How Do We Hold the Internet Accountable?

Want to find misinformation about vaccines and bad medical advice for free? The Internet stands ready to fulfill your wishes. The Internet has both democratized information and paved the road for snake oil salesmen and their bag of trickeries. Even my children understand that they shouldn’t automatically believe what they see on the Internet. But what do we do when rumors spread on the Internet become ubiquitous and end up harming people?

I ask this question because I’d like some recourse for the children made sick because of the Internet rumors about vaccines. The problem, of course, is that it is hard to connect a parent reading something on the Internet directly to their children being harmed.

I do wonder about a particular un-immunized six-year-old boy from Ontario who stepped on a nail and is now suffering from tetanus. According to one article, “The boy’s family didn’t seek medical attention as quickly as they could have, and it’s believed the toxin has spread through the child’s body.” The pain this boy must be going through is unimaginable–muscles locked so tight he is probably unable to move, swallow, or do anything.

In a world without the anti-vaccine movement, we might assume these parents were neglectful. But the Internet has paved the road for huckster who are pulling up their wagons and fabricating medical advise from places where the sun don’t shine. In a world where falsehoods are spread on the Internet, I think the safest assumption is that these parents wanted to keep their children safe, but they were made afraid of the best way of doing so and given terrible advice about the real dangers of tetanus.

What do these self-proclaimed medical experts of the Internet have to say about tetanus and the vaccine?

The Healthy Home Economist (a blog by a stay-at-home mother named Sarah Pope) asserts that the tetanus vaccines contain frightening ingredients (thimerosal! formaldehyde!) that caused her neuralgia in college (even though she does not assert that her doctor made that connection) as well as other people’s cancer, “neurological problems, kidney failures, and so forth. Who would want to give parents a shot that would wreak all that havoc? None of it is true, but once the myth is given to a vulnerable parents, overcoming that scare tactic is a monumental task.

The Guggie Daily (a blog written by a stay-at-home mother named Jessica Harkins), explains to her fans who are worried about tetanus:

“What are ways you can immediately protect your child? Proper wound care. That’s it. Seems ridiculously simple doesn’t it? Looking for adequate blood flow, cleansing the wound, applying an antiseptic and keeping the wound clean are basic steps to preventing ANY disease, including Tetanus.”

This misunderstanding of preventing tetanus seems common in the anti-vaccine mommy blogging world. Just let the wound bleed, and natural will take its course. That said, tetanus is natural–it’s from the part of nature that is trying to kill us.

The Modern Alternative Mama blog (written by a stay-at-home mother [are you seeing a trend?] named Katie Tietje) states that tetanus is simple to take care of, if you have the right crunchy supplies on hand:

“Hydrogen peroxide contains oxygen, and can kill any tetanus bacteria on contact.  Wounds should be allowed to bleed freely, also, which helps them to clean out any bacteria.  Dressings should be changed as needed, and items like manuka honey or hazelwood (I’ve only just heard of this and know very little about it) or bentonite clay may be used to help clean any wound that looks like it may be getting infected.”

After reading the exhortations about how easy it is to prevent and kill tetanus, a parent could be lulled into complacency about tetanus, dousing their children in honey and hydrogen peroxide as the (actual) tetanus toxin spread through a child’s body. Following this advice, not only is a child left vulnerable to an illness with a 10-20% death rate, but this child’s potential medical treatment is delayed.

In the meantime, bloggers get to make up their own facts from whole cloth and sell them to those whom they’ve frightened away from doctors. But what of the children who are harmed by this misinformation? What is their recourse? Who will stand up for them?

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