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Dr Lawrence Brown explains the roots of conspiracy theories that are fueling distrust of medical professionals in the current Ebola outbreak

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

“Defeating the rapid spread of the Ebola virus means addressing Ebola conspiracy beliefs head on. It will require a level of honesty and truth-telling that we have rarely mustered as a nation”, writes our next guest, Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University. Lawrence Brown is assistant professor at the Department of Health Policy and Management at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Thanks for joining us.


PERIES: So, tell us, Lawrence, what did you mean by that? What is the history that Americans have, and what is it that it has to do in terms of tackling the conspiracy theory?

BROWN: Well, first we have to think about medical conspiracy beliefs. And a lot of people don’t like the term conspiracy beliefs, but in our field, in the literature, we think about conspiracy beliefs consisting of those beliefs that many people have that the government is not telling the truth, or perhaps that the government is hiding information as it relates to medication or medical-related interventions.

PERIES: Why is this particularly relevant in the Ebola crisis?

BROWN: Well, it’s really relevant because when we think about public health and we think about medicine, there’s an underlying factor that binds the two together, and that’s trust. Trust is the key factor between a doctor and a patient or the public health and the population that’s being dealt with.

So with Ebola, there are many conspiracy beliefs that are out there generating a lot of fear, perhaps a lot of paranoia. But I do think that these beliefs are often legitimate and founded in historical beliefs that have a lot of relevancy to this issue that we’re dealing with Ebola.

PERIES: So are you saying that people in West Africa know and have this idea that Americans are somehow responsible for infecting their families with Ebola?

BROWN: Right. I do think that there are some West Africans who maintain these beliefs that America is perhaps instilling or planting this virus in the environment to depopulate the African people. But I would like to say that conspiracy beliefs, medical conspiracy beliefs, are very common here in America as well. There’s a recent study released in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association that stated that 49 percent of Americans hold and maintain medical conspiracy beliefs. So this is not something that’s unique to West Africans. It’s actually quite common that people hold these beliefs that the government is somehow involved in some sort of nefarious way.

PERIES: Those are very high numbers.

BROWN: Very high.

PERIES: And this is particular to African Americans, or just in the general public?

BROWN: Well, when you think about it, African Americans are only about 13 percent of the population. So when half of Americans have these beliefs, we’re talking about a significant proportion of races outside of African Americans. So these beliefs range from everything including water fluoridation to the vaccine-autism connection, to HIV conspiracy beliefs, which are most commonly held in the black community. But the vaccine autism connection is common, actually, in the white community and across the socioeconomic scale–middle income and upper middle income folks tend to subscribe to those beliefs as well.

PERIES: And do you think that Americans are actually believing that the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is actually also–somehow the government is responsible for it?

BROWN: Well, I do think that it depends on a people’s history with the government or a people’s history with the organization or the nation that’s coming into play. And so for Americans, if you’ve had the experience of abuse and medical mistreatment, when you think about the Tuskegee experiment or, rather, the United States public health experiment in Tuskegee, Alabama, or you think about the–.

PERIES: Which is–explain it to us.

BROWN: Oh, which is actually an experiment that was conducted by the United States Public Health Service where men, African-American men with syphilis were intentionally not treated for the disease, even though medicine existed for it at the time. And so the government wanted to find out, well, what happens in the course of the disease if we just allow it to run its natural course? And so hundreds of African-American men in that community were left untreated. They spread the disease to their partners. And this was all very intentional. That’s only what happened in the domestic arena. It’s also recently we found out the United States Public Health Service also conducted experiments in Guatemala related to syphilis as well. So both domestically and abroad, the United States has this long history of engaging in public health espionage that I think give rise to a lot of beliefs that we label as conspiracy beliefs.

PERIES: Let’s talk about some of those other examples around the world.

