Conspiracy theories muddy Zika public health message

Myths and conspiracies may put people off a vaccine for Zika, a study finds.

The Zika virus is not being spread by genetically engineered mosquitoes, nor is it transmitted through vaccines. It also is not part of a plan by pharmaceutical companies to boost sales of a future vaccine.

The rumors, conspiracy theories and myths about the virus being shared on social media and by word of mouth are seemingly as contagious as the disease.

Researchers worry that such misinformation could undermine efforts to control Zika's spread and even the public's willingness to accept any vaccine. Public health officials are working to share accurate information about the virus and its risks with the public.

"Once people have made up their minds about something, it's hard for them to change their opinions," said Mark Dredze, an assistant research professor in the Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering's Department of Computer Science who recently reviewed 140,000 Twitter posts regarding the mosquito-borne virus.

In a study published recently in the journal Vaccine, Dredze, together with researchers at George Washington University and the University of Georgia, concluded that many posts were not backed by science.

Misinformation, and outright conspiracy theories, have abounded since the beginning of time, those who study the phenomenon say.

They are the "lifeblood of epidemics," said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

The difference now is the amplification the internet and social media offer anyone with a keyboard and connection, he said. With a growing distrust of medical studies and therapies funded by government and big corporations, Markel said, even more people are doubting and filling the web with alternative theories.

Some people thought Ebola was a government plan to eliminate poor Africans, while others suggested maybe it was a medical trial gone horribly wrong. Others thought HIV was God's way of punishing gay people or the CIA's way to eliminate them.

It's not surprising that some whoppers about a scary and not-particularly-understood virus called Zika are making the rounds and getting traction, Markel said.

In April, health authorities officially declared the mosquito-borne Zika caused microcephaly, a severe birth defect characterized by small brains and heads that has affected the fetuses of some infected pregnant women.

In the months preceding the declaration, Dredze's team found posts wrongly linking microcephaly to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. That's the vaccine often blamed for causing autism in children despite that claim having been debunked widely by scientists.

A February survey seeking to track false rumors and conspiracy theories by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found 19 percent of more than 1,000 Americans who were polled said they believed scientists thought microcephaly could result when pregnant women drank water containing a pesticide to stop the spread of mosquitoes. Scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found this not to be true.

The survey also found 22 percent believed scientists were blaming genetically modified mosquitoes for the Zika outbreak and 20 percent believed scientists blamed vaccines, though authorities say both are false.

Markel agreed that the myths and conspiracies can be harmful, prompting distrust and fear of treatments and vaccines. Public health officials blamed an outbreak of measles in California among children not vaccinated on parental concerns about the vaccine.

Sometimes it's not even a conspiracy theory, but the miscommunication of something that began with a kernel of truth, like the genetically altered mosquitoes, which public health officials say may help fight Zika.

"It's like the old game of telephone when by the time you pass the information from person to person, the message is very different at the end," Markel said.

The rumors all start somewhere, and often it's with a certain kind of person, said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and co-author of "American Conspiracy Theories."

People have beliefs and ways of thinking built into them when they are young, and that makes them predisposed to accept particular religious and political views, he said. The conspiracy mindset comes from the same process, Uscinski said.

"If you're brought up to believe the truth isn't what it seems and powerful people are out there controlling things in secret against the common good, then you see everything through that prism, including Zika," he said. "That said, there is a scale and most people don't believe all or no conspiracies. Most probably believe in one or a few."

He said people may believe Ebola could create zombies or the human papillomavirus vaccine could cause retardation. The latter unfounded claim gained attention when former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann repeated it on the campaign trail.

Medical conspiracy theories often gain attention when scientists can't offer an easy explanation, said Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University and the author of "Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America."

Diseases such as Zika are dangerous, and people want immediate answers when they are frightened, he said. Conspiracies and myths often fill the gaps.

Public health officials often have trouble undoing the damage even when they do have answers, Barkun said. The public sometimes believes the delay in information is part of the conspiracy.

And, Barkun said, once a conspiracy, myth or rumor is out there on the internet, "it never dies."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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