Swine flu and hogwash

John
John Gushue
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How misinformation is breeding online

Until a few weeks ago, I was trying to persuade people that H1N1 was not the benign bug they had been inclined to believe; by last week, the public mood had shifted so much that I found myself trying to talk people down from the proverbial ledge, and not to panic about a situation that they cannot entirely control.

What's astounded me about the swinging pendulum of opinion on swine flu is the effect - not always good, sometimes outright dangerous - that the web has had.

Surf's up -

Until a few weeks ago, I was trying to persuade people that H1N1 was not the benign bug they had been inclined to believe; by last week, the public mood had shifted so much that I found myself trying to talk people down from the proverbial ledge, and not to panic about a situation that they cannot entirely control.

What's astounded me about the swinging pendulum of opinion on swine flu is the effect - not always good, sometimes outright dangerous - that the web has had.

I shouldn't be so surprised. I've been covering health and medical issues for much of my career, and wrote news reports for many years for the Medical Post, the Canadian Medical Association Journal and WebMD, among others.

Recurring issues

Two long-recurring issues have been coming together in recent weeks: the reliance of consumers on web-based information, no matter the source, and a deep, scientifically unsound suspicion of immunization.

Since the mid-1990s, physicians everywhere have reported the same phenomenon: patients arriving for appointments armed with sheafs of information they've collected from websites. This is often a good thing, with patients doing their own homework to aid their treatment and recovery. But there are downsides, from wonky self-diagnosis to falling prey to sites with outrageous claims and specious arguments.

Anti-vaccination lobby

There's the anti-vaccination lobby, which has picked up new steam in the swine-flu era. Never mind that a central tenet of the last wave - namely, that immunization supposedly causes autism - has not only been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, but the prestigious medical journal that posed the question, the U.K.'s Lancet, has retracted what it published in the first place.

Public health officials are waging two wars this year: one, to protect the public from the sickness and, yes, death that comes with a pandemic, and the second against the inaccurate and sometimes bizarre material that has been reproducing online, in a totally different meaning of the word "viral."

So, what's out there? An awful lot.

I was astonished at the links presented to me by anti-vaccine types or skeptics in my own circle, and noticed that most pointed to a "doctor" who was behind the respective sites they had picked. A closer look at the major sets revealed something else.

For instance, there's a doctor who's a dentist, not to mention a veteran conspiracy theorist who, among other things, says the H1N1 vaccine causes HIV.

Then there's the Canadian who says he went to medical school, but turns out not to have a licence to practise.

There's the American doctor who fails to mention her practice privileges were revoked. There's also the well-known Joseph Mercola, an American who is not a medical doctor but rather an osteopath, a profession that under no circumstances endorses pharmaceuticals of any kind (although Mercola's slick-looking site has a full store of his products that he would like you to buy). (Some of the crunchier of the granola-minded people I know have been promoting his site; my response has been a suggestion they take a look at Mercola's far-right-wing beliefs and involvements.)

Dubious information

There's much wackier stuff out there, and a lot of it dangerous, given that people are basing important decisions about their health on the most dubious of information. In the last month, on at least a dozen occasions, I've heard or read comments that go pretty much like this: "Well, I read on a website ..."

But which website? There are plenty of lessons coming out of our recent experience with H1N1. One is that even though there is plenty of solid material out there (albeit often presented in a sterile way, or cluttered with hard-to-digest text), there are untold numbers of places with misleading or just plain wrong (and even bizarre) statements.

We live in an age when consumers demand certainty. Medical scientists know they cannot guarantee with absolute certainty the safety of any procedure. Everything - from a vaccine to going to the dentist to getting in a taxi - carries some sort of risk; what's needed is to explain to people, who take to the web seeking comfort or validation of their suspicions, the big picture of population health. That's a tall order.

Consequently, we have lessons to learn about risk, about public health (the field that excels when people can't see what it has achieved), about vaccinations, and - yes, absolutely - about how to evaluate what you're reading online.

Evaluating Health Information on the Internet

tinyurl.com/evaluatehealth

I'm adding this link, to a National Cancer Institute page, because it provides excellent advice on assessing the value of what you're reading online, particularly in terms of transparency, sourcing and credentials. Feel free to share it.

John Gushue is a writer in St. John's. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: Canadian Medical Association Journal, WebMD, National Cancer Institute

Geographic location: U.K., St. John's

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Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • John
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    There's a cure a minute on the internet for Swine flu. Everybody has a different spin. This swine flu has been blown totally out of proportion - people are mistaking a seasonal cold for the flu - the first sneeze they're calling 911. There's more fear of the fear than anything else. But don't feel victimized by the swine flu, think of it as starring in your own disaster movie.

  • DeeBee
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    I won't deny that something like this pandemic doesn't bring out the wingnuts; it certainly does. But when I'm researching information, I 'try' to get it from the most reputable sources available. H1N1 (the pandemic one, not the seasonal vaccine version - I wonder how many people know the difference) is certainly a more persistent and dangerous strain of flu than anything that's come along in the last few decades... well, as far as being wide-spread diseases go. Everyone seems to be coming down with it. The problem is, as I see it, twofold: 1. The media hype. You have to admit, this isn't the certain death the media was portraying it to be. According to Wikipedia (see? I'm saying where I got my info), between 250,000 & 500,000 people die worldwide EVERY year from 'seasonal' flu. These numbers are hardly reflected in the first three pages of your local newspaper, are they? Every death is a tragedy, but far more people are surviving it than predicted, aren't they? All the media did was cause an already overloaded health care system to be taxed even more. Geez, globs of people are running to the hospital emergency at the first sign of a sniffle. When you're publishing news about a pandemic, perhaps you should a) get your facts straight and then b) publish them. It would be far more helpful to enable people to distinguish symptoms of H1N1 from a common cold, for example, than it is to publish how many people have died from it today. 2. Government blundering. I have no faith in our government to respond to a crisis in a timely manner and this spills over into health care. I'm not blaming individual workers on the front lines, but the people who do up the budgets. As I read on another site (sorry, I didn't keep it - but it is real, I swear! LOL!), if this were something serious... say, getting H1N1 would result in certain death in 24 hours... 1/3 of Canada's population (i.e. 10,000,000 people) would be dead before ANY action would be approved by the government. And that, to me, is far more chilling than what's going on right now. This, my friends, is a test, in my opinion. If this was the Bubonic Plague, it would be Europe in the Dark Ages all over again. No one in charge really knows how to deal with something like this in an efficient, timely manner. The stories coming from all over the country about vaccines given to celebrities and the wealthy first over pregnant women & children should be cause for concern... don't you think? When the next, REAL pandemic comes, Joe Blow in Joe Batt's Arm can kiss it goodbye. You're SOL, buddy...