BROWN: Right. Well, there are many examples where the government has not engaged in an ethical manner as it relates to medication or medical or public health conspiracy beliefs or as it relates to those. So, for instance, we have the instance where just last year or earlier this year, the government actually admitted that the State Department’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored a program or a company that went into Cuba and sponsored activities under the guise of HIV education, when really the folks were spying on the Cuban people and trying to foment revolution or rebellion against the Cuban government. A couple of years ago, when the CIA was trying to capture Osama bin Laden, they used a vaccination, hepatitis B vaccination program to really spy on the Pakistani people and conduct DNA testing to try to find out where Osama bin Laden was.

And so these are instances where our government has participated in public health espionage and used–under the guise of public health, spied on people, tried to foment revolution or rebellion, and also conducted experiments where they mistreated populations both abroad and at home.

PERIES: How do you get at where Osama bin Laden is through a DNA?

BROWN: I’m not sure exactly what methodology there were using, but the important thing is that it was under the guise of a vaccine program, a vaccine campaign that they were using. So, ostensibly, the people are there to do something good, we don’t want hepatitis B to be running rampant, so we’re here, we’re here to help you, but it’s actually something else going on. So it’s the nature of–it’s the way that the campaign was used as a cover for an intelligence operation that is very concerning.

Even if you go back a little bit further in American history before this country was founded, the British, in their fight against the Native Americans, they passed along or attempted to pass along blankets infected with smallpox. And so, from the colonial times to the present, if you read Harriet Washington’s book Medical Apartheid, there there are many, many instances of abuse that the government has either condoned or either participated directly in doing. And so these instances of history have a real relevance when we think about Ebola conspiracy beliefs now.

PERIES: So, Lawrence, how do we start to correct this in our path of trying to address the Ebola crisis?

BROWN: Well, that’s the tough thing, because these conspiracy beliefs are rooted in our legitimate history, where people understand that they may not have always been treated in the way that they should have. And so I think it’s really going to take a sort of honesty and an ability to look in the mirror and go forth and tell the American people, and the people of the world, even, here’s what we’ve done and we accept responsibility for it, and we ask your forgiveness, but we must understand that Ebola is a naturally occurring zoonotic disease that emerges from nature.

PERIES: What’s zoonotic?

BROWN: Zoonotic? So, in this case, Ebola exists as a reservoir within animals such as fruit bats or chimpanzees in the continent. And when we think about Africa, one thing to remember is that it is an absolutely huge continent. It can fit America, China, India, and Western Europe inside of it. So we’re talking about tremendous amount of biodiversity, a tremendous amount of environmental and ecological richness. And so it’s quite easy, given that diversity, when you have human beings interacting with the environment, eating wild game, or sometimes it’s just a bite that can happen randomly, that that disease or, in this case, Ebola as a virus, as a reservoir within the fruit bat, can easily cross over and infect the child that was patient zero in this instance, and then you have a transmission from there. And so, understanding that sort of science is very important, but people aren’t likely to believe in that science when they hold these medical conspiracy beliefs.

As a matter of fact, the JAMA article talks about there’s not only a correlation between medical conspiracy beliefs and the lack of public health action that people should take, but there’s also–there’s causation. The analysis showed that people who hold those beliefs are less likely to get their children vaccinated, they’re less likely to make sure that they’re doing the right thing as it relates to taking water that’s fluoridated or whatnot.

And so the things that we want people to do with Ebola: we want them to make sure that the burial custom is maybe temporarily suspended as we control the virus, or we want to make sure that people are conferring with and collaborating with public health workers. They’re not as likely to do that when they don’t trust either their own government that they think is maybe collaborating with the United States government or they don’t trust the United States because they have some inkling of this history that I’ve discussed.

PERIES: That’s going to be a challenge, given the crisis we are trying to manage, also frame a communications strategy along with it. Perhaps we can talk about that in the next segment.

Thank you for joining us, Lawrence.

BROWN: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Lawrence Brown is an activist, global health consultant, and professor at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. He studies the role of racism, masculinity, and disinvested neighborhoods with regard to their impact on health. His research explores the intersection between history and public health.