Most Americans now use the Internet to find health information, and thanks to the Web, important medical information can now spread at the speed of light. Of course, that means misinformation can spread just as fast, which is causing preventable deaths all over the world.
With warmer weather heating up the Southern United States, officials have been able to quickly spread helpful information on avoiding the Zika virus in areas likely to be affected by the mosquito-borne disease. On the other hand, countless Americans now believe that vaccines can cause autism and other health problems, a dangerous conspiracy theory that’s led to several disease outbreaks in the past several years.
And in China, the world’s largest country is investigating the death of 21-year-old college student Wei Zexi, who died from a rare form of cancer in April. According to Reuters, Chinese Internet regulators are investigating Baidu Inc. for providing false medical information.
Baidu is a Chinese search engine used by about 600 million people, and before his death, Wei claimed that Baidu led him to dangerously wrong information about cancer treatments.
“Wei’s family says they trusted the treatment because it was promoted by one of the military hospitals which are considered credible, and the attending doctor had appeared on many mainstream media platforms,” reported one state radio station.
The case may have limited implications for western Internet users, but it’s one of the most high-profile examples of the dangers of phony medical information online. In addition to misleading conspiracy theories and factually wrong medical information, it’s also becoming easier to purchase counterfeit prescription medications online, which are often advertised on the Internet.
Regulators and public health officials face an uphill battle. Today, 3 billion people use the Internet. Here in the United States, mobile search advertising is projected to reach $18 billion this year, while there are 645 million local webpage views a week. The sheer volume of Internet traffic poses a major obstacle for would-be regulators, but that’s not the only problem.
Recently, hackers have been taking control of university websites to peddle counterfeit drugs, often advertised as cheaper-but-legitimate forms of popular prescription medications. Hackers take control of neglected university websites to advertise, and every year the World Health Organization says that 1 million people die from counterfeit drug treatments.
“Poorer people were being the ones who were the victims,” said Laurence Huntley, Vice President of Global Growth at Sproxil, a brand protection firm. “So if they got cheap and fake drugs, they either did not get better or in some instances they were being poisoned.”