Thursday, March 20, 2014

Public Health Concern: Conspiracy Theories

A survey getting some press today indicated that half of all Americans believe in health-related consipiracy theories.  This survey was conducted by political science professor Eric Oliver at the University of Chicago, and published in JAMA

Some of the conspiracy theories include:
  • Vaccines cause autism
  • Cell phones cause cancer
  • The FDA is deliberately preventing access to natural cancer cures
  • The use of GMOs in food is a program designed to shrink the world population
This, to me, represents a very difficult challenge in public health. I believe that, in buying into these myths, people believe they are being responsible and thinking critically.  It is hard, though, to refute the "evidence" that people have access to: they saw it on the internet, and therefore it must be true.  This is tough to refute not because it is true, but because what people believe is true often has little to do with what actually is. 

To give examples of concrete issues with these views, if a patient believes that there is a natural food out there that will cure him of cancer, and meanwhile refuses to accept chemotherapy, there will be a real consequence to that person and his family. Unfortunately, that consequence could come too late for it to be useful as a learning experience to that patient.  I have not heard of a situation in which this is happening en masse, however.  The anti-vaccine mamas, however, are, as a group, taking a path that not only puts their own babies at risk, but those children and adults who are not able to be vaccinated.
In a more abstract sense, would trying to change these views by any means lead your patient to distrust you, and do more damage to the situation than good?  I feel this is extremely likely, and this secondary danger may be even more dangerous than the first situation.  It certainly depends on the patient. 

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