By – Anshima Gupta, Features Writer, THIP Media
Health misinformation has become a widespread and pernicious issue in contemporary times, posing significant threats to public health and well-being. This scourge involves the propagation of erroneous, misleading, and false information about health and medical issues via various media platforms, such as social media, blogs, and other communication channels like messaging apps. The ubiquity of online platforms and the ease of creating and disseminating content have exacerbated the proliferation of this deleterious phenomenon, making it challenging to differentiate between accurate and misleading information.
A prime example of the catastrophic impact of health misinformation was the spread of conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. False claims, such as the virus being a hoax or the vaccines being dangerous, were promulgated widely on social media and other online platforms. Regrettably, such misinformation had spawned vaccine hesitancy and resistance, resulting in a slower pace of vaccination and prolonged pandemic. It is worth noting that the harmful effects of health misinformation are not limited to COVID-19 but they also extend to numerous health issues such as mental health conditions, cancer, and chronic diseases, among others. Hence, it is of utmost importance to combat this menace and promote accurate health information to ensure that individuals make informed decisions about their health and well-being.
Fact-Checking and beyond: The dangers of health misinformation
Fact-checking is crucial on social media platforms to counter the spread of health misinformation. The amplification of misinformation could make the fake news appear credible and trustworthy. As a result, individuals may make poor and unhealthy choices that can have significant impacts on their well being.
Take the example of COVID-19 again. The misinformation related to treatments and cures for the virus was very rampant on social media and messaging platforms like WhatsApp. False claims like the use of hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin as treatments, were widely shared and led to a lot of people self-medicating. This resulted in harmful side effects and in some cases, even death.
Another example of medical misinformation that runs on social media even now is drinking a fixed amount of water everyday. In reality, the water intake for hydration depends on a person’s lifestyle and several other factors, like body weight, diet, activity level, and health conditions. Drinking more water than what the body actually needs can put an extra burden on one’s kidneys.
Similarly, false claims related to diet and medical treatments can lead to individuals making incorrect or harmful decisions that can worsen their health conditions. Misinformation about the benefits of certain diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies, and false information about medical treatments or self prescription can result in ineffective or harmful treatments.
These examples highlight the importance of fact-checking to prevent the spread of false or unverified health information in digital space. It is crucial to seek advice from qualified healthcare professionals and reliable sources of health information to ensure that health advice and treatments are tailored to an individual’s unique health needs and circumstances.
India’s diverse healthcare landscape
India’s healthcare landscape is complex, with multiple languages, cultures, and religions. This diversity can create a significant challenge when it comes to countering health misinformation. Addressing this problem in India requires an understanding of the socio-cultural, linguistic, and religious factors to identify the spread of false information.
There are several cultural beliefs that are known to have harmful effects on one’s health. One such example is the belief that women should not breastfeed their newborns immediately after birth, as the colostrum is considered ‘impure’. Instead, the baby is given honey or other sweet substances before being breastfed. This practice can have severe consequences for newborns, as colostrum is essential for their immune system and provides important nutrients that are not present in other substances like honey. This belief is prevalent in several regions of the country, including the states like Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.
To combat such ignorance and misinformation, we need to educate communities about evidence-based health practices and promote culturally sensitive health care that takes into account the unique health beliefs and practices of different regions and communities in the country.
The economics of health misinformation
Health misinformation not only poses a risk to people’s health but also has economic consequences. According to a study by the World Health Organization, the global cost of health misinformation is estimated to be around $10 billion per year. This cost includes the expenses incurred in treating illnesses caused by misinformation as well as those associated with responding to health crises that arise due to misinformation.
In India, the economic impact of health misinformation is also notable, with many people falling prey to fake cures and treatments, resulting in out-of-pocket expenses and lost productivity due to illness. Therefore, addressing health misinformation is not just a public health issue but also an economic one that requires urgent attention.
In addition to efforts made by the Indian government and fact checkers to combat health-related misinformation in the country, the participation of citizens is crucial to subdue this crisis. One basic rule of the thumb to fight off the false information and escape its adverse effect is to consult a doctor or professional before believing anything you hear or come across on the Internet. After all, it’s about your health.