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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[June 26, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

Bananas Do WHAT?? Busting Internet Medical Myths

Remember the e-mail you got from one of your more gullible friends warning you that deodorant keeps toxins from exiting your body and therefore causes you all sorts of nasty outcomes? How about the one sternly informing you that you could get necrotizing fascitis (the "flesh eating bacteria" of popular medical hysteria) from bananas? If you're male, did you stop drinking Mountain Dew because an e-mail told you it would lower your sperm count? Finally, how about the most dangerous Internet myth of them allthat MMR vaccines in children cause autism? (This has repeatedly been proved to be untrue. What IS true is that a lack of MMR vaccine can cause measles, mumps and rubella in children, three potentially fatal diseases.)

Web surfers seem disproportionately likely to fall for false medical advice, and the great abundance that filters into our e-mail inboxes means that some of the hysteria gets through, at least some of the time. Hoaxers are aware that the best way to create hysteria is by threatening the health and well-being, if not the life, of overanxious modern citizens or their children. (Who would get panicky reading about a terrible disorder that will affect your garage door opener if you don't forward the message to 10 friends?)

As I write this, a co-worker forwarded me an e-mail link to a local newspaper article informing us that the soil in one of Connecticut's largest cities, Danbury, is highly contaminated with mercury in some places, having been the hat making capital of the country in the city's heyday (mercury, which was used to cure felt, can cause brain damage, hence the term "mad as a hatter"). This is very probably true, and we Connecticut dwellers have long been aware of this. But the very reason the article is being circulated is because of the direct health threats the facts pose. The same information would never have been disseminated had the city been contaminated with, sayclam dip.

Aside from the absurd, fairly-easy-to-spot-by-a-thinking-person hoaxes (i.e., waking up in an ice bath in a strange hotel room, and standing up to find that both your kidneys have been removed), the more insidious false information is the almost, but not quite, true advice that's just a shade off-center. That the MMR vaccine causes autism is perhaps one of most devastating misinformation campaigns. It preys on parents with autistic children who are desperate to find some comprehensible reason why their child is afflicted. The fact that the MMR vaccine is coincidentally given at about the same time autism symptoms traditionally develop in young children fuels the fire. It will very probably take generations for this one to go away, or at least a serious, and probably tragic, outbreak of one of the diseases the vaccine is given to prevent.

The only way to arm citizens with the weaponry needed to stop the rampant circulation of harmful "medical" advice is to put into their hands sources for correct information. The Washington Post reported recently that a health information firm, Healthwise, has begun a program to stamp out Internet-based medical myth hysteria. The group calls it "information therapy" and directs physicians and other healthcare professionals to provide to patients true sources for health information on the Web. They define information therapy as "the prescription of the right information to the right person at the right time to help people make wise health decisions." The information could come in the form of an "information plan" for a computer-literate patient, in which the healthcare professional e-mails bona fide Web links to the patient so he or she can then surf without fear of being told that eating cheese and crackers causes schizophrenia, or giving their children too much asparagus will prevent them from getting into Harvard.

Ironically, the medical community, or at least the HMOs, have themselves to blame, at least in part. In these days of drive-thru office visits caused by the fact that the average health care professional is under pressure from his or her own practice or insurance companies to see as many patients as possible during the day, few of us have the luxury to have a leisurely visit with our physician, followed up by an informative question-and-answer session. We go home, armed with the few mumbled sentences of explanation the physician provided us, and log onto the open Internet, which is admittedly a scary place when searching for "true" information.

And those people who find correct information not nearly as exciting as the news that soft drinks emasculate the average American male can always find plentiful tidbits on the remaining 95 percent of medical sites on the Internet.

Finally, just to illustrate how easy it is to alarm the general public with bogus information, CNET has put together a "create your own Net hoax" generator. This makes it easier for me to tell all my readers and friends the following totally true fact:

Did you hear the news? This guy my cousin knows sent this to me. I've confirmed it's true. And boy, is this going to shock the world! Last week, Bill Gates and Lance Bass of 'NSYNC hooked up in secret and masterminded an evil plot to form a totally destructive virus. This is serious! Soon, this will be more profitable than Old Navy cargo pants! And they've decided to share this with everybody with an e-mail address! Here's what to do if you want to stop them from taking over the world. Don't send any moneyjust forward this e-mail to a close friend and include your bank account information and credit card numbers in credit limit order. This information will be logged, along with your computer's IP address, using an amazing e-mail tracking program developed by AOL, Microsoft, Disney and the Freemasons. Forward the e-mail, and by the end of next week, you will have ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS to enjoy. It's that simple! And rememberignore anyone who thinks the Grammy Awards are rigged. I swear this is all true!

The author, who can be reached at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com, never ate asparagus as a child and didn't go to Harvard. Coincidence? She thinks not.

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