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Fake news that's easy to swallow

  • False news and claims about health are spreading like wildfire on social media. Some professionals are now attempting to stop this, but they know it will be a difficult task.

If we believed every headline we read, we would think that in future there will be no such thing as baldness and the whole of humanity will be shaking their curls in the wind, the profits of shampoo companies will go through the roof and hairdressers will all be driving Maseratis.

“McDonald's chips may be a solution for baldness,” announced the newspapers and one could imagine millions of people, wearing caps to protect their naked heads from the cold, queuing at fast food restaurants to ask for whatever they fancy but “with a triple portion of chips but don't drain the oil off, please, because I like it”.

It seems that dimethylpolysiloxane, a chemical substance used by McDonald's to improve the properties of the oil when they fry their potatoes, could have amazing effects not only in preventing hair loss but also in regenerating it.

This 'news' originated after an experiment was carried out by a group of Japanese scientists, who developed 'in vitro' hair follicles. These hairs, placed in dimethylpolysiloxane chips, were successfully implanted in mice. This opened a new path towards the improvement of medical hair regeneration techniques, but someone reflected on this and came to the erroneous conclusion that eating McDonald's chips is the ideal way to have a healthy head of hair.

What had been the result of a piece of scientific research suddenly became a hair-producing miracle in the headlines, but it was just one of many pieces of fake news about health which circulate and multiply on the Internet. These are sometimes inoffensive claims but they can also be dangerous, such as when TV presenter Mariló Montero announced that “aroma of lemon can prevent cancer” or when Javier Cárdenas linked vaccines with autism.

Faced with the “inaction of institutions”, health professionals have begun to set up websites on the Internet to try to stop the spread of fake news of this type. The latest attempt is a platform called Saludsinbulos.com which began, as its coordinator Carlos Mateos explains, with the difficult mission of “detecting and correcting false information which circulates on social media and instant messaging apps”.

It is not an easy task. It is difficult to fight an enemy “which multiplies so quickly” and when in the vast majority of cases nobody knows where it starts.

“A lot of fake news starts because of economic interests, as a way of sending commercial 'spam' or to discredit a competitor,” says Carlos. One such case is that of hair transplant companies who spread the rumour that some treatments for hair loss can cause cancer. Those responsible can also be people who want to raise their public profile, conspiranoids linked to pseudoscience, famous people wanting to make the headlines or internauts who simply want to see how far their lie will travel. There are many of them, and they are everywhere.

The SaludSinBulos platform is an altruistic project by a network of health professionals, representatives of patient associations and journalists who specialise in health matters. They help to eradicate the fake news on the Internet and contribute to the spread of quality health information.

One of these collaborators is Marian García, doctor in Pharmacy, nutritionist and author of the Boticaria García blog, in which numerous fake claims about health have already been proven wrong.

“When we go to the doctor or chemist we don't trust them and we ask them a thousand questions, but we are prepared to eat anything that someone has recommended on Whatsapp,” she says. “We believe anything that appears on the Internet, which is why it is important for health professionals to go onto social media to show fake claims for what they are.”

Miracle water

In Silicon Valley in the USA, it has become fashionable to drink water which has been collected directly from springs and then bottled and distributed without being treated or filtered. It costs more than mineral water. People there say that this untreated water, as well as providing energy and calm, avoids the supposed negative effects of chlorine and fluoride. The reality is that this water can be contaminated by bacteria, viruses and parasites. The treatments carried out to make bottled water suitable for consumption prevent illnesses such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, yellow fever and poliomyelitis, as is well known in countries where tap water doesn't exist.

Fatal anti-flu drugs

One warning which has been circulating on the social networks for over a decade is that some anti-flu medications cause brain hemorrhages because they contain phenylpropanolamine. One thing which is correct about this claim, which originated from an information note from the Ministry of Health in Brazil, is that in the year 2000 several medications which contained high doses of phenylpropanolamine were taken off the market because of a small risk that they might cause cerebral haemorrhages in young women. At that time in Spain only two anti-flu products existed. The authorisation for one of them to be sold was withdrawn in 2010 at the request of the laboratory itself. The one which remains contains very low doses of the stigmatised substance.

G&T for allergies

“Gin and tonic, the new remedy for allergies,” announced some of the media in 2017. According to this information, which excited millions of people with allergies as well as the owners of cocktail bars, a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin had reached the conclusion that drinks such as gin and vodka could relieve allergy symptoms because of their low histamine content.

Marian García explains that this claim originated from an article which said that asthma or allergy symptoms can become worse if the sufferer drinks wine or beer, which contain histamine. The text added that spirits such as gin and vodka contain less histamine so they affect people with allergies less. There is a world of difference between that and saying that gin and tonic is good for the health.

A very intimate yoghurt

In February the singer Chenoa revealed on a TV programme that applying natural yoghurt in the vagina is a good way of reactivating vaginal flora “when your defences are low”. This claim, half natural remedy and half fake news, makes a certain amount of sense because yoghurts are high in probiotics, in other words bacteria which are beneficial for health, but it has not been scientifically demonstrated that they are able to treat or prevent vaginosis bacteriana.

The feared machupo

One of the warnings which has spread on Whatsapp is that paracetamol contains the machupo virus, which transmits hemorrhagic fever. The message, which has spread to numerous countries, says that the virus, “one of the most dangerous in the world,” appears camouflaged in paracetamol p-500. Pharmacists and even the police have strongly denied this rumour. Machupo cannot survive in dry environments such as a paracetamol tablet.

Clarification from a hospital

The news is still spreading on social media that the prestigious John Hopkins hospital in the USA has admitted that the use of chemotherapy is a mistake. In a message to the public the hospital is supposed to have said that therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy have no effect on cancer, and recommended a number of dietary strategies. The hospital was obliged to deny this in a statement in which it said that these therapies do work. “The proof is the millions of cancer survivors in the USA who are alive thanks to them.” Despite this, the claim is still circulating.