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No, South Africa’s infectious disease agency is not advising mask-wearing and other measures to protect against flu-like RSV

IN SHORT: A message spreading in South Africa on social media and WhatsApp says the National Institute for Communicable Diseases has warned of an RSV outbreak and is mandating masks in schools and hospitals. But the NICD has debunked this statement as untrue.

A message which has been shared several times on Facebook in May 2024, on a South African internet forum, and which was also shared with Africa Check on WhatsApp, warns of an outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in South Africa.

The message, which is not accurate, warns readers that the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has advised citizens to take preventative measures against the spread of the virus. 

The message begins:

Public Service Announcement

There has been a recent outbreak of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), necessitating the implementation of the following guidelines:

Mandatory wearing of N95 masks in schools and public hospitals, effective immediately.

It goes on to describe some of the symptoms of the disease, how it spreads, and claims that “The first case of RSV was identified at Livingston Hospital in Gqergha”. It attributes this information to “the Department of Health and Education, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, and the World Health Organization”.

This message has been dismissed by the NICD, which says that it has issued no such warning.

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Message debunked by NICD

On its official Facebook page on 10 May and X (formerly Twitter) account on 13 May, the NICD said: “We would like to clarify that this message is fake news, and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) did not issue such a statement.”

The organisation wrote that “there is currently no outbreak of RSV, and no mandatory wearing of N95 masks in schools and public hospitals has been implemented”.

Like other diseases, such as influenza, or flu, the NICD monitors RSV seasons to prepare for and manage infections. The organisation did announce that the RSV season had started in early February 2024, telling clinicians “to anticipate an increase” in the admission of children to hospital during this season. The NICD has monitored RSV infections and released weekly monitoring updates throughout the season. Its most recent update, at the time of writing, found that infections had peaked in mid-April.

However, the NICD has not declared an RSV outbreak, or advised any of the preventative measures listed in the message.

‘Red flags’ and errors in warning message

There are several red flags in the viral message which suggest that it may not be accurate. The most glaring is the sentence “The first case of RSV was identified at Livingston Hospital in Gqergha” which contains two spelling errors.

There is a Livingstone Hospital – note the letter “e” in “Livingstone” – in the city of Gqeberha, not “Gqergha”, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. While even reliable sources can make mistakes, it is unusual for official communications from government departments and major public health organisations to include errors like these.

Grammar and spelling errors should always be a red flag to verify the source of a message.

Harder to spot are some of the errors the message makes in describing RSV. While it claims that the virus is particularly dangerous to “individuals over the age of 19”, this does not match information from reliable sources like Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins says that RSV is most dangerous to infants and young children, in particular children with preexisting medical conditions.

The message also describes symptoms including “fever higher than 38.2°C, cough, fatigue, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and body aches”. This, once again, doesn’t match warnings from reliable sources. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, and Johns Hopkins list a runny nose, decrease in appetite and sneezing alongside symptoms like coughing, wheezing and fever. Neither specifies a 38.2°C fever. 

In fact, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo clinic warn that low-grade fever, which could include temperatures much lower than 38.2°C, is a common symptom of RSV. More severe symptoms include difficulty breathing or eating, extreme tiredness, and blue-ish discoloration of the skin, particularly the lips and fingers.

No reliable sources Africa Check consulted mentioned nausea or vomiting.

The NICD has asked South Africans to help it track outbreaks of flu-like diseases by reporting their symptoms on the site CoughWatch. But if you are sick, whatever your symptoms, the most important advice is being diagnosed and treated by a doctor.

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