When believing what we want to believe has life or death consequences


Believing what want to believe can have life or death consequences.  We will take 4 examples: Ebola virus infection, vaccinations, cancer treatments, and diet.


Some people believe what they want to believe – Ebola virus infection:


There are still people in Africa, especially in Congo, Guinea and Sierra Leone who think that the WHO (World Health Organization), Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders—where I used to work– are spreading the Ebola virus instead of protecting against it.  The medical teams who are collecting dead bodies to safely bury them are attacked by locals who cannot comprehend why a dead body could be a threat.  The medical vehicles are stoned and even stolen.


Some locals even think that foreign health care workers invented Ebola to lure Africans to clinics to harvest their organs.


And some medical teams coming to vaccinate all the people who were in contact with Ebola patients are being stoned.


What some Africans believe is that the family needs to wash the body of a dead person and touch it or kiss it to honor it before burying it. This is a deeply rooted tradition, a religious ritual that allows the dead person’s spirit to properly transition into the afterlife.  If this transition isn’t properly done, locals believe that bad things could happen to the rest of the family.  So, relatives will wash without gloves sweat, urine, vomit, and diarrhea that covers the person’s dead body even though those bodily fluids are full of highly contagious and deadly Ebola virus.


As for hospitals, most uneducated people see their loved ones entering a hospital alive, being quarantined there and coming out of the hospital dead.  Not understanding the gravity of the Ebola outbreak, families take their loved ones out of quarantine, take care of them at home while occasionally bringing them to a religious gathering, contaminating everybody coming into contact with the sick person.


Believing what they want to believe has cost a lot of African people their life and the life of their children.  The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak had a total of 28,652 sick people among those 11,324 people died in Africa.  In 2019, Ebola virus infection is still a problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the latest outbreak is in the Eastern part of the country in armed conflict zones and where medical teams are being attacked by locals.


This is an example of how real news (Ebola virus’ deadly outbreak is real and medical teams are there to protect against the spread of the virus) is still being interpreted by locals as “fake news”.


We might think that this kind of real medical news being interpreted as “fake news” only happens in underdeveloped countries like parts of Africa.


It doesn’t.


Here in the USA, faced with health threats, we have more in common with African people who live in underdeveloped countries than we think we do. Here in our developed world full of highly educated people, some also believe what they want to believe and that can also cost them their life or the life of their children.


Here are three examples:  vaccinations, modern cancer treatments, and diets.


Believing what we want to believe – vaccinations:


Thinking that vaccinations are detrimental for the body rather than protective is a belief that exists in developed countries.  Over 1% of parents in the USA will not vaccinate their children because they believe that vaccination could cause autism.  In reality, Taylor and colleagues from the University of Sydney published in the journal Vaccine in 2014 the result of their meta-analysis: “There was no relationship between vaccination and autism”.  A recent study done in Denmark on Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine for 657 000 children was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine this March 2019 and confirms that there is no increased risk of autism due to MMR vaccine.  In contrast, there are a lot of risks for our children if they are not vaccinated.


Originally Published on Psychology Today

© Dr. Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD

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