Imagine awakening in the wee hours to the sounds of your child coughing and struggling to draw a clear breath. You get out of bed and head for the medicine cabinet, where you pluck a remedy from the shelf. It’s the one that claims it “Leads all remedies for the cure of colds, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, croup, sore throat and whooping cough … Its prompt use has saved innumerable lives.” You go to your child’s bed, pour out a dollop and encourage him to put the spoon in his mouth.
This was a common scene in the late 19th century, when Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral was one of the most popular patent medicines in the country. It claimed it could “cure all diseases of the throat and lungs” with its doctor-approved combination of ingredients, which included alcoholic spirits and morphine.
Today we might call it fake news.
Unfortunately, fake health news isn’t confined to a sepia-toned era. Even today, when sophisticated health care has lengthened the lifespan of the average American from 49.2 in 1900 to 77.7 in 2006, fake news abounds. And sometimes, the consequences are serious.
False health claims spread widely
One of the most oft-repeated false health claims today is that vaccines given to children can cause them to develop autism spectrum disorder. While there’s no truth to the assertion, which seems to stem from a study that was later determined to be fraudulent, it persists, repeated by some celebrities with no particular health expertise.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s foremost government-sponsored public health agency, was obliged to create a web page declaring “Vaccines do not cause autism.”
The organization was forced to refute the vaccine-autism claim because, when enough people refuse to be vaccinated or have their children vaccinated against disease, a larger population can be threatened. The protective effect of what is called “herd immunity” is an important safeguard for people who are frail, elderly or have compromised immune systems.
Check out our infographic on why community immunity is so important.
“Even if there are only a few cases of disease today,” the CDC explains, “if we take away the protection given by vaccination, more and more people will become infected and will spread disease to others. Soon we will undo the progress we have made over the years.”
Adds Providence pediatrician Dr. Kirsten Crowley, “I understand parents’ concerns about the safety of vaccines, but I believe the benefit of protection far outweighs the potential risks. With that in mind, I give my three children all routine vaccines.”
Other false claims may have allowed Ebola, Zika and other deadly diseases to spread further and faster than they would have otherwise. They also contributed to needless bureaucratic and political responses that went far beyond the impact of the disease.
Fake news spreads quickly, becomes rooted
While “fake news” has become a politically charged phrase, its characteristics are disturbing, no matter on which side of the aisle you stand. For one thing, false reports spread more quickly on Twitter than factual reports, according to a recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” said Sinan Aral, an MIT professor and co-author of the study.
A lie, it seems, really can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its boots.
When it comes to health information, this can become a lethal problem. Fortunately, health care providers and most public officials recognize this. About 20 percent of the respondents to a poll conducted by Platform Q Health said they thought the top priority for the U.S. Surgeon General should be to combat false medical news and provide factual, patient-focused health information.
If you are wondering whether something you’ve read about your health is true, check with an accredited health care professional. You can find a Providence health care provider near you by consulting our online health care directory.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.