Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Ebola Denialism: Conspiracy Theories, Quackery and Terrorism

Ebola denialism

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic disease with a high mortality rate. The natural reservoir for the virus appears to be fruit bats and it spreads via human-to-human transmission by body fluids, but it is not airborne. According to the recent information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total number of suspected and confirmed cases is almost 3100 and it has spread to four countries in West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It did not take long for conspiracy theories, quackery and even terrorism to spread in the wake of this Ebola epidemic. People have accused the government of inventing the epidemic, claimed that Ebola does not even exists, armed terrorists have attacked Ebola clinics and “freed” patients and popular American quack websites have promoted homeopathy for Ebola.

Conspiracy theories about the origin of Ebola

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the natural reservoir for the Ebola virus is fruit bats:

Natural host of Ebola virus

In Africa, fruit bats, particularly species of the genera Hypsignathus monstrosus, Epomops franqueti and Myonycteris torquata, are considered possible natural hosts for Ebola virus. As a result, the geographic distribution of Ebolaviruses may overlap with the range of the fruit bats.

However, some of the locals in Sierra Leon are suspicious, even going so far to claim that the virus does not even exist. An NPR article describes an interview with one of the Ebola denialists:

Opinions are mixed, but there’s a strong dose of Ebola deniers — those who don’t believe the virus exists at all. Zainab Koroma, a street hawker, is adamant it isn’t real.

“I do not believe Ebola exists because none of my family members has been affected by it,” she says. “When you get sick of cholera, they say it is Ebola. When your body temperature rises, they say it is Ebola. So I honestly don’t believe Ebola exists. There could be a lot of other diseases killing people.”

That’s one of the challenges facing Sierra Leone — trying to convince the nation that “Ebola is real, Ebola is here, and Ebola kills,” as one poster reads.

It is common for people to go into denial when horrible events occur. However, this can quickly develop into maladaptive behaviors and outright science denialism and so must steadfastly be resisted. The motivation for denialism differs, but most focus on a conspiracy created by the local government. A Guardian story explains:

The disease has also revealed alarming mistrust between citizens and public office holders in a region with shocking corruption levels.

Ebola was initially viewed as a government conspiracy to depopulate Sierra Leone’s Kailahun district, and fierce resistance to the arrival of health workers culminated in the stoning of a Doctors Without Borders vehicle. In Liberia, many remain adamant the outbreak is a hoax from government officials seeking to distract from a series of recent scandals, or for health officials to rake in public funds.

Some even go so far as to organize armed raids against hospitals caring for Ebola patients and allegedly “freeing” them.

Armed raids against hospitals

As if the epidemic itself and the Ebola denialists were not bad enough, there was recently an armed attack against an Ebola clinic by an angry mob. PBS has the story:

More than a dozen Ebola patients are still unaccounted for after a violent attack on a Liberian Ebola treatment center Saturday, authorities say, raising fears that the virus will find a new stronghold in the country’s largest slum.

Conflicting reports suggested that anywhere from 29 to 37 patients fled an isolation unit in the Liberian capital of Monrovia Saturday night when an angry mob descended upon the facility. But George Williams, the head of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, has confirmed that, however many had initially escaped, authorities are still looking for 17.

The health center was in West Point, a Monrovia township of 50,000. The BBC reports that the attackers might have been angry that the patients came from other parts of the city. Witnesses claim that the mob then looted the facility, stealing medical equipment, food and blood-stained mattresses and sheets.

Apparently, CBS News mentions that some of them were armed, but CNN clarifies that the weapons were not guns.

Even some American commentators have contributed to Ebola denialism by suggesting that it can be successfully treated by homeopathy.

Natural News Promotes Homeopathy for Ebola

The largest website devoted to promoting ineffective quack treatments and attacking science-based medicine is called Natural News. They reject everything from vaccines and GMOs to the connection between HIV and AIDS and even the germ theory of disease. Just when you thought that they could not get any more dangerous and deranged, they published an article about using homeopathy for treating Ebola. Yes, they actually promoted the treatment of a deadly hemorrhagic disease with a high mortality rate with nothing but water.

