A New York Times editorial stated: “Misinformation about politics may often seem silly — the immigration bill will give out free cars! — but the consequences of false beliefs in public health can be deadly.
In the developed world, myths about the risks of vaccines have enabled the resurgence of communicable diseases like measles and pertussis. And in developing countries, false beliefs have hindered efforts to fight H.I.V./AIDS and eradicate polio in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan.
The latest example of the dangers of health misinformation comes from Western Africa, where the response to an Ebola outbreak in four countries has been hampered by conspiracy theories about its causes and phony rumors about how to treat it. False beliefs may not be the biggest obstacle to containing the Ebola outbreak, but they make an awful situation worse.
People in the affected regions have become especially distrustful of doctors, with some suggesting the disease is a hoax. A resident of a heavily affected area in Liberia told The Wall Street Journal last week: “I’ve never seen anybody die of Ebola. I’ve only heard of it. So it’s a rumor.” These beliefs are often based on conspiracy theories that the disease was invented by national governments in search of international aid or political power.
When a crowd, angered at a sudden quarantine and the transfer of patients, overran a clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, on Aug. 16, the idea that Ebola was a hoax played a role. The intruders, some of whom yelled, “There’s no Ebola,” not only came into contact with infected patients (many of whom fled) but also looted the facility of equipment. The gear may have included contaminated materials that further spread the contagion.
The effects of Ebola myths apparently extend far beyond Monrovia. With so many people dying after leaving home to receive treatment, some residents have come to equate the effects of the disease with efforts to respond to it. Raphael Frankfurter, an aid worker in eastern Sierra Leone, described hearing one woman saying about the hospital in Kenema: “Ebola is a lie! They’re sending people to Kenema to die!””
Click here to read the full NYT edioial “Fighting Ebola, and the Conspiracy Theories.”
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Jonathan M. Metsch, Dr.P.H., is Clinical Professor, Preventive Medicine, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Adjunct Professor, Baruch College ( C.U.N.Y.), Rutgers School of Public Health, and Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration.
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