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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Internet health hoaxers

By BBC Doctor Colin Thomas

Years ago diseases took decades to spread across countries, and centuries to circumnavigate the globe.

We all know that today with better travel this has been shortened to weeks if not days, but with the proliferation of the information superhighway it is now medical information, or more correctly disinformation, that is spreading like wildfire.

In radio, television, and newsprint, stories are validated before release for fear of mistakes being made.

However on the internet, once the information is put on and disseminated a little it is virtually impossible to discover the validity of the source, and rather like pyramid selling the story can spread far and wide, unchecked.

Unsuspecting people with little or no scientific training are likely to be taken in by such bogus, but on the face of it, plausible, scare stories.

They start to worry unnecessarily about their health, and although they don't get a disease, they can imagine all sorts of things that might be wrong with them, which actually can be just as harmful.

Imagined or hysterical illnesses are a well recognised phenomena.

The most famous being an outbreak of a mysterious fatiguing disease at the Royal Free Hospital nearly 50 years ago.

In the end the assumption was made that the symptoms were due to hysteria.

In this case the symptoms were confined to one institution, but now with the global internet our institution could be the whole world!

The banana hoax was hatched in the USA. Reports from an allegedly scientific organisation, which later turned out to be non-existent, told of a flesh eating bug imported into the United States on the skin of bananas.

The story is riddled with scientific and medical inaccuracies, and actually some dangerous advice for people which I won't repeat here.

Computer virus

However because it relied on scare tactics, and starts with the phrase "please share this information with people you love and care for" people believed it and deluged the public health department with worried calls.

Computer viruses spread dis-information into the hardware and software of computers making them work less effectively.

These scare stories, purveyed if you like by the internet, can do similar things, but infecting our minds rather than our bodies with imaginary ailments. Rather like computer viruses these hoaxes will be inadvertently passed on to other unsuspecting individuals - with the best of intentions.

I have experienced a number of these hoaxes because people have forwarded them on to me for my opinion.

Remember if the information appears to come from or through someone you know and trust, you are more likely to believe it, even if you don't know the original source.

So the best bet is don't believe everything you read on the internet, and be especially careful if the message tugs at your emotions.

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