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Here’s what we’re following in the world of health security this week, from the U.S. military’s dangerous COVID campaign to some AI help for Ontario family doctors.

Misinformation virus

According to a report from Reuters, in 2020 the U.S. military used hundreds of social media accounts to spread misinformation about COVID-19 to try to counter what it felt was China’s growing influence in the Philippines. Reuters identified at least 300 X accounts (formerly Twitter) that spread misinformation about the efficacy of the Sinovac COVID vaccine and other aid, like test kits and masks, that China provided to the Philippines during the pandemic.

“The military’s propaganda efforts morphed into an anti-vax campaign,” Reuters reported. The social media campaign also tailored some messages directly to Muslims in Central Asia and the Middle East, according to Reuters, with posts that spread “the disputed contention that, because vaccines sometimes contain pork gelatin, China’s shots could be considered forbidden under Islamic law.”

Experts that Reuters interviewed about the social media campaign were “dismayed, disappointed and disillusioned” by the news, and accused the U.S. government of exploiting a population already skeptical of vaccines, thanks to fears about a 2016 Dengue fever inoculation.

But of course two were playing at this game. As Reutuers notes, China had also tried to spread misinformation about COVID-19, circulating the rumour that it had been imported to China by an American service member — as well as erroneously claiming that the virus may have been created at a U.S. Army research facility.

In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department said it was tracking disinformation campaigns originating in both China and Russia aimed at sowing division over the pandemic with the aim of weakening the EU, NATO and other Western democracies. Others came to similar conclusions, including one report the following year that found that state media outlets from the two countries pushed fake news online sensationalizing vaccine safety concerns and promoting Russian and Chinese vaccines as superior to those developed in the West.

More health hacks

The hack attacks on health care continue. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said this past week that a breach of its systems in February compromised the personal data of more than 200,000 individuals. In late February, someone gained the login credentials for 53 Public Health employees through a phishing campaign. Now, the Department is saying that the hacker may have accessed things like people’s names, dates of birth, social insurance numbers and health insurance information.

The data of approximately 150,000 NHS patients in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, was also stolen in February. The info was published online in March as part of a ransom attempt, but now the NHS has sent notifications warning people that personal extortion attempts may occur, and that things like test results, internal correspondence, and even complaints records were likely among the data stolen in the attack.

The chief executive of the health board has advised locals that they should “assume that some data relating to you is likely to have been copied and published” on the dark web, and called the situation “extremely serious.”

Elsewhere, Change Healthcare says it has now begun to notify Americans impacted by a significant hack on its systems — which also occurred in February. The company also provided more information on what kind of data was stolen, including health insurance, diagnoses, prescriptions, banking information, passport numbers and social security numbers.

Air pollution impact

Yet another report is sounding the alarm about the impacts of air pollution. The latest State of Global Air report from the Health Effects Institute, an organization based in Boston studying air pollution, says that air pollution accounted for 8.1 million deaths globally in 2021. Air pollution has become the second leading risk factor for death, including for kids under five — 700,000 of whose deaths were tied to air pollution in 2021. A full 500,000 of those child deaths were linked to household air pollution due to cooking indoors with polluting fuels, mostly in Africa and Asia — a number the report calls “staggering.”

Those numbers are actually down from where they used to be. In 2000, the death rate linked to children under five was 53 percent higher. The significant decrease is mostly due to efforts to expand access to clean energy for cooking and overall improvements to health care and the impact of better awareness. Despite the progress, “every day almost 2,000 children under five die because of health impacts linked to air pollution,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kitty van der Heijden said in a release.

Vaccine acceleration

On the heels of a failed attempt by the international community to agree on a global pandemic treaty, a global bloc of nations and organizations have announced $1.1 billion in funding for the African Vaccine Manufacturing Accelerator. The project aims to speed up local vaccine production in Africa with financial incentives. African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat said the project “could become a catalyst for promoting the pharmaceutical industry in Africa and fostering collaboration between member states.”

Canada announced it will contribute $85 million to the initiative. The largest amounts will come from the EU, including more than $300 million from Germany and another $100 million from France.

Also this past week, the Gavi global vaccine alliance said that it’s received $1.58 billion from the U.S. as part of its effort to raise $9 billion from governments and global foundations to fund its immunization efforts in the world’s poorest countries. “A child born today has a better chance of celebrating his or her fifth birthday than ever before in history,” Gavi chair Jose Manuel Barroso said during an event in Paris. However, there remain millions of kids that still go unvaccinated against any disease, and “hundreds of millions more need access to more vaccines,” Barroso also said.

Ontario adopts some Artificial Intelligence

Ontario has announced that it will launch a pilot project for an AI-backed program designed to help doctors across the province summarize and transcribe conversations with patients (with their consent). According to the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), which welcomed the launch of the product, family doctors spend around 19 hours every week doing administrative work, including writing notes or completing forms for patients.

“Doctors are spending almost as much of their time in front of their computers as they are in front of patients,” said OMA President Andrew Park.

It’s a modest step toward addressing what’s emerged as a major problem in primary health care — the lack of good, user-friendly data systems. As PPF’s report Unlocking Health Care: How to Free the Flow of Life-Saving Health Data in Canada noted: “Data shortcomings are contributing to the burnout of health-care workers. Too many of them flee the system — in frustration at the time wasted in hunting down patient information and in distress at having to provide care in the absence of vital information. Without good data, policymakers, patients and providers are left to engage in an uncomfortable degree of guesswork.

This newsletter is produced by journalists at PPF Media. It maintains complete editorial independence. 

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