disease narratives

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Outbreak Deja Vu: Rumor, Conspiracies, Folklore Link Disease Narratives

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

By Jon D. Lee
Guest Contributor

Nearly five years ago, during the peak of the H1N1 — swine flu — pandemic, a joke appeared on the Internet based on the nursery rhyme “This Little Piggy.”

The joke (clearly for public health insiders) was intended to comment on the similarities between swine flu and avian flu, and it concluded this way:

And this little piggy went “cough, sneeze” and the whole world’s media went mad over the imminent destruction of the human race, and every journalist found out that they didn’t have to do too much work if they just did “Find ‘bird’, replace with ‘swine’” on all their saved articles from a year ago, er, all the way home.

The punch line makes an important point about the recycling of stories. But for all of its insight into this phenomenon, the joke doesn’t end up taking the lesson far enough.

Because it’s not just the media that recycles stories — it’s all of us.

In “An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease,” I conducted an extensive study of the narratives — the rumors, legends, conspiracy theories, bits of gossip, etc. — that circulated during the H1N1, SARS and AIDS pandemics.

The results showed that all three pandemics were rife with rumors that, though created decades apart, had striking similarities. Every disease had a story claiming a government conspiracy or cover-up. Every disease had a list of surefire cures and treatments “they” don’t want you to know about. Every disease had false and inaccurate stories about where it had spread to and who was infected. Continue reading