Autism ‘myths’ fuelled by the Internet, Halifax health experts say

The negative impact of non-evidence based medical information on the internet is causing concern among scientists and clinicians around the world and in Nova Scotia. Especially those working in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The Internet provides instant access to vast amounts of information but it’s not all accurate; especially when it pertains to medical information.

“People think they’re experts, Dr. Google. I mean how many times have you heard that? This is such a joke,” said Dr. Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University.

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MacDonald also has expertise in vaccinations and knows all about the negative impact “non-evidence based” information has on public health.

“The anti-vaccine sentiment has been around since vaccines were invented 200 years ago. It’s not gone away and it’s been getting louder and louder since we had the Internet,” MacDonald said.

READ MORE: How to convince skeptical parents that vaccines are safe

Misinformation about vaccinations is so wide-spread, the World Health Organization [WHO] issued guidelines to be used as a tool by advocates to effectively diffuse arguments used by “Vocal Vaccine Deniers.”

Dr. MacDonald along with her colleague, Dr. Isabel Smith, are leading workshops aimed at expanding on the WHO guidelines in medical settings.

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Their workshops are aimed at helping clinicians and scientists address other forms of pseudoscience, especially in the area of Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD.]

“Families of kids with ASD, like many other families of kids with chronic diseases, or disorders or conditions, are really vulnerable. They have kids who are complex,” said Dr. Smith, who holds the Joan and Jack Craig Chair in Autism Research and is also a Professor of Pediatrics.

Dr. Smith said the field of autism is full of “misinformation” aimed at parents.

Skepticism that’s been heavily influenced by former British physician Andrew Wakefield, who conducted a study on the link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. The study has since been debunked.

READ MORE: Trump’s support for anti-vaxxers could lead to deadly outbreaks, disease expert warns

“Tons of research money has been spent on very large, very good studies looking at this question and there is simply no association, but because those two words (autism and vaccines) have been linked in the public mind so often, a lot of people still believe it,” Dr. Smith said.

MacDonald encourages people to be skeptical of “simple solutions.”

“When you hear something that sounds better then it should, a simple way to solve a really complex problem, stand back, pause, take a deep breath and say, what’s the science behind this?”

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