Education, Infectious Diseases

Infectious Diseases Conspiracy Theories: How to Fight Them?

Author Chandana Balasubramanian , 05-May-2023

Infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics are a hotbed of conspiracy theories; the COVID pandemic is no exception. The threat of getting sick or dying, the fear of uncertainty, misinformation, and mistrust in vaccines or treatment methods are all factors that play a role in spreading infectious diseases conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, just like a highly contagious virus, the faster a conspiracy theory spreads and infects a community, the harder it is to correct or eliminate it. 


Let’s explore the psychology of infectious diseases conspiracy theories, how they start, and review a few infamous conspiracies and their impact on public health.  We will also look at vaccine hesitancy, the impact of social media, and ways to combat misinformation.


What is a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory is a belief that a group of people or an organization are responsible for an event (usually adverse). Conspiracy theories differ from actual events with secret plots because they thrive even in the face of evidence against them. For example, ‘flat earthers’ continue to believe that the earth is flat despite all the images, videos, and science behind the earth being a globe.

According to Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, authors of ‘The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,’ conspiracy theories:

  • are not the same as healthy skepticism
  • can be characterized by ‘hyperskepticism,’ a tendency to ignore all evidence that does not fit a theory
  • over-interpret ideas and evidence that fit the theory [1].



The psychology of infectious diseases conspiracy theories
People forget facts, but they remember stories, – Joseph Campbell


Fighting against the tidal wave of conspiracy theories needs an understanding of the psychology of conspiracy theories. Armed with this knowledge, healthcare professionals and public health officials can develop effective communication strategies and interventions aimed at dispelling misinformation. Ideally, experts could anticipate issues ahead of time and create programs to prevent conspiracy theories from being born in the first place.

According to experts, Several factors contribute to the development and spread of conspiracy theories surrounding infectious diseases like COVID-19:

  • Fear and uncertainty: Infectious disease outbreaks often create fear due to their unpredictable nature. This fear can lead to a sense of dread and helplessness. These unpleasant emotions can lead people to search for explanations or scapegoats, which might result in embracing conspiracy theories
  • Cognitive biases: As humans, we are all prone to cognitive biases that make us susceptible to believing in conspiracies. For example, people tend to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs while ignoring contradictory evidence
  • Distrust in institutions: A lack of trust in government agencies or pharmaceutical companies may fuel belief in alternative narratives about disease origins or treatments [1]


Additionally, a scientific report published in Nature explores the close relationship between paranoia and conspiracies. The authors found that more paranoid people endorsed more conspiracies and assumed that members of their social networks shared the same beliefs. And this faith in a “shared belief” protects paranoid individuals from feeling distressed. After all, in the face of contradictory evidence, they can continue to trust their original theory if they feel they are not alone in this belief [5].

To counter these influences, healthcare professionals must understand how they impact public perception so they can address concerns effectively by providing accurate information based on scientific evidence.


The role of social media in spreading misinformation

Conspiracy theories have always existed, but with global social media platforms, misinformation can race across the globe in a matter of seconds. As seen during the COVID pandemic, social media platforms played a strong role in sharing both accurate and false information. Unfounded conspiracy theories about COVID vaccines ran rampant, and combating them proved extremely difficult.

One conspiracy theory was that governments put microchips in COVID vaccines, and that’s why they were encouraging people to get vaccinated. Now, there are no microchips in COVID vaccines nor any evidence to prove it, but the theory continued to gather steam [2]. Another theory that went viral was that the COVID vaccines made people magnetic, particularly at the site of the vaccination (arm). Some people who received COVID shots posted videos of coins reportedly ‘sticking’ to their arms (vaccine site) because of the magnetic pull from the vaccine. Again, the facts proved otherwise, but many people continued to believe in the theory [2].

Research indicates that untrue news propagates faster and spreads wider than factual stories on social media, making it difficult for public health experts to counter these narratives. 

One study published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal found that false information about COVID-19 was more likely to be shared by users who were less knowledgeable about the virus [3]. This highlights the importance of promoting accurate, evidence-based information through trusted sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) [4].