The article was written by Ken Oftedal, who according to the Natural News biography page, is a Norwegian physicist and homeopath. The article starts by the bare assertion that homeopathy has successfully treated epidemics of polio, scarlet fever, cholera and even the 1918 influenza pandemic. Needless to say, no evidence was provided for these outrageous claims. Oftedal apparently thinks that the symptoms of Ebola resembles the symptoms of snake bites and recommends homeopaths to use dilutions of snake venom or phosphorus to treat Ebola. Again, he does not provide any published scientific evidence for this “treatment”. Even more disturbingly, he recommends that if no improvement is seen in Ebola patients treated with extremely diluted snake venom within 24 hours, they should move on to other homeopathic remedies instead of seeking actual medical treatment. As with any deadly disease, the sooner you get medical treatment, they better are your chances to survive.

In an effort to disable the critical thinking of the reader, he prefaces his most absurd treatment suggestion with emotional manipulation:

You may think the following procedure—developed by the English homeopath Peter Chappell—is a crazy thing to do. But, if you or a loved one is sick with Ebola with the prospect of having one week to live, and no other help is available, you might consider it.

In reality, it would probably be better to use that time to attempt to find actual medical treatment instead of treating someone with a deadly disease with homeopathy. It has a success rate of 0% for Ebola, whereas you stand at least some chance with actual medical treatment.

The procedure for preparing the homeopathic “treatment” given by Oftedal is based on the serial dilution of the disease agent in water. However, some aspects of the procedure constitutes a public health emergency. This is because he is actually recommending that people pour out Ebola samples into the sink, thus contaminating the system. It is also very weird that the stock solution that Oftedal suggests that people make should contain 10% Whiskey or brandy as “a preservative”. What exactly is being preserved? There are no viruses in such a diluted sample, unless something has clinged to the top part of the inside of the bottle. Does 10% drinking alcohol preserve the alleged memory of the water? By what mechanism? A more likely reason is that Ebola patients who drink a lot of 10% alcohol may experience a subjective feeling of relief (or pass out), but of course there is no actual improvement.

There are also a lot of arbitrary steps in the preparation and usage of this homeopathy remedy against Ebola: why stir five times instead of four and so on. Strikingly, there is also a direct admission that the dose of homeopathic remedies does not matter: “Taking all the pills would have the same effect as taking one pill, so you might as well save the rest for another occasion”. If there is no difference between taking 1 or 1000 pills, then there are no difference between taking 1 pill or none at all. The dose is a strong influence on the effect. Trying to defend this by saying that homeopathic pills are cheap does not work: of course sugar pills and water is cheap. But it is also completely ineffective.

It turns out that this article was even to preposterous for Natural News as they retracted it a few days after it was posted. However, the fact that it was even posted goes to show how large the disconnect between Natural News and mainstream medical science really is.

5 responses to “Ebola Denialism: Conspiracy Theories, Quackery and Terrorism

  1. shelldigger September 1, 2014 at 18:39

    Next time I read somehwere “Why don’t we see evolution in action?” I am going to reply “we see de-evolution frequently enough.”

    I don’t know if these kinds of people are uneducated, just plain stupid, or have been eating paint chips…however you dice it, it is a sad fact that many people are just impervious to any sort of education. Homeopathy and gov’t conspiricies ranking right up there with Bigfoot and Chem Trails.

    How the heck does one combat this kind of lunacy? Even when you show them their facts are wrong or distorted, they see it as how it IS a conspiracy and they were right all along!

    • Emil Karlsson September 1, 2014 at 18:56

      To a large extent, I think the existence and spread of this kind of denialism is due to lack of educational and health care infrastructure as well as the influence of religion and superstition. While it is certainly true that a lot of people are impervious to education, a lot of them never get access to any knowledge outside their elders.

  2. shelldigger September 1, 2014 at 21:44

    I am sure that in the Ebola case, yes education or lack of it is a primary cause. Religion and the faulty ways of thinking it tends to enhance obviously have to be a large part as well. I often don’t mean to paint with such a wide brush, but there are just days when the nonsense is so overwhelming. I mean c’mon, a mob invades a hospital to free the people with Ebola? Truth is indeed stranger than fiction and far too often good sense is in short supply.

    Diluted snake venom in your water? Cures Ebola? Where exactly do you go with that? Who exactly believes that AND pays good money to a con man for it?

    I feel a liitle more every day, like building a bunker to hide from the stupid. It is good to see your stuff though, shining the light of common sense into the dark pit that that is the world we live in today. So, thanks for that.

    • Emil Karlsson September 2, 2014 at 10:12

      The struggle against pseudoscience often seems overwhelming, but we have to learn to cherish the small victories: those who decides not to pay money to psychics, those who go for chemotherapy over apricot seeds and so on after reading skeptical content.

  3. Pingback: Homeopathy for Ebola: The Quackery That Knows No Limits | Debunking Denialism

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