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Five common misbeliefs about COVID-19 and vaccines

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Facts and Myths painted on road

Do people let false claims about health issues get in their way?

It is quite disturbing to learn that reliable research into public attitudes toward health reveals substantial misconceptions and willingness to believe false claims about health issues as “the whole truth.”

One of these research efforts was backed by the reputable organization KFF (derived from its connection to the Kaiser Family Foundation, initially endowed by the American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser), whose motto is “The independent source for health policy research, polling, and news.” In late August 2023, the KFF website published the results of a poll that aimed to assess the extent of belief in the credibility of blatantly false claims about health in the general public.

The poll presented five (relatively obviously) false claims about health, but there was some evidence that people were either misinformed or deliberately misguided. A few other statements in the poll related to reproductive health or gun control. We can’t judge those points since the responses would likely have been driven by political orientation rather than an objective view of facts, which can be expected in a “neutral” area like health issues.

There was a wide range of responses to these false claims about health issues, from outright rejection to complete acceptance. But the most disturbing aspect of the results was that in almost every case, even though the untruth of the point should have been quite obvious, the great majority of people replied that they were unable to decide, saying that they were either “probably true” or “probably false.” Meaning that even when people hear false claims about health issues that they should reject, they come away with a sense of uncertainty. This complicates dealing with public health issues and makes spreading useful and reliable information even more important.

Five Common False Claims About Health

The list of points that people in the study were presented with covered some of the most pressing health issues of the day, for which there has been more than enough public information in the media and on reliable websites that the survey was conducted on an “informed public.” In the table below, we are summarizing the findings of the KFF study that relates to vaccines and COVID-19:

Do you believe that….. Definitely or possibly true Possibly false False
COVID-19 vaccines have caused thousands of sudden deaths in otherwise healthy people. 23% 34% 31%
Paxlovid (ivermectin) is an effective treatment for COVID-19. 26% 44% 22%
More people have died from COVID-19 vaccines than from the virus itself. 14% 33% 47%
MMR vaccines have been known to cause autism in children. 20% 43% 32%
COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to cause infertility. 24% 44% 27%

What’s disturbing is that in response to false claims about health issues that any reasonably informed person should be expected to immediately reject, almost one-quarter of the people either accepted the false statement or were prepared to say it was possibly correct.

Where does the information that people believe in come from?

Along with the responses to the health issues in the survey, the 2,000+ participants were asked to identify the main sources from which they got their information and whether they regarded them as reliable. 

  • The overwhelming majority said that their main information source was their healthcare providers, and the level of trust was extremely high, at 93%.
  • People also said that the Federal agencies involved in the health sector, mainly the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control, were fairly reliable (around 65%.) 
  • TV stations and the printed media have mixed profiles. Generally, people are prepared to believe more in the content of local news broadcasts or printed news than in other forms of distributed information. The major national cable networks like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC manage to garner about 50% trust as reliable sources. Overall, the level of trust in news sources of all kinds only reaches around 30%. In our blog, we wrote more about the subject of media attention to COVID-19 concerning the emergence of the JN.1 variant here.
  • Finally, the least reliable source is the wide array of social media platforms. Unfortunately, it is also the one many people rely on the most. This is especially the case for lower-income and marginalized people who may not have access to personalized healthcare services and lack the time and resources to make proper use of the available information sources. In the survey, barely one in ten of the participants would be prepared to trust the information they were getting from social media, but this wasn’t stopping them from turning to those platforms and letting their opinions be formed by unreliable or even blatantly false information paraded as facts.

How to identify reliable sources of health information

The best way to identify worthwhile information is to start on the other side of the coin: to identify false information. This is relatively easy. Look out for these basic flags:

  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. When talking about health, phrases like “complete cure,” “100% effective”, and “guaranteed” are highly unusual and should be disregarded. Always look for qualified statements, like “the treatment can reduce symptoms in most cases.” 
  • Any claims that a product can give specific health benefits should be backed up with multiple references to scientific research published in journals directly related to the subject. Unless the claims are based on proper research, they should be taken with a grain of salt.
  • Take special care if a claim is made about unconventional treatments for certain conditions, particularly if it targets individuals who may have lost faith in other conventional treatments. 
  • Watch out if the claim is made that this is a completely new development that treats a previously untreatable condition.
  • Avoid posts containing health information that elicit emotional reactions, for example, dealing with babies or serious conditions for which no known treatment exists. 
  • It may sound reasonable on the surface, but if, on the second read, it’s stating absurd claims that sound more like science fiction, that should raise concerns. 

If any of these red flags pop up, the best way to proceed is to talk to a qualified healthcare provider first. This is especially the case if the promotion of this new solution is time-based, telling you that you must order within a specified number of hours or days to get it at a promotional price.

Good information is out there in abundance. The key to finding it is to rely on more than one source and cross-reference any claims one source makes against one or more other sites. This is where internet search engines serve such a great purpose, pulling up relevant facts from an enormous variety of sources. What matters is how to use this tremendous pool of information properly, which means exercising good judgment and not rushing into decisions.

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