Saturday, March 29, 2014

Health Conspiracies

This past week, a group of us have been having an interesting discussion about the NPR story “Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories,” which is a review of the results of a survey published in the March 17th JAMA Internal Medicine.  Half of Americans subscribe to medical conspiracy theories, with more than one-third of people thinking that the Food and Drug Administration is deliberately keeping natural cures for cancer off the market because of pressure from drug companies, a survey finds.

Twenty percent of people said that cellphones cause cancer — and that large corporations are keeping health officials from doing anything about it. And another 20 percent think doctors and the government want to vaccinate children despite knowing that vaccines cause autism. 

From time to time, everyone has a preconceived idea about things. However, conspiratorial thinking goes beyond that ignoring any evidence that is contrary to the theory.

The single most important factor leading to conspiracy belief is that it gives people a sense of control. Someone, rather than random events, is to blame. If a person feels discriminated against or even is unsure about their job, this can increase the likelihood they’ll believe in a conspiracy.

Working in AIDS, I heard a lot of discussion about the government creating HIV and the polio vaccine was the reason so many people were infected. It was interesting to note that as more effective treatments became available, and people had more control over their disease, a lot of the conspiracy theory dropped out of the conversation.

While the Tuskegee Institute’s  study of the natural course of syphilis in the 1930s on black men is very well known, a lot of people are not aware of the eugenics movement that swept the United States in the first half of the 20th Century. This resulted in the sterilization of over 60,000 people who were considered “disabled” due to mental illness or belonging to a socially disadvantaged group. Thirty states had sterilization laws, with some of them continuing this practice into the 1970s. Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States.

Chemical and drug maker Bayer AG, knowingly sold Factor VIII, a blood clotting agent for people with hemophilia, in the 1980s to Latin America and Asia, while marketing a newer safer product in the United States and Europe. Since Factor VIII used 10,000 or more donors to create this product, until there was screening for HIV thousands of people with hemophilia became infected with the AIDS virus. Ultimately, Bayer and three other companies paid about $600 million to settle more than 15 years of lawsuits. Associated Press 

With just these 3 examples, it’s not surprising that people believe in medically related conspiracy theories. In the JAMA study, people were asked about six theories. In addition to the three listed above, the other three are: the CIA deliberately infected African Americans with HIV; genetically modified foods are a conspiracy to reduce population worldwide; and water fluoridation is used to cover up pollution.

While there is good research that refutes most of these conspiracy theories, half of the American population believes in one or more of them. This is a problem since it results in people not receiving needed care and children not receiving vaccinations and so conditions like pertussis (whooping cough) are on the rise.

How do we change this? Can we change it? My sense is that the humans have always done some version of this because it makes them feel more certain and secure. The availability of the Internet may be adding more to it, since all kinds of “faux” research is now easily available. Ultimately though, we each need to make decisions about our medical care. As much as possible, choices should be made based on our own situations and hopefully with the support of a medical provider we trust. Finally, we all need to keep an open mind as much as possible. 

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