By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Medical misinformation can be dangerous—sometimes lethal. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception, leading to outrageous claims about the disease and its cure. COVID-19 vaccines definitely don’t spread via inhalation or touch.
Social media posts have been debunked which falsely claim that people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can “shed” the vaccine to others via skin contact or to non-vaccinated people via breathing the same air. To be clear, these posts specifically discuss the vaccination, not the virus, spreading through physical contact or inhalation; and they say that Pfizer admitted to this in an official document regarding its vaccine.
These rumors have been unequivocally shot down by Pfizer spokespersons in interviews and should not be treated as legitimate medical advice.
Whether you’re looking for a miracle hangover cure or hoping to self-diagnose an illness, medical misinformation is everywhere. In his video series Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us, Dr. Steven Novella, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale University, said finding legitimate information is vital for public health and safety.
Where Medical Misinformation Comes From
With such a wealth of researched and provable medical information available on the internet, it can seem hard to believe that people intentionally put misinformation online. Why do they do it?
“On the internet and elsewhere, there are rumors, there are urban legends, there are myths that are spread as fact, sometimes even seeming authoritative,” Dr. Novella said. “There are many ideological groups that are spreading misinformation because they want to promote their particular worldview.
“And there are plenty of people who are trying to separate you from your money by making false or misleading marketing claims or using hype in order to promote a product rather than real information.”
Dr. Novella said while there are some journalists who unknowingly spread misinformation, the journalists who, unfortunately, knowingly perpetuate bad advice are either irresponsible or just lazy—because it’s good for business to get more clicks.
On the other hand, reliable information is actually widely available. The public just needs to know where to look.
Keep It Simple, Silly
Medical professionals are the first source Dr. Novella cited as providing accurate information, emphasizing that nobody should hesitate in asking their physician questions, because one of the primary roles of the physician is to advise patients.
“Other than your physician, there are other trusted sources, as well, and if you are wading through the information on the internet, you need to have some rules of thumb to try to figure out what sources are likely to be reliable and which ones you should avoid,” Dr. Novella said.
“Trusted sources include known universities—Yale, Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, or Johns Hopkins. Those old and trusted names are good sources for reliable information.”
Dr. Novella also said that there are established research institutions like The National Institutes of Health, The National Cancer Institute, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association that provide reliable information. Professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Neurology also provide trustworthy information, as do patient or disease advocacy groups like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Getting Fitted for Skeptic’s Goggles
However, it’s good to remember that anyone can make a nice-looking website. Dr. Novella said an online organization calling itself an institution but seemingly promoting just one individual is a major red flag.
“Beware of sources that seem to ultimately be trying to sell you something; probably they’re going to be distorting the information to make that sale,” he said. “And beware of outliers, by which I mean, if you’re visiting various sites that all seem to be giving one opinion, but then there’s Bob’s Institute of Syndrome X that has a completely different opinion, it’s probably Bob’s Institute that you should be wary of—not all of the other tried-and-true institutions.”
While the medical community may have differing opinions about one treatment or another, outliers claiming that they’re the victims of some kind of persecution or conspiracy of silence should especially be avoided. Dr. Novella said sensational claims like these are just ways to distract you from the fact that they’re offering an unusual opinion.
Snake oil salesmen predate all of us. Con artists, or even well-meaning but ultimately misinformed groups of non-professionals, can be difficult to detect in the digital age of medicine. By looking for information from medical professionals, tried-and-true universities, established patient advocacy groups, and national organizations, reliable information can be found quickly.