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The craziest disease conspiracy theories.
April 24, 2018
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If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, you call the Ghostbusters . If there’s a weird disease, and you don’t feel good, conspiracy theorists call it a secret plot. They blame sinister social groups, companies with no compassion, and pesky EPA inspectors. Flus become ruses, and plagues become planned coups. When these often-confusing bombshells implode under scrutiny, the refuted revelations refuse to detonate. Instead,
conspiracy theorists demand dent-proof disproof from disbelievers and place unshakable faith in their own holey stories.
Skepticism-driven faith sounds sillier than a singing mime. But such irrationality may serve a practical purpose. Psychological research suggests conspiracy theorists cling to cockamamie claims to reduce the stress of uncertainty, cope with uncontrollable circumstances, and “maintain a positive image of the self and the in-group.” These people aren’t nitwits but knitters who create complex narratives to prevent their worldviews from unraveling. If an outbreak of an illness threatens to break their peace of mind, ill logic dictates that conspiracy theorists treat it with yarn needles. Below are some of their most pathological patterns.
Got your scapegoat
Sickness stinks. Per Popular Science , monkeys called mandrills sniff each other’s poo for parasites, and any mandrill whose poo smells polluted is excluded from grooming. Humans don’t do doo-sniffing, but they sometimes do crappy things to combat pathogens. As
cognitive science researchers elaborated in a 2016 paper, some scientists believe “parasite stress” shapes societies. Social groups fear foreign germs because a community could lack immunity to them. When an ugly infection surfaces, prejudice rears its ugly head. Minorities become major scapegoats, alien groups get alienated, and paranoid people devolve into maniacal mandrills.
If parasite stress stokes social strife, the Black Death may be the sickest instigator ever. It was a first for recorded history, according to author John Kelly . The plague savaged medieval Europe like a bubonic barbarian. Fever and organ failure ran rampant. Over a four-year span in the 14th century, 25 million people perished, a figure proportional to “almost 2 billion lives” in 2005. Faced with an unprecedented pestilence, Christians lost faith in humanity. Many concluded that Jews colluded to kill Christendom. Anti-Semitic sentiments spread like, well, a plague. Authorities jailed Jews and coerced them into corroborating conspiracy claims. Fordham University’s Jewish History Sourcebook detailed the ordeal of a Genevan Jew named Agimet. In 1348 he underwent imprisonment and intermittent torture until he falsely admitted to poisoning communal water repositories at a rabbi’s behest. Such injustices served as justifications to massacre Jews by the thousands “in at least two hundred towns and hamlets.”
The CI-AIDS pandemic
In 2003 physician and New York Times contributor Lawrence Altman called AIDS “the worst pandemic since the plague of the 14th century.” Altman also argued that “No one knows when or where the next plague will occur, or whether it will be from a natural or bioterrorist attack.” Some would say the same of AIDS.
While most scientists say AIDS was transmitted from monkeys to mankind in the 1930s, Time noted that many conspiracy theorists consider it an immune system assassin engineered by the CIA. For decades they’ve claimed the agency aimed to exterminate gays and black people. The list of accusers isn’t a who’s who of WHO officials, but it includes Nobel Prize-winning ecologist Wangari Maathai and former South African president Thabo Mbeki.
Maybe a mandrill infected a man’s “drill” with AIDS, but The Man is easier to vilify. America’s history of hideous discrimination against blacks and homosexuals has fostered distrust toward the government, and the AIDS pandemic’s demographics haven’t exactly allayed laymen’s suspicions. In 2005 the Washington Post
reported results from a survey of 500 African-Americans, a social group severely impacted by AIDS. More than half believed the CIA “created and spread” HIV.
Some experts say the central issue is intelligence. Per the BBC, U.S. military researchers asserted that Soviet spies drummed up the AIDS hubbub via fake news stories during the 1980s. Supposedly, solid evidence supports this conspiracy theory, but you’ll have to take the government’s word for it.
Chain reactionaries
A government’s word is its bond, so naturally Uncle Sam has made numerous statements about bondage. During the mid-1800s the states weren’t united on the issue of slavery, and hostile discourse caused opposing sides to diss and curse each other. Per the book Panic in Washington , the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act infuriated anti-slavery activists because it actively allowed slavery in new Western territories. However, abolitionists’ activeness didn’t stop voters from electing James Buchanan as president in 1856.
Buchanan animated enormous animus during a deeply divisive election. According to the U.S. House of Representatives, people regarded him as a “northern man with southern principles,” and he held slavery in high regard. So when he held his inaugural celebration at the National Hotel, tensions ran high. Before long, Buchanan had the runs. An unfamiliar illness –- which modern doctors diagnosed as dysentery –- introduced itself to the celebrants. Up to three dozen people died in the following months, including one of Buchanan’s nephews and a pro-slavery ex-governor.