However, even before social media existed, conspiracy theories wreaked havoc on public health. Here’s a look at some notable historical conspiracy theories about infectious diseases.

Key Takeaway:

Understanding the psychology behind infectious diseases conspiracy theories is crucial for healthcare professionals to develop effective communication strategies and interventions. Factors contributing to their emergence include cognitive biases, fear and uncertainty, and distrust in institutions. Social media plays a significant role in spreading misinformation, making it challenging for public health officials to combat these narratives.

Famous infectious diseases conspiracy theories in history

To understand the root of infectious diseases conspiracy theories, it is important to recognize the role that past events have contributed to a collective mistrust in medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, and healthcare systems. Healthcare providers must be mindful when addressing concerns related specifically to anti-vaccine sentiments while also recognizing broader issues fueling vaccine hesitancy within certain populations.

Nigeria’s 1996 drug trial controversy

In 1996, Nigeria experienced a terrible meningitis epidemic. With over 100,000 cases and 11,000 deaths, it was the largest meningitis epidemic in the country’s history. In an attempt to lower the infection rate, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer tested a new drug on infected individuals. However, while the US FDA had authorized the drug only for adults, Pfizer administered the drug to over 200 children in Nigeria without informed consent. What’s even more horrifying is that the drug trials continued on infected children even when it was clear that there was no improvement. The drug had severe side effects in many children, including paralysis, blindness, hearing and speech issues, and even death.

Image: Nigeria meningococcal infection cases 1965 to 2013. Copyright © 1994 - 2023 GIDEON Informatics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Image: Nigeria meningococcal infection cases 1965 to 2013. Copyright © 1994 – 2023 GIDEON Informatics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Unethical behavior by drug companies, like in the 1996 Nigerian drug trial controversy, casts a cloud on actual therapies and vaccines that save lives [6]. This incident has left lasting skepticism among some Nigerians regarding medical research and vaccinations.

Tuskegee syphilis study and its impact on black communities

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972) was conducted by the United States Public Health Service to study the effects of untreated syphilis on humans [7]. The study was later found to be unethical because the researchers did not get informed consent from their participants. Instead, trial participants were told they were being treated for”bad blood.” To make matters worse, they withheld treatment from their study participants even when penicillin was widely available [8].

The experiment was conducted on over 600 African-American men, 399 of whom were diagnosed with syphilis. This unethical experiment has had long-lasting effects on trust in medical institutions among Black communities, contributing significantly to vaccine hesitancy today [7,9].

Both historical incidents serve as reminders of how past injustices can continue to shape public perception and attitudes toward healthcare interventions such as vaccines. Acknowledging past controversies and offering transparent information about how current-day studies are different can help. Healthcare professionals can better address patients’ concerns about infectious disease prevention measures like vaccination programs. Additionally, social media tech giants can help address rumors at their roots before they take flight.


How are social media companies battling conspiracy theories

During the COVID pandemic, social media companies have come under increasing public and political pressure to prevent misinformation from spreading on their platforms. Understanding how conspiracy theories form, spread, and impact individuals’ attitudes towards vaccines or bother preventative measures is essential for these companies to take appropriate action against false information.

Tactics in place to fight conspiracy theories

In response to the proliferation of conspiracy theories surrounding infectious diseases like COVID-19, major social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube implemented various strategies to curb the spread of misinformation. These include:

  • Promoting trusted sources of information: Algorithms for these platforms prioritize content from trustworthy sources, like the WHO and CDC, in response to search terms regarding vaccines, COVID, or other outbreaks
  • Labeling misleading content: Social media sites now add warning labels or fact-check notices on posts containing false claims about infectious diseases
  • Removing harmful content: Posts that promote dangerous treatments or encourage people not to follow public health guidelines are removed from these platforms
  • Banning repeat offenders: Users who consistently share debunked conspiracy theories may face account suspension or permanent bans


Challenges related to regulating content on social media

With over five billion people internet users as of 2023, the fight against infectious diseases misinformation is just taking off. Social media companies continue facing challenges in regulating their platforms, such as:

