Claims of miracle cure-all pills and potions are certainly nothing new, but social media has made them more prevalent and potentially more dangerous than ever, according to NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens.
In a recent speech he warned that social media is fertile ground for ‘quacks, charlatans and cranks’ and added that ‘fake news’ misinformation about proven treatments such as vaccinations is putting people’s health at serious risk.
Speaking at an event in Oxford, Sir Simon said the proliferation of inaccurate and often deliberately misleading health information available online – often through the booming ‘wellness industry’ – is leading to people taking risks with their health as well as wasting money on too-good-to-be-true remedies.
He said that many so-called ‘health products’ sold online can be useless or even harmful, citing not only old fakes such as homeopathy but also new offerings such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s new ‘GOOP’ brand. On top of that, spurious and unfounded online rumours about well-proven treatments such as vaccinations were leading to people making poor choices for their own health or that of their children.
Sir Simon highlighted the steep rise in cases of mumps – from around 1,000 in 2018 to about 5,000 last year – as one example of the impact that misinformation about vaccination can have. Around half of those affected in 2019 had not been vaccinated. Many were university students whose parents chose not to give them the combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine as infants after rumours took hold linking the vaccine to autism.
Sir Simon said: “While fake news used to travel by word of mouth, we all know that lies and misinformation can now be round the world at the touch of a button – before the truth has reached for its socks, never mind got its boots on. Myths and misinformation have been put on steroids by the availability of misleading claims online.
“While the term ‘fake news’ makes most people think about politics, people’s natural concern for their health, and particularly about that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans, and cranks.
“In the 19th century Clark Stanley, an enterprising but unscrupulous American businessman, claimed that rattlesnakes offered miracle health cures, and so the original ‘snake oil salesman’ was born. A century later, anti-vaccination lies have spawned health burdens being borne by children and parents in 2020.”
The NHS chief also hit out at current dubious ‘wellness products’ and ‘health procedures’ available on or promoted through the internet and social media:
“Fresh from controversies over jade eggs and unusually scented candles, GOOP has just popped up with a new TV series, in which Gwyneth Paltrow and her team test vampire facials and back a ‘bodyworker’ who claims to cure both acute psychological trauma and side-effects by simply moving his hands two inches above a customer’s body.
“Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand peddles ‘psychic vampire repellent’; says ‘chemical sunscreen is a bad idea’; and promotes colonic irrigation and DIY coffee enema machines, despite them carrying considerable risks to health and NHS advice clearly stating there is no scientific evidence to suggest there are any health benefits associated with colonic irrigation.”
Sir Simon’s advice is not to be taken in by online claims, but instead entrust your health to properly qualified medical professionals such as your family GP or local pharmacist.