Keeping the facts straight

A Cranbrook physician helps ensure Wikipedia’s articles on medicine are factual and of the highest possible quality

  • Nov. 20, 2014 1:00 p.m.

Dr. James Heilman

One of the most revolutionary aspects of our new digital information age is the advent of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a free-access, free content Internet encyclopedia, supported and hosted by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. It is the sixth-most popular website in the world and is the Internet’s largest and most popular general reference work, arguably the number one go-to source for information.

So when a highly publicized event occurs like the ebola outbreak this year, it is important that information on the topic is factual, accurate and up-to-date.

Dr. James Heilman, a Cranbrook emergency physician, is an advocate for the improvement of Wikipedia’s health-related content. He was a founding member of Wikimedia Canada (an NGO that promotes Wikipedia in Canada) and is an active contributor to WikiProject Medicine, which works to broaden the scope and improve the quality of medical articles on Wikipedia.

With a focus on medical and disease related articles on the online encyclopedia, Dr. Heilman at once noticed a huge jump in traffic related to ebola, as a result of the outbreak in Africa and a couple of highly publicized cases in the U.S.

“Back in April of 2014, I was working to improve Wikipedia’s content on neglected diseases,” Dr. Heilman told Mike Turner of Global News. “And as part of this project I went and improved our article on ebola virus disease. Since that time the media on this topic exploded, around July, 2014.”

Dr. Heilman says there is a lot of fear and misinformation surrounding the current ebola outbreak, as a result of intense media publicity. Wikipedia can play a key role in making sure the facts about ebola and other diseases are presented properly.

“One of the most concerning rumours circulating lately is that ebola has become airborne,” Dr. Heilman said. “This generates further fear — there’s no evidence of airborne transmission among people. There is some research that raised slight concerns, but that research was carried out in pigs and does not appear to apply to humans.

“The big thing is emphasizing what we know, making sure that minor concerns don’t get blown out of proportion,” Dr. Heilman continued. “A large number of people are trying to sell alternative medications to treat or prevent ebola, while the best available sources clearly state that none of these exist at this point in time.

“There’s no specific treatment for ebola, but supportive care does make a substantial difference.”

Ebola is a viral disease that Dr. Heilman describes as moderately contagious. It is transmitted by direct contact with body fluids of infected person. It can be prevented with good handwashing, and by using personal protective equipment when attending to infected persons.

“We’ve never had a case of ebola in Canada,” Dr. Heilman said. “There have been some cases caught in the United States. Four cases total. The number of cases is exceedingly small.”

He said the mortality of an ebola outbreak might be as low as 10 per cent with good supportive care. “In Africa it can be as high as 50 to 90 per cent, because the good supportive care isn’t often available.”

Some statistics offer perspective. Dr. Heilman said as of Nov. 15 some 15,000 people have been infected in Africa in current ebola outbreak, resulting in 5,500 deaths. “Compared to diseases like malaria or gastroenteritis, ebola has resulted in way fewer deaths.”

Dr. Heilman said there is a key group of physicians involved in Wiki Project Medicine, who work on making sure Wikipedia’s most-read content is of reasonably high quality. Gate-keeping the site — which can be edited by anyone — from rumours and untruths, is also key.

“The way Wikipedia’s functions, if we use the best available evidence we end up with the best available content,” Dr. Heilman said. “We’ve been extensively using sources like the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the and the (World Health Organization) as well as medical review articles from well respected academic journals. These sources more or less avoid the rumours and maintain a very factual perspective.”

Dr. Heilman concentrates his own efforts on Wikipedia’s most-read content and most important diseases — “HIV/AIDS, malaria, the common cold … On these topics, everyone deserves access to a good high quality overview of these conditions.”

Dr. Heilman first became involved with Wikimedia when he came across a poorly written article on obesity, and found that he could edit and improve it. He quickly become more involved with working on Wikipedia’s medical content.

“I think Wikipedia over the past 12 years has become a trusted brand in the world of information,” he said. “People come for all sorts of information — the movies they’re watching, the diseases they may have. When they see something on TV and they’re interested in further details, they often come to Wikipedia.”

Dr. Heilman is also working on a project to translate core medical articles into as many languages as possible, in partnership with Translators Without Borders.

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