  • Scale: With billions of users worldwide, monitoring and moderating content is a daunting task
  • Algorithmic amplification: Algorithms designed to keep users engaged can inadvertently promote conspiracy theories by prioritizing sensational or controversial content
  • Freedom of speech concerns: Striking the right balance between combating misinformation and respecting users’ rights to express their opinions remains an ongoing challenge
  • Knowledge gaps: Employees of social media giants cannot be experts on every single topic or health-related concern. It takes time for companies to partner with experts in a field to flag inaccuracies. In the meantime, content creators propagating wrong information may become more popular, making it harder to fight
  • Language barriers: While social media companies employ people from around the globe, it is difficult to patrol and regulate content in different languages and dialects

To overcome these challenges, social media companies must continue refining their strategies while collaborating with public health experts and governments. More funding and resources must be directed toward arming the public with accurate information during the epidemic to fight against infectious diseases conspiracy theories.

Key Takeaway:

Social media companies have implemented some strategies to combat the spread of misinformation regarding infectious diseases like COVID-19. These include promoting accurate information, labeling misleading content, removing harmful posts, and banning repeat offenders. However, they face challenges with regulating content due to scale, algorithmic amplification, freedom of speech concerns, knowledge gaps, and language barriers. Collaboration with public health agencies and governments is necessary to refine these strategies.

Strategies to improve trust and communication during outbreaks

To improve trust in vaccination programs worldwide, there are several strategies that could work. Healthcare professionals can:

  1. Boost education on vaccine benefits: Public health agencies must actively and regularly acknowledge general concerns about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines before debunking the myths. This includes addressing any myths surrounding vaccinations, such as those related to autism spectrum disorder [10]
  2. Create culturally sensitive communication materials: This involves developing educational materials that are tailored to specific cultural or religious beliefs, as well as translated into relevant languages for non-English speaking populations about infectious diseases conspiracy theories
  3. Engage community leaders and influencers: Partner with trusted figures within communities, such as religious leaders or local celebrities, who can help promote the importance of vaccinations and dispel misinformation
  4. Increase accessibility to vaccines: Ensure vaccination programs cater to those facing logistical challenges by offering extended clinic hours, mobile vaccination units, or partnering with community organizations to provide transportation assistance. Additionally, providing free vaccinations can alleviate financial barriers faced by some individuals


Tackling vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable populations is a crucial step in ensuring global protection against infectious diseases like the COVID-19 pandemic. By understanding the factors driving this reluctance and implementing targeted strategies for improving trust and communication between healthcare providers and patients, we can work towards achieving widespread immunization coverage during disease outbreaks. Conspiracy theories and misinformation about infectious diseases and vaccines can be addressed by national public health agencies and WHO to ensure that accurate information is available to the public.

To effectively address vaccine hesitancy among at-risk groups, it is essential to comprehend the impediments which impede immunization uptake. Therefore, it is important to understand how infectious diseases conspiracy theories can impact public health decision-making in order to effectively combat their influence on healthcare policies.

Key Takeaway:

To address vaccine hesitancy and infectious diseases conspiracy theories among vulnerable populations, healthcare providers must identify and overcome barriers such as misinformation, fear of side effects, distrust in authorities, or cultural beliefs. Strategies to improve trust and communication include educating patients on vaccine benefits, creating culturally sensitive materials, engaging community leaders, and increasing accessibility to vaccines.

Impact of infectious diseases conspiracy theories on public health

Infectious diseases conspiracy theories pose a threat to public health by undermining confidence in established medical practices and leading individuals to disregard expert advice. For example, during the COVID pandemic, misinformation about the virus’s origins or efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines has led some people to avoid vaccination altogether or engage in risky behaviors that exacerbate transmission rates.

