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Bogus health scares on Internet become increasingly common

CDC and other Web sites refute allegations circulated on the Internet

CNN's Rhonda Rowland looks at the response to health rumors
Windows Media 28K 80K

April 8, 1999
Web posted at: 9:24 a.m. EDT (1324 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland

(CNN) -- Have you heard about the cancer-causing shampoo? Or the epidemic of multiple sclerosis and lupus caused by artificial sweetener? Or the kidney thieves who remove organs from people who get drunk at parties?

None of these stories are true. But all of these fictitious health threats have been spread over the Internet and through e-mail.

"Bad rumors about the danger of consumer products are getting increasingly commonplace, largely because it's so easy to execute," says Eric Dezenhall, a corporate crisis management consultant. "The Internet is anonymous."

These rumors are often taken quite seriously. An e-mail claiming that HIV-infected needles were being found in telephone coin returns and movie theaters generated so many inquiries to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the CDC discredited the story on its own Web site.

"We have investigated the information, and we know it is not credible information. And I think that's important for people to know," says Dr. Helene Gayle of the CDC.

While some of these health scares seem far-fetched, Dezenhall says that "other times, you have an allegation that is so resonant that it's very, very hard to ignore."

Take, for instance, the allegation that tampons contain dioxin and asbestos. Procter & Gamble is getting between 200 and 500 e-mails a month from concerned consumers.

"I think it needlessly scares women about a product they trusted for many years," said Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Eliane Plummer. "In that respect, I think it's very detrimental."

At the same time, however, the Internet can be a useful source of health information. So how does a consumer separate useful information from bogus rumor?

Experts say they should look at the source of the report and be skeptical if it is anonymous or posted by an unknown or ambiguous organization. People who still aren't sure should ask their doctor.

Health trumps money for Web users
October 29, 1998
On the Net: Medical sites are just what the doctor ordered
October 7, 1996
Medical misinformation on the information superhighway
August 30, 1995

Centers for Disease Control
Procter & Gamble
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