Fake news – how to distinguish fact from fiction? What is celebrity-based medicine?

We are constantly being flooded with information about diseases, ailments and innovative methods of their treatment. How to find valuable information in the multitude of messages? Since it is about our health, we should first of all take a critical look at every novelty. As patients, we should always consult a reputable specialist, but it is worth knowing how to distinguish between reliable information and fake news.

Fake news, what is it?

Fake news, according to the definition of PWN (Polish National Scientific Publishers), is: "false, fake news, most often disseminated by tabloids in order to create a sensation or to slander someone (...)". There is no formal definition of this term. We usually deal with its loose interpretation.

The main task of spreading false information is to deliberately mislead or shock the reader. It usually contains some truth, but also a joke or misinformation. That is why, unfortunately, it is sometimes so difficult to distinguish between fake news and a fact.

A good example is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (coronavirus disease 2019). Those disseminating false information about it have taken advantage of favourable circumstances. The topic aroused great interest and the state of scientific knowledge was limited and was only just being developed. Since the beginning of the new coronavirus pandemic, we have been flooded with new pieces of information in the press, on TV, on the internet and especially on social media. Now we know that much of it, especially the most sensational, turned out to be fake news.

Many of these false messages were passed on a "chain" basis (i.e. one person sends it to another person, this other person sends it to another person, etc.) thanks to which it spreads rapidly.

Both the Polish government and the World Health Organization are trying to fight against undesirable disinformation and increasing panic. Lack of stress is not something that people complain about nowadays, so it is not worth letting the media pull your leg. 

Fake news, examples

Some of the fake news seems humorous and not very harmful but unfortunately a lot of it is simply dangerous to the health. It is difficult to predict what a sick person's belief in false information may lead to.

FAKE NEWS RELATED TO COVID-19
Fake news Fact
SARS-CoV-2 virus can be transmitted over 5G cellular network. Of course not. SARS-CoV-2 is only transmitted through the droplet and contact route (by touching a contaminated surface and then the eyes, mouth or nose).
If you can hold your breath for at least 10 seconds without coughing or feeling discomfort, it means you are not infected with SARS-CoV-2. No. An appropriate laboratory test is the only method to confirm a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
A warm bath prevents SARS-CoV-2 infection. Unfortunately, no. Regardless of the bath temperature, the body temperature remains constant. Too high water temperatures can cause burns.
Garlic prevents COVID-19. Garlic is an antimicrobial food, but unfortunately it does not prevent a COVID-19 infection.
Polish cities will be closed. No. The Prime Minister said, shortly after the fake news came out, that nothing like this was planned or considered. So far, no Polish city has been closed.
Drinking alcohol protects against SARS-CoV-2 infection. Unfortunately, no. Moreover, alcohol abuse (too frequent or excessive drinking) can increase the risk of certain health problems.
Ibuprofen worsens COVID-19 prognosis.

No. To date, there is no evidence that the use of ibuprofen increases the risk of infection or worsens the course of COVID-19.

Malaria drugs also treat COVID-19.

There is no scientific evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating COVID-19.

The efficacy and safety of a medicine in a given indication must be confirmed by clinical trials.

More myths and facts can be found at:

Clearly, there are more and more examples of fake news and the fact that we yield to medical myths. That is why there is a growing number of opponents of vaccination, and consequently unvaccinated children, and amateurs of dietary supplements or miracle diet "testers".

HEALTH MYTHS
MYTH FACT
Gluten is harmful. The gluten-free diet must be used by people with coeliac disease and non-cellular hypersensitivity to gluten or allergy to wheat because their body "does not tolerate" gluten. So far, this diet has not been proven that it is recommended in other cases.
Vaccinations cause autism. It has not been proven that any of the vaccinations used increase the risk of autism.
A sphinx cat does not cause allergy. Despite the lack of hair, just like other cats, it releases allergenic proteins present e.g. in saliva.
A glass of juice replaces a portion of fruit. The amount of fibre is much less in a glass of juice than in the whole fruit. Fruit juice can contain from 5 to even 17 g of sugar. Due to the high content of kilocalories and sugars, juice is conducive to becoming overweight, obesity and decay.
Later introduction of potentially allergenic foods into the child's diet reduces the risk of allergies.

Potentially allergenic foods should be introduced together with other complementary foods - postponing their introduction does not affect the risk of allergies.

Reaching for alternative medicine with unproven efficacy and safety can lead to the abandonment of therapy that helps the patient, which in some cases can even result in death.

Celebritization of science, celebrity-based medicine

Patient organisations have also started to fight against false information provided by public figures by organising the initiative "Stop of the celebratization of pseudoscience”.

Frequently, celebrities take a position on health issues regarding which they do not have sufficient knowledge. The information they provide is often far from the information found in scientific research. Contrary to "evidence-based medicine" - that is science based on scientific evidence (or data) - the “medical practices” based on words or behaviours of an idol is called "celebrity-based medicine".

The analysis of articles published in 2005-2006 on alternative treatment methods promoted by celebrities noted that celebrities usually refer to alternative medicine, namely homeopathy, acupuncture, alternative diets and Ayurveda, and as such promote it. It is important to check in each case whether the therapy is proven to be effective and safe in clinical trials for a given indication. If not, look for other methods for which such data is available. Sometimes, there is no known effective treatment or prevention method for a particular indication. In such cases, we usually rely on a benefit-risk analysis.

