Jonathan Kay: The Suzanne Somers effect — How Internet-fuelled medical conspiracy theories are making us sicker
In the realm of public health, distrust and the need to explain human suffering, have combined to produce stubbornly popular conspiracy theories that inhibit life-saving medical therapies: Ironically, an irrational fear of government schemes to engineer human suffering have caused many citizens to forsake therapies that have been engineered to save their lives. This month, for instance, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a heart-rending tale of Pakistanis who refuse to eat salt containing iodine — a necessary chemical that helps prevent goiters, mental retardation, birth defects and other problems — because they believe the ingredient is part of a government conspiracy to render them infertile.
Here in the West, we like our iodine just fine. Yet many of us still give the time of day to other conspiracy theorists, such as anti-vaccine activists who falsely claim a linkage between the widely administered MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism spectrum disorder.
Much of the blame goes to celebrity laypersons such as former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy. Since 1998, when the vaccine/autism theory first was put forward in a study published in the Lancet medical journal (subsequently retracted in 2010), untold millions of parents across the Western world have avoided vaccinating their children, leaving them exposed to deadly, and entirely preventable, diseases such as measles, whooping cough and Hib influenza.
The myth that vaccines cause autism permits emotionally vulnerable parents to blame politically accountable, human evildoers — the big pharmaceutical companies and their apologists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada — for a trauma that might otherwise be seen as a mere act of God. The myth thereby allows them to substitute their frustration and disappointment with the more psychologically manageable emotion of anger. (Three Rivers Press)