A social media message claiming that salt water can cure or prevent Ebola may have began as an exercise in black humor but went viral causing illness and deaths in West Africa.
As ABC News reported, "A social media hoax has resulted in the deaths of at least two people and sickened dozens more. A message spread throughout Nigeria last month offered bogus advice about preventing the spread of the dread disease: ‘Please ensure that you and your family and all your neighbors bath with hot water and salt before daybreak today because of Ebola virus which is spreading through the air,' the text said in part. The message also urged people to drink as much salt water as possible as protection against catching the deadly virus."
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The idea of using salt as a cure or preventative for Ebola spread over both the Internet and through well-meaning neighbors. Rumors respect no political boundaries and soon spread to other West African countries including Lagos, Nigeria, and Liberia. In an interview with National Public Radio, a woman described how the rumor spread in her home country of Sierra Leone:
"There was this buzz. Everybody was talking. Mothers were calling their grown children up at 1, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning to pray over salt water and then bathe in it. Some were told to drink a little. People were being woken out of a deep sleep to perform this ritual literally in the middle of the night. We were told there were instances of town criers going up and down the streets instructing people to bathe with hot salt water....Babies were being bathed with it, elderly people, everybody. It was not a case of educated and not educated. It was everyone."
Ebola Rumors The original message, said to have begun as a text message sent by a female student in Nigeria, was apparently intended as a joke. However it was only one of many bogus Ebola "cures" or preventatives circulating in rumors and online.
It's not clear whether anyone was expected to take it seriously (if common salt could really prevent Ebola, no one would need the international team of doctors and all their medicines and equipment), but many people did. Telling people to bathe in salt water is harmless, but the panic went further. Drinking too much fresh water can be fatal, and drinking salt water is unhealthy, especially for those who suffer from high blood pressure.
Recognizing the public health threat, health agencies soon initiated their own campaign to debunk the myths. In Nigeria public officials issued statements denouncing rumors that witch doctors have cured Ebola victims. Once a rumor has been started, it's impossible to eliminate; as Mark Twain is said to have written, "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."
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As is often the case, there is a grain of truth to some of the claims. For example though researchers have been furiously working to develop vaccines and treatments for ebola - such as those given to American doctor Kent Brantley in August - the drugs are experimental, have not been approved by the FDA, and are not yet available. The situation gives rise to conspiracy theories in which some people believe that a cure has already been developed in America and is available but is being kept from the sufferers because of racism or as a way to somehow exploit West Africa.
These rumors have many roots, including xenophobia and a general distrust of doctors. For many, the beliefs make perfect sense. Patients around the world avoid going to doctors out of fear of what they might find out, preferring not to know if something is wrong. Others avoid hospitals because, they say, that's where many people get sicker than before they went in.
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Folk remedies such as using salt water are also appealing because they are cheap and something that victims (and potential victims) can do - some tangible way they can take action and assume control over their own health and lives; even if the treatment is unproven or may be just a rumor, at least they're doing something.
This incident is an important reminder about the damage that hoaxes and rumors can cause during a health emergency. When people are dying and desperately afraid of a dread disease like Ebola, any information will be taken seriously by some people. False rumors not only can kill, but they can also provide a false sense of security.
Hopefully people don't intentionally enter dangerous outbreak zones thinking that they have been protected from the virus by drinking or bathing in salt water.