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.

For example, if our children are not vaccinated against measles, they could get pneumonia (one child out of every 20 children who gets measles), brain swelling called encephalitis (one child out of every 1,000 who gets measles), be left with intellectual disability and even die from the measles virus infection. If our male children are not vaccinated against mumps, they could get testicular disease and sterility from the mumps virus infection. If we’re not vaccinated against the flu and our immune system is weaker from stress or older age, we could die from lung disease due to the flu virus infection, etc…

A recent example is the one of chickenpox/varicella: According to the CDC, in the early 1990s in the USA, an average of 4 million people got the disease, 10,500 to 12,000 were hospitalized and 100 to 150 died each year. Now, thanks to the vaccine which was introduced in 1995, varicella outbreaks declined 78%, varicella hospitalizations declined 83% in 2012 and varicella deaths declined by 87% during 2008 to 2011 as compared to 1990 to 1994.

Another example is measles: In Madagascar where only 58% of the population has had the measles vaccine, more than 900 people have died of measles since October 2018 (World Health Organization numbers).

As for the United States, in mid-November 2018, there was a chickenpox outbreak with 36 new cases of chickenpox in Asheville Waldorf school in NC because a lot of parents refused to vaccinate their children. The same reason is the cause of 22 cases of measles in Washington State, this January 2019.

Believing what we want to believe – modern cancer treatments:

Many people in the USA refuse chemotherapy and surgery to treat cancer. When first diagnosed with cancer, they prefer specific diets and over-the-counter supplements before considering modern therapy. A good example was Steve Jobs, one of the richest and brightest men in the world who, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson, fought a rare form of pancreatic cancer for 9 months with diet and supplements. Nine months later, when his cancer had spread beyond repair, he accepted to have surgery and chemotherapy, but it was too late. Had Steve Jobs had surgery and chemotherapy right away when his cancer was first diagnosed, he might still be alive.

Believing what we want to believe about diet:

A lot of people were raised on sugar-laced breads, cakes, sweets, and sugary drinks. We now know that this kind of high carbohydrate diet causes obesity, diabetes and, ultimately can shorten people’s life. Yet, people still continue to consume high sugary foods and sweetened drinks because this is the diet they and their parents grew up on. They believe that this diet is good for them, that it might kill other people, but not them.

What can we learn from these examples?

It is important to be open to change. With the exponential progress of research, things are changing faster and faster. Some of the things that we knew were true fifty years ago, aren’t true today anymore. For example, we used to say it was okay for normal blood pressure to increase as we get older. We now know that systolic blood pressure needs to remain below 140 and diastolic blood pressure needs to remain below 90 at any age to decrease cardiovascular problems (Mattias Brunström, MD, JAMA Internal Medicine 2018).

So, let’s keep up-to-date with what’s happening in the world and let’s be open to change when life and death are at stake.

What about you?

Is there anything you are doing that has roots in the way you were raised but science has proved detrimental? Are you open to changing your behavior if your health is at stake?