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Sunday, 6 August, 2000, 23:29 GMT 00:29 UK
Internet 'encourages false illness'
Logging onto a computer
Internet chat rooms can help people with health problems
The internet may be encouraging people to pretend they are ill in order to get attention, according to US research.

A study by the University of Alabama suggests that the web could be providing an alternative medium for people with Munchausen syndrome.

This is a condition where a person makes up false claims of personal illness or crisis to get the attention of others.

Dr Marc Feldman, from the University of Alabama, found 21 cases where individuals sought such attention through internet chat rooms.

These included claims of rape, assault and abuse.

In one case, an individual claimed to be on the brink of death and a supposed family member later posted a message, claiming their relative had died.


Individuals sometimes go online to deliberately provide misinformation about their own medical and personal histories

Dr Marc Feldman, University of Alabama
Writing in the Southern Medical Journal, Dr Feldman said: "The internet offers unlimited opportunities for patients - even those with rare diseases - to find like-minded and caring communities 24 hours a day."

He added: "However, these case reports illustrate that individuals sometimes go online to deliberately provide misinformation about their own medical and personal histories and that they may do so because it is inherently gratifying."

Speaking to BBC News Online, Dr Feldman said false claims were causing distress.

"It has been an extraordinary problem for people who have been victimised in this way."

He said false stories only become apparent over time.

'Emerging inconsistencies'

"Often the recognition that something has been invented emerges only gradually if, for instance, claims of illness become increasingly dramatic over time or if inconsistencies emerge or if the frequency and duration of posts is inconsistent with the illness."

Dr Feldman said people with Munchausen syndrome had "a strong and even desperate urge" to get attention and sympathy in any way possible.

But he said treatment had worked for some people.

"There are some cases where people do extremely well.

"What we offer these patients through therapy is a chance to get that attention from medical professionals in a psychiatric setting.

"However, most patients do not want this. They want to have a serious medical ailment and not a psychiatric illness."

See also:

29 Jul 00 | Health
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21 Jul 00 | Health
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