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Surprising Science

Top Five Unfounded Health Hysterias

Here is a list of some of the health crises that weren’t—crises that were either completely unfounded or that received an unwarranted amount media attention commensurate to their actual risk.

The leading causes of death in the world are coronary heart disease, strokes, lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diarrhea—in that order. Notice that cell phones, asbestos, killer bees, and the things that tend to get the most media attention are not on that list. As CDC Director Thomas Frieden states in his Big Think interview, we tend to misjudge the actual risk that certain health threats may pose.

Below is a list of some of the recent health crises that weren’t—crises that were either completely unfounded or that received an unwarranted amount media attention commensurate to their actual risk:

1. Autism-causing vaccines – Though it has been thoroughly discredited by science, the fear that vaccines may be linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) persists. The controversy began in 1998, when British researcher Andrew Wakefield published a study claiming that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine caused autism in children, perhaps because of the presence of thimeresol, a compound that contains mercury. Since then, the scientific community has deemed Wakefield a fraud and has thoroughly refuted his argument, yet many parents still refuse to vaccinate their children, leaving them susceptible to avoidable diseases like pertussis. 

2. Fluorinated drinking water – In 1951, the United States began adding the natural compound fluoride to the drinking water in an effort to prevent cavities and tooth decay. As of 2006, 61% of the population was drinking fluorinated water, resulting in an estimated 18-40% drop in cavities. Yet despite 60 years of practice, there are still those who cry conspiracy, believing the program is poisoning America’s precious bodily fluids.

3. Sharks During the summer of 2001, America was racked with fear—not from the real threat that would come crashing into everyone’s living rooms on September 11, but from the shark. Known as the “Summer of the Shark,” those couple months following the shark attack on 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast consisted of nearly constant, sensational media coverage of sharks, despite no evidence in an actual increase in attacks. During that summer, just 5 people were killed by sharks, yet among the three major broadcast news networks, sharks were the third most covered subject. Only after the September 11th attacks killed approximately 3,000 people in one afternoon did the media shift away from the shark.

4. SARS – In 2002 and 2003, the world caught SARS fever, much to the pleasure of the face mask industry. Though indeed more fatal than common influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, proved to be much less of a threat than feared (and hyped by the media). During its spread from Guangdong province in China to over 37 countries, SARS claimed 916 lives, but then, even quicker than it began, the SARS “pandemic” was over. The last non-laboratory case of the disease in humans was seen in 2003.

5. Anthrax – While America was still reeling from the September 11th attacks, a new threat reared its head just one week later—mysterious white powder. The anthrax attacks of 2001, set off a mass hysteria, even more acute than that cause by the unabomber in previous decades, causing people to dread the postal service. By the end of the scare 5 people were dead and 17 others infected, but unless you were a U.S. senator, the probability of receiving one of these fatal envelopes was virtually zero.


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