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Medical Myths: When Urban Legends Kill

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Seven people — six women and one man — were shot dead last week in Pakistan as they returned home from their work at a community health center. They were only the most recent victims in a series of killings over the past weeks of health workers in that country; in December, nine polio vaccination workers were killed.

What's behind the violence toward health workers? Conspiracy theories, urban legends and rumors have spread throughout the region that those pretending to offer medical help are really trying to harm or kill people.

Medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has studied the effects of rumors about organ theft, says that in many poor areas of the world — such as in the slums surrounding Brazil's major cities — residents sometimes avoid treatment in public hospitals out of fear that their organs may be taken. Myths and urban legends not only keep many from getting vaccines and medical help, but they can also decrease participation in organ donation programs (by those fearing that hospitals may try to kill them for their organs if they donate), Scheper-Hughes said.

Foreign (and especially Western) doctors are often particularly distrusted as potentially harboring dark motives under the guise of medical help, though in poor regions a socioeconomic imbalance often sows distrust between even native doctors and their patients. They may share a common language, but the educated and (relatively) prosperous doctors — with their strange medical jargon and equipment — are often worlds apart from their poor patients visiting public clinics. [The 10 Most Intriguing Conspiracy Theories]

It's not just foreign countries: The link between conspiracy theories and vaccinations appeared in America. Many people believe that childhood MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations are linked to childhood autism, and that the link was covered up by the government and medical establishment. The vaccine-autism link claim was originally made by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in a small 1998 case report. The British General Medical Council found he had acted unethically in his research, and his paper, which was championed by celebrities including Jenny McCarthy, was retracted. The vaccine-autism link has been completely discredited in follow-up studies and research.

Suspicion and fear of vaccination is nothing new; it's been around for centuries. There was strong resistance to the very first vaccine, created for smallpox in the late 1700s. When the public learned that the smallpox vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows and giving it to humans, they were disgusted by the idea; some even believed the vaccination could turn children into cows. In England, anti-vaccination groups formed in 1853, claiming that the smallpox vaccine was ineffective, dangerous and part of a government conspiracy.

In some cases there is a grain of truth to the rumors, a legitimate reason to be suspicious of medical authorities. The upcoming film on the search for Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty," includes a historically accurate depiction of a Pakistani doctor who was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency to give out a hepatitis B vaccine while actually trying to collect DNA samples from bin Laden's suspected compound to verify his presence. Though no children were harmed and the attempt was unsuccessful, it fueled suspicion and caused a backlash against adult and childhood vaccinations in the region.

On Monday (Jan. 7), deans of America's top medical universities, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins, issued a letter to President Barack Obama condemning the CIA's actions as endangering legitimate medical personnel and exacerbating a public health threat.

Muslim clerics have attempted to reassure concerned parents that the vaccinators (mostly women) mean no harm, and in some places the vaccinations have resumed. But the real victims of these xenophobic rumors will likely be the youngest and most vulnerable.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." His website is

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is