THERE are epidemics. And then there are conspiracy theories about epidemics, which become endemic in themselves.
There has long been a conspiracy theory that HIV is a plot by white people to annihilate black people. This, apparently, is the reason why AIDS is so endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and in other black-majority countries such as the Caribbean islands and Papua New Guinea.
Whoever hatched up this diabolical plan however had to have an acute understanding of the social and cultural milieu in those countries, where sex with multiple partners and where women are treated like chattels are all too common. They had to understand what particular habits are so prevalent en masse as to allow easy viral transmission.
Such racist theories are hard to substantiate when one looks at the global pandemic. What do Chinese farmers forced to sell their blood have to do with African migrant workers or Nepali sex workers in Mumbai? Or with Malay drug users? Once you unpick the true global scenario, conspiracy theories tend to fall apart. Unless one believes in some evil force out to destroy, curiously enough, only the poorest parts of the world while leaving the rich very much hale and hearty.
A Western conspiracy
But nothing sets off new conspiracy theories like new epidemics. In 2007, the Indonesian Minister of Health Siti Fadilah Supari accused the US government of deliberately setting off the bird flu (H5N1) epidemic in order to sell the vaccines to poor countries like Indonesia at an exorbitant cost. As a result, she refused to share all but a handful of bird flu virus samples in the belief that they would be used to develop the expensive vaccines, with no special consideration for the countries where the samples originated from.
Siti Fadilah never explained how she came to this conclusion but even sensational theories need some credibility. As one health blogger put it, “The H5N1 vaccine business represents a tiny fraction of the total revenues of pharmaceutical companies. Deliberately making a virus that could kill over 1 billion people, which is what an H5N1 virus would do if it went pandemic with its current lethality, would be like the US launching all of its nuclear missiles at the cities of the world so that potassium iodide manufacturers could make a higher profit. Ridiculous, just plain ridiculous.”
In 2009, with the new AH1N1 virus, the Indonesian minister has been at it again, suggesting that the deadly virus could have been human-made. “I’m not sure whether the virus was genetically engineered but it’s a possibility,” she told reporters at a press conference called to calm fears about the possible epidemic. Then she added that Indonesia probably did not have to worry that much about AH1N1 because it was a tropical country and the virus “cannot survive long” in such countries.
Where Siti Fadilah, a cardiologist, gets these theories is an ongoing mystery. But the danger of conspiracy theories around epidemics is that they slow down action on precautionary measures. Whatever the virus’s origins, the AH1N1 has been demonstrated to spread from human to human. Therefore, prevention hinges entirely on quick detection of those infected, and public education on how to prevent infection. Like most flus, prevention is not difficult if good hygiene is prioritised.
Stopping the spread
Debating whether these viruses originate from laboratories or not is, in the end, a luxury that health authorities cannot afford. Understanding how these viruses spread and developing vaccines and antidotes are more urgent because they will inform health policies all over the world.
Speed in understanding and in disseminating information is crucial. This is why news about AH1N1 seems to change every day and can be confusing. Is it really dangerous or not? Can one person with it really infect all the other 300 passengers on a plane?
Health authorities have to balance between giving enough information to encourage the public to take preventive measures and ensuring there is no panic.
The world saw what happened when the SARS epidemic occurred. Countries like Singapore felt the pinch when tourism slowed to almost a standstill. In 2003, the city of Kobe, having suffered the devastation of an earthquake a decade earlier, refused to allow the convergence of 3,000-plus AIDS conference delegates there out of fear that they would bring SARS with them.
Yet cancelling a conference on AIDS due to another epidemic is the supreme irony. Nobody is more vulnerable to these new epidemics than people whose immune systems are already compromised, such as those with HIV. And nobody knows more about the dangers of conspiracy theories than people with AIDS.
President Thabo Mbeki surfs websites
of dubious authority
Some years ago, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa came across a website which questioned the premise that HIV caused AIDS. These HIV-deniers, known to picket AIDS conferences and hold hunger strikes, claimed that poverty caused the immuno-suppressing disease. Mbeki believed them and refused to allow antiretroviral treatments for South Africans with HIV, leading to the death of thousands. It took years of advocacy and protests by activists and scientists for the South African government to change its mind.
Epidemics will come and go, and so will conspiracy theories. But research needs to continue to keep up with epidemics. The irony is that you cannot study a disease and an epidemic until it happens. Then you scramble to find the answer. Meanwhile, you rely on prevention and on vaccines you aren’t really sure will work. And if that wasn’t enough, there will also be the outbreak of conspiracy theories to create confusion and barriers in the battle against a virus.
Marina Mahathir doesn’t believe in flu jabs because she is convinced that that’s the best way to get the flu.