Over 25% of the messages that Shammas Oliyath, co-founder of fake news busting website Check4Spam.com, debunks are fake medical posts. “Social media is rife with medical posts. The allopathic doctors we consult say there’s no scientific proof to back such claims,” he says.
A common misconception propagated by social media is that a biopsy causes a tumour to turn cancerous. “I had a patient who refused a biopsy when I had good reason to suggest it. It took me some time to convince him,” says Dr Sandeep Nayak, surgical oncologist with Fortis, Bengaluru.
Lack of doctors leads to spread of health myths
Other fake messages that make the rounds regularly relate to prolonged use of sanitary napkins causing death of “56 girls”, and that “80% Females Die During Delivery Due To Swelling in Uterus Walls Caused Because Of washing head in The Early Days Of Ur Menstrual Cycle” (no, we didn’t add the caps or the spelling errors). Why do Indians believe and propagate such patently fake messages? In fact, most people think they are performing a public service by forwarding them to friends and family.
Doctors say one reason is that there just aren’t enough of them around. According to government data, India has only about one million allopathic doctors for a population of one billion. This has created a culture of quackery, they say, which allows fake health news to thrive and be accepted.
“This is especially true in rural areas where only one in five ‘doctors’ is qualified to practise,” says Dr Jaideep Malhotra, president, Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Societies of India, quoting a WHO report. “Most of the consultation time now is wasted dispelling myths,” says Dr Malhotra, who practises in Agra.
Dr Sandeep Budhiraja says this is a new challenge for doctors — how to control and counter fake health news. “Today, if you reject a treatment or remedy that the patient found online or heard from friends, he is not convinced,” says Dr Budhiraja, an internal medicine specialist with Max hospitals, Delhi.
Another widely believed rumour, again spread by social media, is that people with cancer should not eat sugar as it feeds cancer cells. “Too much processed sugar should be avoided by everybody and not just cancer patients,” Dr Nayak clarifies. And the body’s healthy cells need sugars — carbs are sugar too — for energy, so stopping it completely may weaken your body. Terminal illnesses, like certain cancers, are especially easy to mess around with as there aren’t too many cures. This leaves patients more vulnerable.
But why would anyone try to fool or trick people who are already struggling with health issues? Who benefits from spreading fake health messages? “It’s a billion-dollar question and we don’t have a clear answer,” says Oliyath.