The sickness struck twice at the National Hotel, and the president was present both times. Hundreds of politicians, many of them Southerners, were infected. As the American press and public ruminated over possible explanations, rumors circulated. People began to suspect that abolitionists had set out to poison the president and other slavery proponents. Newspapers nurtured paranoia with unsubstantiated suggestions. But the unsettling thoughts settled down when experts deduced the disease was induced by the hotel’s sanitation system spewing sewage fumes.
A fit of coffin
As we’ve previously pointed out, history is pathologically repetitive. As its story evolves it revolves, circling back to prior plot points. If the plot involves a political conspiracy theory, concerned parties get especially wary. Consequently, when an unknown ailment assailed attendees at a hotel gathering in 1976, partiers panicked like it was 1856.
Unlike the 1856 sickness, the 1976 illness didn’t involve a president from Pennsylvania at a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead the events played out in Pennsylvania at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. As an American Legion convention convened, an inconvenient outbreak intervened. People were gripped by “intense, flu-like symptoms,” per the Washington Post . They grappled with “wracking coughs, painful chills, and fevers as high as 107 degrees.” In severe instances lungs filled with bloody, bubbly fluid. Oxygen-restricted, the stricken individuals suffocated to death.
Because the ailment largely affected the Legionnaires, people dubbed it “Legionnaire’s disease.” At the time no one had a clue what caused it, and according to Time , people were terrified. The friends of one fallen Legionnaire chose not to attend his funeral in case his corpse still contained the contagion.
Unable to grasp the illness, scientists began grasping at straws. Some suspected that a crazy guy attacked the convention. A representative of the Veterans of Foreign Wards weighed in as well, alleging a “left-wing” war on military veterans. Eventually the event was traced to the hotel’s air conditioning system, which had become a bacteria incubator.
The revolutionary wariness
Everyone remembers the Revolutionary War for its anti-tea mentality and that turncoat whose name resembles
runny eggs on English muffins . However, smallpox was a huge worry. Public Radio International explained that the virus severely taxed the Continental Army’s health. Inoculation existed, but American colonists resisted it.
According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, two attempts to introduce inoculation to Virginia in the late 1760s ignited fierce protest. Fiery rioters burned down a doctor’s house.
Part of the problem was inoculation wasn’t completely innocuous. The process entailed giving someone smallpox so they could fight it off. If done improperly, it could propagate the pox. Moreover, the British had intentionally infected Native Americans with smallpox-tainted blankets in the past. So when smallpox obliterated colonial soldiers in Canada during battles with Brits in 1776, colonists chalked it up to English chicanery. According to one witness, “The small pox was sent out of [Quebec] by Carleton, inoculating the poor people at government [expense] for the purpose of giving it to our army.”
Thomas Jefferson investigated the incident as part of a committee. Thankfully, he was an independent thinker. The Founding Father found it self-evident that inoculation saved lives and happily pursued the practice as president. Jefferson also welcomed the advent of cowpox-based smallpox vaccination and facilitated hundreds of immunizations. George Washington, who initially opposed inoculation, did an about-face after the Canada outbreak. He adamantly advocated inoculating troops, which in turn helped the forces of good health defeat Tea-ville.
SARS wars
When a virus goes global, every nation has a dog in the fight. Those dogs must bark in unison or risk biting the dust. However, rabid canines can compound the problem by howling unsubstantiated statements or unleashing misinformation. During the 2003 SARS epidemic these tricks bred unrest.
As CNN contributor Kevin Voigt recalled , severe acute respiratory syndrome suffocated social customs in China. Despite its manageable mortality rate, the novel pneumonia couldn’t be written off because experts knew too little about it. In Hong Kong, handshakes made people tremble and medical masks became a commonplace face accessory. Per the Washington Post , in 2004 civet cats –- a delicacy in Guandong province –- went from doggie bags to body bags when the government had them drowned over SARS concerns.
Before the cat drownings began, authorities sought to water down SARS fears with phony statistics. As SF Gate detailed , the state media misstated that Beijing had 44 cases of SARS and four deaths. After getting caught by netizens, officials updated the figures to 339 cases and 67 deaths.
Internet sleuths were joined by a slew of conspiracy theorists. After a pair of Russian medical experts suggested scientists assembled SARS from several viruses, Chinese truthers accused America of spreading it to divert attention from its recently waged war in Iraq.
Per Reuters , Taiwan’s national security director declared that China created SARS as a bioweapon. But China and Taiwan’s strained political relationship may have led him to bark up the wrong tree.
The ticking Lyme bomb
Physicians have known about Lyme disease since the 1970s, and know-it-alls have studied it ever since. Yet nobody seems to know much about it. Per National Geographic, doctors have linked the ailment to
meningitis, encephalitis, cranial neuritis, arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue, cardiac difficulties, cognitive problems, coughing, sore throat, and irritable bowel syndrome. Infectious disease expert Gary Wormser criticized physicians for making seemingly uncritical diagnoses, remarking, “If I can’t figure out what you have, it must be Lyme disease.”
