Via The Upshot on The New York Times: Fighting Ebola, and the Conspiracy Theories. Excerpt and then a comment:
Misinformation about politics may often seem silly — the immigration bill will give out free cars! — but the consequences of false beliefs in public health can be deadly.
In the developed world, myths about the risks of vaccines have enabled the resurgence of communicable diseases like measles and pertussis. And in developing countries, false beliefs have hindered efforts to fight H.I.V./AIDS and eradicate polio in countries like Nigeria and Pakistan.
The latest example of the dangers of health misinformation comes from Western Africa, where the response to an Ebola outbreak in four countries has been hampered by conspiracy theories about its causes and phony rumors about how to treat it. False beliefs may not be the biggest obstacle to containing the Ebola outbreak, but they make an awful situation worse.
People in the affected regions have become especially distrustful of doctors, with some suggesting the disease is a hoax. A resident of a heavily affected area in Liberia told The Wall Street Journal last week: “I’ve never seen anybody die of Ebola. I’ve only heard of it. So it’s a rumor.” These beliefs are often based on conspiracy theories that the disease was invented by national governments in search of international aid or political power.
When a crowd, angered at a sudden quarantine and the transfer of patients, overran a clinic in Monrovia, Liberia, on Aug. 16, the idea that Ebola was a hoax played a role. The intruders, some of whom yelled, “There’s no Ebola,” not only came into contact with infected patients (many of whom fled) but also looted the facility of equipment. The gear may have included contaminated materials that further spread the contagion.
The effects of Ebola myths apparently extend far beyond Monrovia. With so many people dying after leaving home to receive treatment, some residents have come to equate the effects of the disease with efforts to respond to it. Raphael Frankfurter, an aid worker in eastern Sierra Leone, described hearing one woman saying about the hospital in Kenema: “Ebola is a lie! They’re sending people to Kenema to die!”
This kind of misinformation, along with fear of contagion, has led to some health workers’ coming under attack, being blocked from entering affected areas or being spurned by their own communities. Workers have also encountered conspiracy theories that Ebola was brought to the region by Westerners.
In addition, false claims are circulating about how to treat the disease. The World Health Organization issued a statement warning people against unproven treatments or supposed preventive measures, such as drinking salt water, which has reportedly killed several people in Nigeria.
Conspiracy theories have this attraction for their believers: They say "You're important enough to have powerful enemies." Few of us are objective enough to admit that whether we live or die, prosper or suffer, is of no concern to anyone beyond our families.