By: Ranier Simons, ADAP Blog Guest Contributor
One of the most dangerous forms of misinformation and disinformation is public health. Misinformation is defined as inaccurate or false information spread among large groups of people as fact. Misinformation is believed to be accurate and based on unsubstantiated rumors, misguided anecdotal evidence, misinterpretation of fact, and even bias stemming from universally shared cultural beliefs. Disinformation is deliberately targeted malicious misinformation propagated to deceive people into believing something for financial profit, political gain, or even malevolent ideological destabilization of evidence-based foundational norms. HIV isn't immune from either one.
|Photo Source: Stanford Medicine|
Medical misinformation has dire consequences. It can be a matter of life and death. It maintains confusion, mistrust of fundamental science and undermines public health efforts. People who believe in medical misinformation and disinformation lose their power to make decisions in the best interests of their health. As a result, they turn down well-established life-saving treatments, engage in harmful or potentially deadly treatments, and exacerbate conditions that would typically benefit from early intervention by delaying proper treatment.
A plethora of medical misinformation and disinformation continues to circulate regarding HIV and COVID-19. Recently circulating is a false causal claim linking HIV and COVID-19 vaccines. Conservative commentators such as Hal Turner, a right-wing radio host, claim that there has been a 500% increase in military new HIV infections due to COVID-19 vaccines being instituted.
In an effort to combat this misinformation, The Associated Press published data fact-checking the false claim. According to the U.S Department of Defense and the Congressional Research Service, 1,581 service members, including the National Guard and Reserves, have been diagnosed with HIV infections since 2017. Approximately 317 service members were diagnosed with HIV in 2017; 280 in 2018; 314 in 2019; 237 in 2020; 309 in 2021; and 124 in 2022.
There were 72 more cases of HIV diagnosed in 2021 compared to December 2020, when COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public. That was only a 30% increase, not 500%. Moreover, in 2022 when the vaccines had been widely adopted, there were 185 fewer diagnosed HIV cases. That was a 60% drop from 2021. Right-wing conservative media reported numbers they claimed came from leaked data from DMED, the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database. DMED is an internal database accessible only by military medical personnel.
The Associated Press reported that the Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Surveillance Division explained there had been data corruption which resulted in the appearance of a significantly increased occurrence of all medical diagnoses in 2021 because of the under-reported data for 2016-2020. The cause of the corruption was identified, and the database was made whole. No evidence exists that COVID-19 vaccines have caused HIV or other immune deficiencies. Conservative right-wing media has also linked COVID-19 vaccinations to a non-existent fabricated condition called VAIDS, vaccine-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, in an attempt to shed doubt upon factual COVID-19 vaccine data.
Other disinformation campaigns from conservative sources regarding COVID-19 were the Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine treatment fallacies. Former President Donald Trump also explicitly promoted both. In a November 2020, Journal of Medical Internet Research study, researchers quantified the potency of his misinformation. For example, their Twitter analysis found that his first tweet on March 21, 2020, promoting hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, had 385,700 likes and 103,000 retweets. This equates to an estimated impression reach, or user views, of 78,800,580.
America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLD), a scam group of right-wing physicians, also perpetuated misinformation and profited from it. AFLD used telemedicine scams to make a profit promising telemedicine appointments for people who wanted to be prescribed Ivermectin for COVID-19. Patients were charged for virtual visits whether they received them or not. They are also billed hundreds of dollars for Ivermectin and Hydrochloroquine prescriptions filled by third-party mail-order vendors. AFLD was created by the Council For National Policy, a clandestine network of conservative activists. TIME Magazine found no proof that any physicians involved had expertise in directly caring for COVID-19 patients.
|Photo Source: The University of Chicago Medicine|
An Ohio State study found that conservatives are more susceptible to believing false information than liberals. Overall, liberals and conservatives tend to believe claims that support their views. Additionally, both liberals and conservatives are able to adequately distinguish between falsehood and truth when the truth is presented as politically neutral. Neutral means that the factual truth does not overwhelmingly support the political views of either side. However, researchers found that liberals are much better at distinguishing falsehoods from truths that support liberal ideology. Conservatives in the study were significantly biased toward false information that supported a conservative political agenda, even when the claims were deemed outlandish and starkly in contrast to evidence-based facts. Researchers also explained that the odds were stacked against conservatives being able to distinguish fact from fiction because there is a much higher volume of right-leaning misinformation in the American media and information environment.
The most effective way to combat medical misinformation and disinformation is to be just as proactive about promoting factual and truthful information. In an effort to battle misinformation, the U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, issued a 22-page advisory in 2021. The advisory details specific ways the media, health professionals, the public, and even technology platforms can effectively take action. Regarding the media, YouTube has partnered with providers and organizations like the Mayo Clinic, the American Public Health Association, and Mass General Brigham to create evidence-based content and highlight videos from high-quality sources when people search for health subjects using Google.[5,6]
At the grassroots community level, educational outreach must extend to people face-to-face, especially in access-challenged marginalized communities and populations. The best way to see how people live, what information they consume, and what messages are pervasive in their social circles is to go to them directly. Misinformation and disinformation will not end. It is imperative that the energy behind the truth is just as aggressive as the energy behind the falsehoods.
 Tulp, S. (2023, March 8). No, the military hasn’t recorded a 500% increase in HIV cases. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/fact-checking-ap-check-619347436728
 Niburski, K., & Niburski, O. (2020). Impact of Trump's Promotion of Unproven COVID-19 Treatments and Subsequent Internet Trends: Observational Study. Journal of medical Internet research, 22(11), e20044. https://doi.org/10.2196/20044
 Grabmeier, J. (2021, June 2). Conservatives more susceptible to believing falsehoods. Retrieved from https://news.osu.edu/conservatives-more-susceptible-to-believing-falsehoods/
 Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. (2021). Confronting Health Misinformation. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/health-misinformation/index.html
 Landi,H. (2021, July 20). YouTube partners with Mass General on health content amid misinformation backlash. Retrieved from https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/tech/youtube-partners-mass-general-health-content-amid-misinformation-backlash
 Vaidya, A. (2021, January 14). YouTube teams up with providers, healthcare groups to combat health misinformation. Retrieved from https://medcitynews.com/2021/01/youtube-teams-up-with-providers-healthcare-groups-to-combat-health-misinformation/
 Bergengruen, V. (2021, August 26). How 'America's Frontline Doctors' Sold Access to Bogus COVID-19 Treatments—and Left Patients in the Lurch. Retrieved from https://time.com/6092368/americas-frontline-doctors-covid-19-misinformation/
Disclaimer: Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the ADAP Advocacy Association, but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about public health-related issues and updates.
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