Diabetics, smokers and asthmatics are at a higher risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19 but only half of urban and rural Pakistanis are aware of this, according to the findings of a new study by Aga Khan University.
Researchers surveyed 738 men and women across rural and urban Pakistan to assess knowledge about coronavirus symptoms, its mode of transmission and ways to protect oneself from the disease.
While over 90 per cent of those surveyed knew that the elderly were at a relatively higher risk of complications from the disease, nearly half of respondents were unaware of other risk factors such as diabetes, smoking and asthma.
“Accurate information represents the first step in effectively protecting oneself and one’s loved ones from the disease,” Professor Zafar Fatmi of AKU’s community health sciences department said. “This is especially critical for those living with at-risk groups as it will enable them to take the necessary precautions.”
Worryingly, less than 1 in 10 rural residents correctly identified being in crowded areas as a factor that left them more vulnerable to catching the coronavirus. The majority of residents in the rural sample, or 74 per cent, also incorrectly believed mosquito bites to be a cause of COVID-19.
Researchers also found an inadequate level of knowledge about symptoms of the disease. While the majority of respondents correctly recognised fever, coughing and a shortness of breath as signs of coronavirus, less than 1 in 3 respondents were aware of joint or muscle pain as being a symptom. Similarly, fewer than 1 in 4 of those surveyed knew that a person could be carrying the coronavirus without showing any signs or symptoms.
Respondents who could accurately identify more than five of the ten symptoms of the disease listed by the World Health Organization were considered to have adequate knowledge; just eight per cent of those surveyed through the study were able to meet or exceed this benchmark.
Researchers also found a widespread belief in the myth that the coronavirus could be treated with existing medications. Even though there is no cure for the virus and only its symptoms can be treated, up to 60 per cent of urban Pakistanis incorrectly believed that pneumonia vaccines could protect them from the disease while 83 per cent or rural respondents asserted a myth that existing medicines can effectively treat the disease.
Data from the study also highlights the need for more awareness of isolation practices. While nearly all respondents were aware that symptoms of the coronavirus last up to two weeks, only between 37 per cent and 64 per cent of those surveyed were aware that being in contact with someone with coronavirus must lead to a quarantine of up to 14 days.
On a more positive note, there was widespread awareness of the importance of handwashing, coughing into one’s elbow, and of maintaining distance from those who are coughing or sneezing.
The study also collected data on the most used sources of information. The majority of urban respondents received their data from newspapers, television, radio and social media. In contrast, most rural residents relied on colleagues for information. Researchers noted that this finding would help them develop targeted communications campaigns to build public awareness.
“We are working with partners to develop informative health awareness material on the virus that will be communicated through the sources that people trust,” Dr Fatmi added.
Participants in the study included 403 people across Pakistan who completed an online survey, 198 respondents in urban Karachi who were interviewed by telephone, and 137 individuals who took part in door-to-door surveys in rural Thatta. The study was funded by grants from AKU’s Medical College and the University’s Research Council.
Dr Shafaq Mahmood, Dr Ibtisam Qazi, Dr Muneebullah Siddiqui, Dr Anny Dhanwani, Dr Babar Shahid, Dr Hasan Nawaz, Mr Waqas Hameed and Dr Sameen Siddiqi from the University’s community health sciences department also contributed to the study.