  • Still not
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Still not going to offer myself as a human guinea pig. Everyone that has received this shot has come down ill that I have talked to. I think we are all better off just taking our chances if not with a underlying health condition. Why tempt fate when the unknowns are still too many to justify the risk.

  • Skeptic
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    There is plenty of information out there linking autism with the thimerosol in the vaccines. Much if it is provided by experts in their field and is well researched and scientifically presented. I think your article is negligently misleading.

  • Watcher
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    I keep telling everyone I know that the Canadian govenment is not in the business of killing off current and future taxpayers with faulty vaccines. We have one of the best medicare systems in the world... trust in it!

    I just wish there were more doses to go around...

  • Brad
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    @Skeptic:

    If the article is so misleading (I believe it to be spot on), and there is an abundance of well researched information provided by experts in their field , please do post some examples for the rest of us sheep to consider.

  • james
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    H1N1 was around in the late fifties and sixties our goverments are not telling the truth thats why people over sixty do not need this shot

  • Manny
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    This swine flu is most likely no worse than any other flu. The pharmaceutical companies are looking to make a huge profit by scaring people.

  • John
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    There's a cure a minute on the internet for Swine flu. Everybody has a different spin. This swine flu has been blown totally out of proportion - people are mistaking a seasonal cold for the flu - the first sneeze they're calling 911. There's more fear of the fear than anything else. But don't feel victimized by the swine flu, think of it as starring in your own disaster movie.

  • DeeBee
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    I won't deny that something like this pandemic doesn't bring out the wingnuts; it certainly does. But when I'm researching information, I 'try' to get it from the most reputable sources available. H1N1 (the pandemic one, not the seasonal vaccine version - I wonder how many people know the difference) is certainly a more persistent and dangerous strain of flu than anything that's come along in the last few decades... well, as far as being wide-spread diseases go. Everyone seems to be coming down with it. The problem is, as I see it, twofold: 1. The media hype. You have to admit, this isn't the certain death the media was portraying it to be. According to Wikipedia (see? I'm saying where I got my info), between 250,000 & 500,000 people die worldwide EVERY year from 'seasonal' flu. These numbers are hardly reflected in the first three pages of your local newspaper, are they? Every death is a tragedy, but far more people are surviving it than predicted, aren't they? All the media did was cause an already overloaded health care system to be taxed even more. Geez, globs of people are running to the hospital emergency at the first sign of a sniffle. When you're publishing news about a pandemic, perhaps you should a) get your facts straight and then b) publish them. It would be far more helpful to enable people to distinguish symptoms of H1N1 from a common cold, for example, than it is to publish how many people have died from it today. 2. Government blundering. I have no faith in our government to respond to a crisis in a timely manner and this spills over into health care. I'm not blaming individual workers on the front lines, but the people who do up the budgets. As I read on another site (sorry, I didn't keep it - but it is real, I swear! LOL!), if this were something serious... say, getting H1N1 would result in certain death in 24 hours... 1/3 of Canada's population (i.e. 10,000,000 people) would be dead before ANY action would be approved by the government. And that, to me, is far more chilling than what's going on right now. This, my friends, is a test, in my opinion. If this was the Bubonic Plague, it would be Europe in the Dark Ages all over again. No one in charge really knows how to deal with something like this in an efficient, timely manner. The stories coming from all over the country about vaccines given to celebrities and the wealthy first over pregnant women & children should be cause for concern... don't you think? When the next, REAL pandemic comes, Joe Blow in Joe Batt's Arm can kiss it goodbye. You're SOL, buddy...

  • Still not
    July 01, 2010 - 20:12

    Still not going to offer myself as a human guinea pig. Everyone that has received this shot has come down ill that I have talked to. I think we are all better off just taking our chances if not with a underlying health condition. Why tempt fate when the unknowns are still too many to justify the risk.

  • Skeptic
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    There is plenty of information out there linking autism with the thimerosol in the vaccines. Much if it is provided by experts in their field and is well researched and scientifically presented. I think your article is negligently misleading.

  • Watcher
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    I keep telling everyone I know that the Canadian govenment is not in the business of killing off current and future taxpayers with faulty vaccines. We have one of the best medicare systems in the world... trust in it!

    I just wish there were more doses to go around...

  • Brad
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    @Skeptic:

    If the article is so misleading (I believe it to be spot on), and there is an abundance of well researched information provided by experts in their field , please do post some examples for the rest of us sheep to consider.

  • james
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    H1N1 was around in the late fifties and sixties our goverments are not telling the truth thats why people over sixty do not need this shot

  • Manny
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    This swine flu is most likely no worse than any other flu. The pharmaceutical companies are looking to make a huge profit by scaring people.