should also avoid public places and stay home (self-quarantine) if they have symptoms, he said.
“In time, we hope our body will recognise the virus and build antibodies against it, ” he said, adding that vaccination could help once it is available.
Dr Noor Hisham said the country has a coordinated action plan and framework chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail while many unsung heroes in the ministry are also working behind the scenes. He said that good leadership is equally important in a time of crisis.
He said health authorities acted based on facts and in a united and coordinated way in their action plan as well as sharing information locally, regionally and globally.