In the absence of credible, strong political leadership, paranoia about disease can go viral. We've seen this happen around the world with a wide range of illnesses, from swine flu to SARS to Ebola.
And even after threats are addressed, a new form of conspiratorial thinking often emerges, this time focused not on the microbes but on the tools used to keep the germs at bay — especially vaccines.
Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations has been collecting data and publishing weekly updates to an interactive map of vaccine-preventable diseases, and the map is now robust, dense with six years of data. One terrible truth stands out: Misinformation and rumors from just one persuasive voice, delivered effectively, can derail entire immunization campaigns and persuade millions of parents to shun vaccinations for their children.
In 2007, Maulana Fazlullah, who currently heads the Pakistani Taliban, went on Pakistani radio and denounced vaccinations as a conspiracy of Western nations to render Muslims infertile. A few years before that, a handful of political and religious leaders in Nigeria advocated the boycotting of polio vaccinations, claiming the products were contaminated with sterilization agents, HIV or cancer. In both cases, the misinformation resonated with parents.