Celebrities and other public figures should be aware of their impact on the decisions on health taken by society and behave more responsibly. Celebrities often use their position and promote specific treatments or medicinal products. Alternative medicine and the willingness to use its methods are largely dependent on the current fashion - built specifically on “celebrity-based medicin".

Celebrity-based medicine and alternative medicine

It seems that "celebrity-based medicine" is to alternative medicine what "evidence-based medicine" is to standard medicine.

Alternative medicine, otherwise paramedicine, unconventional medicine, or pseudo-medicine, includes practices that are not among the standard treatment methods accepted by the medical community, e.g. acupuncture, homeopathy, aromatherapy.

It is used instead of standard treatment, e.g. diet instead of chemotherapy to treat cancer.

According to data from 2012, Americans who used alternative medicine most often used: dietary supplements i.e. vitamins and minerals, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi or qi gong, chiropractic and osteopathy, meditation, massage, alternative diets and homeopathy.

Alternative medicine and cancer

Research has shown that celebrities have an influence on society's search for information on cancer and the performance of screening tests. Unfortunately, patients often find scientific evidence from clinical trials less convincing than confessions of celebrities. Theoretically, any person who has experienced the disease can tell his or her story, but because of the impact that famous people have, this may make patients more likely to use the promoted alternative medicine than the standard treatment prescribed by doctors.

Since they have a greater impact on public opinion than medical people, celebrities can be helpful partners in promoting healthy lifestyles and screening tests, but only if the message is credible and based on scientific data.

There are situations where patients abandon standard treatment, especially oncological treatment, in order to try to save themselves by alternative medical methods. It is particularly easy to believe in the promised recovery when medicine no longer gives these people very much hope. However, it is worth thinking about what will happen if the alternative therapy does not work and the patient irreversibly falls out of drug therapy that prolonged his or her life to a greater or lesser extent. This sometimes makes patients lose their chance to survive or to live longer.

Methods with unconfirmed efficacy may involve minimal risk, but may sometimes present a risk to health and life.

How to find reliable information

Use proven sources of information on COVID-19 and health:

Scientific databases are useful for people searching for more advanced medical data:

How to distinguish fake from fact?

Sometimes the information seems false at first glance, but at times it is simply more concealed.

  • Always pay attention to the source of information.

Information provided by a professional source (preferably scientific literature) is more reliable and valuable. This does not mean, of course, that information without a provided source must be false, but it is uncertain. If you have such a possibility, ask the author about the source.

  • A new method of treatment does not necessarily have to be more effective.

The emergence of information about a new treatment method usually arouses great interest. It has happened, however, that new drugs, which seemed promising, had to be withdrawn from the market after several years due to side effects that were not observed in registration studies. The same problem applies to various encouraging diets with catchy names. They are usually intended to bring about rapid weight reduction but rarely refer to their long-term effectiveness as typically nothing is known about it.

  • Avoid very categorical opinions from people outside the medical industry that encourage the same treatment regardless of the indication.

People who categorically recommend only one method of treatment, e.g. hunger strike, specific supplementation, acupuncture, Ayurveda, regardless of the indication, should arouse our caution. In contrast to such people, a doctor tries to choose the most effective and safest method from a range of diagnostic and therapeutic methods based on current scientific data but also on the patient's own experience and preferences. Many decisions are based on an analysis of the patient's benefit-risk balance. The effectiveness and safety of a given treatment method should be confirmed for a specific disease.

  • Observational studies do not allow us to confirm the effectiveness of a given method of treatment.

Often a relationship between the occurrence of one factor as a cause and the other as a consequence of the two factors is determined (e.g. low selenium concentrations in people with type 2 diabetes suggests that supplementation may be beneficial in patients with type 2 diabetes), which does not have to be the case. On the basis of observational studies it can only be determined that given factors coexist, but we cannot determine the cause-effectiveness. To do this, we need the results of an intervention study.

The tested population (e.g. adults with type 2 diabetes) must be treated with a certain factor (e.g. selenium supplementation at a certain dose and form) to check if the suspected effect has occurred after a certain period of use, e.g. in terms of symptoms, alleviation of symptoms or development of the disease (in this case, better glycaemic control, less risk of diabetes-related complications or improvement of lipid profile parameters, e.g. reduction of LDL cholesterol).

In the case of observational research, it is often difficult to eliminate the effect of interfering factors, i.e. those that may affect the outcome (e.g. lifestyle, coexisting diseases). In many cases, the results of intervention studies did not confirm the hypotheses resulting from observations (using the example mentioned above, intervention studies did not show the influence of selenium supplementation on the control of type 2 diabetes in adults).

References: 

  1. https://sjp.pwn.pl/mlodziezowe-slowo-roku/haslo/fake-news;6368870.html https://cik.uke.gov.pl/news/fake-news-czyli-falszywa-prawda,191.html
  2. https://www.politykazdrowotna.com/59614,stop-celebrytyzacji-pseudonauki-wspolna-akcja-20-organizacji
  3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/
  4. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam
  5. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/complementary-alternative-or-integrative-health-whats-in-a-name
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Autor: mgr Agata Stróżyk, Młodszy Specjalista ds. Informacji Medycznej, Dietetyk kliniczny, sportowy i pediatryczny.