This doctor from Huddersfield is using her wisdom for good by dispelling Covid-19 misinformation online and in Batley, Kirklees.
Dr Shamaila Anwar, who lives in Huddersfield, completed her PhD in epidemiology at the University of Bradford in 2004 and has amassed over 7,000 followers on the popular social media platform, Tiktok, where she is part of a collective called Team Halo.
Team Halo is an effort to support and celebrate the inspiring collaboration between scientists all over the world to help end this pandemic with safe and effective vaccines.
The project was established as part of the United Nations Verified Initiative in partnership with The Vaccine Confidence Project at the University of London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It is proud to collaborate with the Vaccine Alliance and GAVI.
Dr Anwar’s undergraduate degree is in archaeological science but chose to do a PhD in biomedical science, both at the University of Bradford. looking at the progression of the loss of near-vision within certain populations.
She said: “My undergrad degree was science-based which gave me room to chop and change what I wanted to do. I realised that I wasn’t going to be no Indiana Jones and find lost treasure, and make my millions.”
Dr Anwar decided to go down the biomedical science route after always being interested in data. She added: “The key hook for me was data, there was a lot of it in my archaeological undergrad too.
“I was involved in a project with a lecturer who then went on to become my PhD supervisor and she mentioned that she wanted someone from within the South Asian community to kick start the project of looking at the loss of near-vision, so that is how it all started really.
One of the obstacles in completing a PhD is funding, however, Dr Anwar mentions that it is “much tougher nowadays” to get a project off the ground than it was back in the early 2000s. Sourcing funds and living hand-to-mouth was a challenge for her. She also mentioned that a lack of stability is one of the reasons why that a lot of people from her community don’t go into research careers.
“We know that the community in Batley is disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and there is a lot of misinformation flying around the place. People don’t know what is real and what isn’t real and that isn’t their fault.”
One scheme Dr Anwar is involved in within the local community is the Keepin It Real science literacy project. The programme combines science learning with art and design for cross-curricular classroom activities.
The design-led initiative brings together researchers and professional practitioners from virology, arts, engineering, education, science communication and community engagement, in partnership with a family of schools within the Batley Multi Academy Trust.
Describing the project, Dr Anwar said: “The project is about building resilience within local communities, for example, in Batley. We are working with the Batley Girls High School and Field Lane Junior, Nursey and Infant School to build community resilience against misinformation and increase trust in science from a very young age.
“We know that the community in Batley is disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and there is a lot of misinformation flying around the place. People don’t know what is real and what isn’t real and that isn’t their fault.
“A lot of the people on social media pushing this misinformation look extremely credible and it is very difficult for people to understand what they are saying isn’t true and can’t be true.
“We need to start developing systems and processes, ways in which gives the future generation the critical thinking skills to be able to assess whether something is right or wrong, and that is on a basic level.
“This project looks at bringing science and the arts together, it is about learning through creativity, learning science through art.”
In this project, Dr Anwar and the team at Keepin It Real debunk common myths about the Coronavirus and the vaccine. The misinformation is “cyclical” she says, with it cropping up, being dispelled, and then, cropping up again. The common untruths that they have worked on proving to be incorrect are regarding the vaccines being untested, that they cause fertility problems, and that they aren’t safe.
The most worrying thing at the minute is the “anti-vaxxers”, Dr Anwar says, although she doesn’t like to use that term. She says: “The term ‘anti-vaxxers’ lumps everyone in together and I don’t like that. We are all entitled to our opinion and concerns about what we put in our bodies. That doesn’t make you an anti-vaxxer, it makes you normal, and a human being.
“But the anti-vaxxers is something that needs to be addressed. It almost puts us at disrepute because it is like ‘become a Tiktok doctor and be paid loads by big pharmaceutical companies but we get paid nothing, me and other guides at Halo get paid nothing to help distribute correct information on social media.”
Scientists, doctors, medical professionals, and researchers from around the World are part of Team Halo. The project is a positive, voluntary initiative that “has had a good response”, where Dr Anwar has “built up a good following” but it hasn’t come without negative comments and troll messages. “I’m quite resilient to negative comments but it can get quite personal and can be hard, she added.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Britain with parents born in Pakistan meant that Dr Anwar received her fair share of racism, and “you can’t get any worse than racist comments” she says, but haven’t received any on her Tiktok page. Instead, she gets comments such as “you don’t know what you are talking about” and “vaccines have killed so many people – get your facts right” to which she replies “that isn’t true, you need to check your information.”
Some commenters use obscene language which Dr Anwar finds unacceptable. “Tiktok is for users over the age of thirteen, I don’t want my videos having bad language on, exposing it to young children, that is my biggest bugbear.”
Acknowledging Islamic contribution to the betterment of humanity is also important for Dr Anwar. She believes that the history curriculum in British schools needs to be updated to recognise the contributions that Islamic scholars made to research and modern advancement.
She said: “Islam was the first religion not to view disease as a punishment from God. Disease is and was something to be overcome through the acquisition of knowledge, which is why Islam was at the forefront of discovery.
“Origins of germ theory, clinical trials, dealing with pandemics, vaccinations, surgery and hospitals can all be traced way back further than 17th century Europe.”
When not working on these two projects, Dr Anwar’s day job is working as a senior analyst at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) where she project managed the Covid and Me initiative. This project worked on disseminating information to people on the importance of clinical trials, specifically the role that clinical trial research plays in helping to end the Covid-19 pandemic through short video clips.
Dr Anwar’s Tiktok can be found here.