Viral ‘Unicef’ message about preventing coronavirus infection a mix of truths and half-truths

A viral message supposedly from Unicef – the United Nations Children’s Fundcarries several claims about the new coronavirus that causes the disease Covid-19. 

 These range from the “large” size of the virus to how long it can survive on surfaces, and what to do to prevent it. 

The message, which appears to be a Whatsapp screenshot, has been spotted on social media networks across Africa, including in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Covid-19 has so far been confirmed in seven African countries.

As of Friday 6 March 2020 there have been 3,383 deaths globally, while 98,387 people have been sickened, according to daily mapping by the centre for systems science and engineering at John Hopkins University.

It is not all doom and gloom however – 55,441 people have recovered.

The message is poorly written, a red flag that it may not be from Unicef. The agency confirmed this. “The claims are not from Unicef” a spokesperson, Geoffrey Nkoku, told Africa Check. (You can read Unicef’s refutation of this message here, and it’s call to share only accurate information around the coronavirus.)

There is a lot that is unknown about Covid-19. Our team in Nigeria, where there has been one confirmed case, asked both the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and experts about the claims in the message.  

Claim: Coronavirus is large in size where the cell diameter is 400 – 500 micro and for this reason, any mask prevents its entry so there is no need for pharmacists to trade in masks.

Verdict: Unproven

It isn’t yet scientifically proven that the coronavirus is large in size or that it’s cell diameter is 400 – 500 micro, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control told Africa Check.  (Note: Technically, the coronavirus is not a cell but an infectious agent that replicates in cells of living organisms.

How large is this? Particles of the SARS-Cov virus, a similar virus, are about “100 nm in diameter”, which is a normal size for most viruses. This is about 0.1 micro, suggesting that Covid-19 is about 5,000 times larger.

According to the World Health Organization’s question and answers on coronaviruses (COVID-19), people with no respiratory symptoms, such as a cough, do not need to wear a medical mask.

In some countries where Covid-19 has been confirmed the demand for facemasks has increased – as has their cost. But South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases notes that “using a face mask is not necessary for healthy individuals. Face masks have not been proven to prevent one from contracting the virus”.

“Instead it helps decrease the risk of transmitting the virus from an affected individual to a non-affected individual.” 

Claim: The virus does not settle in the air but is grounded. 

Verdict: Mostly correct

Covid-19 is not airborne but is spread through droplets, the NCDC told Africa Check. Hence the advice to keep a safe distance from people with obvious respiratory infections.

Says the WHO: “The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with Covid-19 coughs or exhales. 

“These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch Covid-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.” 

Claim: …[the virus] is not transmitted by air.    

Verdict: Unproven

It is not straightforward to say that Covid-19 is not transmitted by air. The WHO says that people “can also catch Covid-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with Covid-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets”.

But it notes: “Studies to date suggest that the virus that causes Covid-19 is mainly transmitted through contact with respiratory droplets rather than through the air.”    

Claim: Coronavirus when it falls on a metal surface will live 12 hours. 

Verdict: Unproven

The NCDC told Africa Check: “The coronavirus can survive outside the human body ( and all surfaces in general) for some time [but the] duration is yet to be proven yet.” 

Claim: Wash hands with soap and water well enough.

Verdict: Mostly correct

Frequent hand washing is key,” the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control told Africa Check.  

The WHO notes: “Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.

This, it says, “kills viruses that may be on your hands.”

Claim: Coronavirus, when it falls on the fabric, remains [on it for] 9 hours, so washing clothes or being exposed to the sun for two hours meets the purpose of killing it.

Verdict: Unproven

How long the coronavirus survives on objects and surfaces is not yet known, the NCDC told Africa Check.

The WHO notes that “it is not certain how long the virus that causes Covid-19 survives on surfaces, but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. Studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the Covid-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days.

This, the agency says, may vary under different conditions such as the type of surface, temperature or environmental humidity.

Says the WHO: “If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with simple disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others. Clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water”.

It is probable that if a detergent has disinfectant it could help kill the virus, but as experts say, there still isn’t enough research on this yet.

Claim: The virus lives on the hands for 10 minutes.

Verdict: Unproven

The coronavirus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets, Marycelin Baba, professor of medical virology and microbiology at the college of medical sciences, University of Maiduguri, told Africa Check.

“These droplets can stay on hands, but because it is an enveloped virus it can’t stay for long. I can’t say exactly how long it lives on the hands.” 

(Note: An enveloped virus has an outer wrapping or envelope. This envelope comes from the infected cell, or host, in a process called “budding off”. Such cells are easily destroyed by disinfectants.)

Claim: Putting an alcohol steriliser in the pocket meets the purpose of prevention.

Verdict: Mostly correct

WHO advises that you clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Also avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.

The University of Maiduguri’s Prof Baba said coronavirus is an enveloped virus which is easily destroyed with common disinfectants.

But don’t just put the alcohol-based steriliser in your pocket – make sure to use it. 

Claim: If the virus is exposed to a temperature of 26-27 ° C, it will be killed, as it does not live in hot regions. 

Verdict: Unproven

“This claim is also yet to be proven” scientifically, the NCDC told Africa Check.  

The agency said that like all enveloped viruses, it is easily inactivated at high temperatures, but the exact temperature is not yet known. 

Claim: Also drinking hot water and sun exposure will do the trick. And staying away from ice cream and [cold foods] is important.

Verdict: Incorrect

We found no evidence that drinking hot water, being exposed to the sun or “staying away from ice cream” could prevent infection.

Prof Cajetan Onyedum, a pulmonologist, said that neither drinking hot water nor sun exposure could protect one against the coronavirus.

“This is misinformation, almost similar to the claim that advised people to bath with salt water during the Ebola outbreak,” he said.

“I would advise that people disregard this information. It has no scientific basis as far as I am concerned. Also, ice cream has no correlation with coronavirus.”

Claim: Gargle with warm and saltwater kills the tonsils’ germs.

Verdict: Misleading

This claim is “a general health message not specific to Covid-19”, the NCDC told Africa Check.

We therefore rate this claim as ‘misleading’ because this is a general safety step that is not especially applicable to the prevention of coronavirus.Motunrayo Joel

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to reflect that over 3,000 deaths from Covid-19 had been recorded by 6 March 2020, and not 6 March 2019. The error is regretted.

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