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Disinformation is a public health crisis. Here's how scientists and doctors are fighting it

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

In recent years, disinformation has seemed to be on an inexorable march across the scientific and medical landscape.

Prominent politicians, up to and including the former president, have promoted useless drugs as supposed cures for COVID-19. Partisan attacks on the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines have expanded into attacks on all vaccines. Established scientific and medical authorities have been vilified on social media and on the airwaves and even been subjected to physical assault.

The sheer volume of lies and misrepresentations injected into the political mainstream has some scientists despairing of ever regaining the public's attention.

"Scientists really recognize this as a problem, from what they see in the community and read in the news," says Tara Kirk Sell of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security. "They see the problems they have from misinformation and disinformation on the public health side and in the medical field and in other areas. They want to figure out how to deal with it. We're providing some guidance for combating it and making people more resistant to it."

Sell's reference is to the "Practical Playbook for Addressing Health Misinformation" just released by her center. The 65-page publication amounts to a road map for identifying misinformation and disinformation and applying the best strategies for counteracting it before it spreads.

It's part of an emerging genre of advice for scientists, public health officials and others who get confronted by rumors that interfere with their work, or by deliberate falsehoods; the latter is "disinformation," as opposed to "misinformation," which may simply be widely accepted misunderstandings that may have innocent sources.

 

UNICEF, the Yale Institute for Global Health and other organizations published one of the earliest such guides in late 2020, aimed specifically at anti-vaccine misinformation. Others have the broader goal of fighting conspiracy theories in general.

One recommendation that most seem to have in common is to take a strategic approach: Disinformation campaigns can't be defeated by ad-hoc measures; they require an organized, proactive and targeted approach mounted by credible defenders of science.

The effort is important because the disinformation has more than political consequences; it costs lives. Pseudoscience debunker Peter Hotez calculates that as many as 200,000 Americans may have perished because of COVID after the vaccines were introduced because anti-vaccine propaganda dissuaded them from getting the shots.

Cases of measles, which should have been eradicated in the U.S. years ago, are appearing again because of disinformation about the vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts more than 20 measles cases so far this year in at least 11 states. That's about one-third of the 58 cases recorded in all of last year, counted in only the first six weeks of 2024, suggesting that a more serious epidemic may loom on the horizon.

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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