The biggest issues from infectious diseases conspiracies are:

  • Vaccine hesitancy: Misinformation regarding vaccine safety or effectiveness may lead people to refuse vaccinations for themselves or their children, increasing vulnerability within communities and contributing to preventable outbreaks [11]
  • Erosion of trust: When conspiracies are allowed to proliferate unchecked, they can erode public trust not only in healthcare professionals but also in governmental institutions responsible for implementing sound public health policies
  • Poor adherence: Belief in conspiracies might result in non-compliance with recommended preventative measures such as mask-wearing or social distancing guidelines during an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19


Evidence-based decision-making importance in public health

To combat the negative effects of infectious diseases conspiracy theories on public health policy-making, it is crucial that decisions be grounded firmly in evidence-based research. Evidence-based decision-making allows for the development of policies that are informed by rigorous scientific investigation, ensuring their effectiveness in addressing infectious disease threats.

Healthcare professionals and public health organizations can play a vital role in promoting evidence-based practices by:

  1. Actively listening to people about their beliefs: First, the healthcare system must learn to listen to the public’s concerns about vaccines, infectious diseases, and other issues – even if they are untrue. Outright dismissal of a person’s belief may grow the rift between them and medical professionals
  2. Ramping up proactive education: Healthcare professionals and public health officials must disseminate accurate information through various media, including social media platforms, to counteract misinformation
  3. Collaborating with stakeholders: Engaging with community leaders, policymakers, social media influencers, and other relevant parties to promote science-backed recommendations while also addressing legitimate concerns arising from historical injustices or mistrust toward medical institutions
  4. Promoting transparency: Ensuring open communication channels between healthcare providers, researchers, government agencies, and the general public to foster trust in the processes behind policy formulation and implementation during an outbreak situation
  5. Having the latest outbreaks data at your fingertips: Health officials, clinicians, researchers, and other key stakeholders must have access to real-time data on infectious diseases outbreaks, perform accurate differential diagnoses, and improve medical education

Incorporating these strategies into public health policy efforts will contribute to building resilient communities capable of responding effectively when faced with future outbreaks.


The GIDEON difference

GIDEON is one of the most well-known and comprehensive global databases for infectious diseases. Data is refreshed daily, and the GIDEON API allows medical professionals and researchers access to a continuous stream of data. Whether your research involves quantifying data, learning about specific microbes, testing out differential diagnosis tools, or combating infectious diseases conspiracy theories, GIDEON has you covered with a program that has met the highest standards for excellence.

Learn more on the GIDEON platform.



[1]    S. Lewandowsky and J. Cook, “The conspiracy theory handbook,”, 2020. [Online]. Available:

[2]    CDC, “Myths and facts about COVID-19 vaccines,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28-Mar-2023. [Online]. Available:

[3]    J. J. Van Bavel et al., “Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response,” Nat. Hum. Behav., vol. 4, no. 5, pp. 460–471, 2020

[4]    “World health organization (WHO),” in Yearbook of the United Nations 1984, United Nations, 1984, pp. 1220–1228

[5]    P. Suthaharan and P. R. Corlett, “Assumed shared belief about conspiracy theories in social networks protects paranoid individuals against distress,” Sci. Rep., vol. 13, no. 1, p. 6084, 2023

[6]    B. Archibong and F. Annan, “What do Pfizer’s 1996 drug trials in Nigeria teach us about vaccine hesitancy?,” Brookings, 03-Dec-2021. [Online]. Available:

[7]    “Tuskegee study and health benefit program – CDC – OS,”, 09-Jan-2023. [Online]. Available:

[8]    R. Gaynes, “The discovery of penicillin—new insights after more than 75 years of clinical use,” Emerg. Infect. Dis., vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 849–853, 2017

[9]    S. S. Bajaj and F. C. Stanford, “Beyond Tuskegee – vaccine distrust and everyday racism,” N. Engl. J. Med., vol. 384, no. 5, p. e12, 2021

[10]    “Autism and vaccines,”, 25-Jan-2022. [Online]. Available:

[11]    S. Machingaidze and C. S. Wiysonge, “Understanding COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy,” Nat. Med., vol. 27, no. 8, pp. 1338–1339, 2021

Chandana Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network, and has a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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