The inability to delineate Lyme is makes it difficult to pinpoint when people first encountered it. Some scientists posit that
Ötzi the millennia-old iceman had the illness. Others assert that the sickness surfaced during the 1880s or the Great Depression. Unsurprisingly, the uncertainty has inspired speculation. In trying to explain the emergence of Lyme, conspiracy theorists point to the outbreak for which the disease was named.
In 1975, 39 children in Lyme, Connecticut, contracted arthritis attributed to bacteria-toting ticks. What stood out about the incident was the highly guarded government building that stood 8 miles away. Located on Long Island, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center had an “official mandate” to research agricultural bioterrorism. The facility’s proximity led a contingent of tinfoil hatters, including former Minnesota Governor Jessie the body-slammer Ventura, to deem Lyme disease a result of military testing on ticks. Lawyer Bill Carroll wrote a whole book about it, though he told CBS he had no science cred. Predictably, real scientists were incredulous.
Hoax us pocus
Ebola is a malignant Whack-A-Mole. It throws people’s health out of whack, hammering them with horrific symptoms before it dies down and then randomly resurfaces. When it first caught scientists’ attention in 1976, 75 percent of people who caught Ebola tended to hemorrhage blood, according to Dr. Anita McElroy . Sufferers also contend with fever, abdominal pain, and sometimes a feverish, hard-to-stomach xenophobia.
Per NPR , Liberia can’t liberate itself from Ebola because the virus takes breaks between outbreaks. It lies waiting inside human hosts, letting them think they’ve recovered. After a year or so it stops lying and shows its true colors: a bloodthirsty red that pops up out of the blue. However, NPR noted that numerous Liberians believe Ebola is a lie peddled by the government to gain foreign aid.
It seems incredible that people wouldn’t believe in a disorder that doesn’t truly leave. But war has left Liberia in a state of unbelievable disorder. The healthcare system was crippled, leaving few physicians. Some of the remaining docs died of Ebola. As a result, citizens associate hospitals with hopelessness, not healing. Largely devoid of physicians, Liberia suffers from what political scientist Brendan Nyhan described as “an information void.”
That void has incited ill-informed decisions. In 2018
Newsweek reported angry raiders ransacked an Ebola treatment center in Monrovia after a mentally ill woman claimed she helped the hospital perpetrate a hoax. Quarantined Ebola patients broke free, and raiders stole contaminated equipment. Sadly, disbelief is unbelievably dangerous.
Believe it or naught
When it comes to conspiracy theories, conclusive evidence often proves hard to uncover. That’s unsurprising, since conspiracies theoretically come with cover-ups. The upshot is that countervailing evidence gets shot down like a fighter pilot. The truth could leap from the trenches of a fact battle, rip off its trenchcoat, and bare its essentials to the world. But if it essentially disproves the conspiracy theory, a truther will call it fiction. That certainly proved true for cancer.
Even hardcore disease-deniers know cancer is the real deal, but cynics like to focus on a raw deal cancer sufferers allegedly deal with. Cancer researcher Cath Ennis has had to deal with the accusers. Writing for The Guardian, she recalled an enraged guy railing, “all you scientists are sitting on a 100 percent effective cure for cancer.” The mad man’s rant represented the common misconception that cancer has “natural,” low-cost cures but a worldwide corporate cabal conceals them to sell cancer drugs.
As Ennis argued, this theory implausibly assumes that (1) unfathomably powerful money-grubbers couldn’t grub more money with a cancer cure and (2) money-grubbers who die of cancer are just super committed to keeping their secret. The Guardian ‘s David Grimes put that craziness in perspective . Belief in forbidden hidden cures might make cancer appear more manageable. The notion of big brains teaming up with Big Pharma to crush the little guy leaves a little hope that the little guy could crush a big illness.
Read it and leap
Foreign film buffs and insult enthusiasts may have read the term “paparazzi” comes from the 1960 Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita. It alludes to the character Paparazzo, an obnoxious photographer whose name came from “a pejorative term for a very large mosquito,”
per The Guardian. Interestingly, mosquitoes spread the Zika virus, which causes microcephaly in infants. The BBC explained “Zika” means “overgrown” and refers to the Ugandan forest where the virus was first discovered in 1947. So if you ignore chronology and geography, you could follow the clues to see Fellini covertly revealed that obese photographers invented Zika.
Now take a breath. The previous paragraph was a mental tragedy. Sadly, similar logic underlies a widely circulated Zika conspiracy theory. In 2016 The New Yorker reported that a popular Reddit post suggested British biotech firm Oxitec developed Zika in a lab. Oxitec, it turns out, genetically modifies mosquitoes for humanity’s benefit. In 2012 it operated in Brazil, which became the epicenter of a Zika epidemic four years later. Because Zika is found in a mosquito species that also carries dengue fever, the redditor reasoned Oxitec designed Zika to destroy dengue but the project backfired and Zika spread like wildfire.
The redditor’s reasoning was solid as Swiss cheese and overlooked the fact that Oxitec was founded 55 years after scientists discovered Zika. But more than a third of Americans polled by the University of Pennsylvania accepted the incorrect narrative. Because who doesn’t enjoy a tragic tale of human hubris?

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