How Fake News Affects Public Health
As an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Dr. Brittany Seymour knows that being able to tell fact from fiction makes all the difference when it comes to your health. The problem, as Seymour outlined in her recent address to the Ontario Public Health Association Forum, is that distinguishing legitimate research from “fake news”—bunk which appeals to emotion and personal beliefs—is becoming a real challenge in the age of social media. “Five-hundred million Tweets go out every day and 100 hours of new content is uploaded to YouTube every minute,” she said. “The amount of information we share is astounding.” According to Seymour, that “information” includes the fake news that keeps the following five health myths alive.
Fake News: MMR Vaccines Cause Autism
The Fake News: In 1998, British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, along with 12 co-authors, published a study in the medical journal The Lancet that claimed the mandatory measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could lead to autism when given to children under the age of two.
The Aftermath: Wakefield lost his license in 2010 after the study was debunked and retracted, but the damage was done: Seymour said vaccination rates in the U.S. and Great Britain plummeted once news outlets reported on the study. “We were able to trace [the U.S. measles outbreak in 2014], in part, to parents who found scary misinformation on the Internet and opted not to vaccinate their children,” she said.
The Facts: Many peer-reviewed journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, have been unable to find any link between MMR vaccines and autism. While the cause of autism is still unknown, experts suggest that it comes from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
This Canadian charity rallies assistance for South Asian families affected by autism.
Fake News: Water Fluoridation Lowers IQ
The Fake News: In 2012, a group of Harvard researchers published a report that claimed children living in areas with highly fluoridated water had lower IQ scores than children living in low fluoride areas. The U.S. introduced fluoride to the public water system in the 1940s to prevent tooth decay.
The Aftermath: American media outlets began writing about the report in 2013, said Seymour. “The story of fluoride poisoning the next generation spread like wildfire,” she said. “We’ve seen advocacy groups and anti-fluoride groups balloon across the U.S. and the world, all working to end water fluoridation in their local communities.”
The Facts: All of the studies in the report investigated groundwater from China and Iran—two areas that have high levels of naturally occurring fluoride. Several of the studies also didn’t take into account other neurotoxins that can be found in public water systems, such as arsenic or lead.