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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 20175

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: Magazine

Parnell K
Barrage of wrong information
Australian Doctor 1999 Sep 2427

Full text:

Recently a high-flying executive, who spends much of his time talking on a mobile phone, saw a television show about the dangers of mobiles and asked my opinion.

I has seen the program, which had shown several interviews of researchers who believe mobile phones can cause brain tumours.

Some of the supposed evidence was so anecdotal it was ludicrous, such as the US woman who always listened to her mobile phone using her left ear, and subsequently developed a left-sided brain tumour.

Other evidence was more convincing, perhaps because it was delivered by earnest-looking chaps in laboratories or book-lined offices.

Maybe they were right, but I told the executive he should await more rigorous data before he made up his mind.

I was reminded of this show, and how vulnerable we all are to health scares, when reading about the outbreak of a possible Coca-Cola-related illness.

Belgian researchers in the Lancet described an outbreak which began when 26 children from the same school developed nausea, headache, fatigue, palpitations and abdominal discomfort after drinking Coca-Cola.

This was followed by several children from the same school complaining of similar symptoms over the next few days, the story then being widely reported in the press/

From then on, the complaint spread, with hundreds of similar episodes in other schools and the community.

Although the patients exhibited few abnormal physical or laboratory findings, it was postulated that the outbreak stemmed from “bad carbon dioxide” in one plant and a fungicide that had contaminated the outside of some cans.

The sale of Coca-Cola was forbidden. Eventually, though, independent analysis found the concentrations of the chemicals were so low they were unlikely to cause any symptoms, although they might have caused the cola to be malodorous.

The authors called the outbreak a mass sociogenic illness, defined as “a constellation of symptoms of an organic illness, but without identifiable cause, which occurs among two or more persons who share beliefs relating to those symptoms”.

Rather than being transmitted by microbes, mass sociogenic illness is transmitted by the media, health professionals, social and family networks, as well as the telephone, and is a social rather than a medical phenomenon, they said.

In the same issue of the Lancet, Australian doctors described the dissemination of other health-related misinformation with the potential to feed the public’s insecurities about its health.

The researchers found hundreds of websites alleging the artificial sweetner, aspartame, was linked to diseases including multiple sclerosis, SLE, brain tumours and diabetes. One of the websites is even called, but the information was all essentially anecdotal, anonymous and “scientifically implausible”.

While many of the claims were based on the assertion that aspartame causes dangerous levels of phenylalanine and methanol to be released in the body, apparently there is more methanol in fruit juice than diet soft drinks and more phenylalanine in milk.

In a society that already tends to be over-concerned about its health, claims such as this only increase the risk of people developing symptoms as in the case of the Coca-Cola ‘illness’.

These ‘illnesses’, called somatisation disorders, involve the presence of somatic complaints in the absence of a physiological cause, but are not intentionally feigned or produced.

Of course, GPs are well aware that many of our patients, while genuinely distressed, are not actually physically ill, even if they present with physical complaints.

And we regularly come up against patients with anti-scientific beliefs that may impact on their, or their family’s health.

According to the Belgian researchers, the most effective antidote to such beliefs is rapid and appropriate reassurance by the medical community, which is well placed to counter misinformation on both an individual and societal level.

Although the calibre of health information on the Internet and in the media is generally improving, fads and fallacies still abound.

Which means doctors are likely to spend an increasing amount of their time helping patients differentiate facts from an over-abundance of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.


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