In the late 1930s, the Federal Arts Program of the Works Progress Administration, a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, produced a number of public health posters warning against quacks and bogus remedies for cancer. One poster, produced in cooperation with the U.S. Public Health Service warned, “Beware the Cancer Quack,” adding “A Reputable Physician Does Not Promise a Cure, Demand Advance Payment, Advertise.” Another, reflecting the fact that effective cancer chemotherapy had not yet developed, advised “The Only Safe Weapons Against Cancer Are Surgery, X-Rays, Radium” adding “Do Not Trust Your Life to Other Methods.”
Unfortunately, the posters were not effective in combating the quacks and purveyors of useless or dangerous nostrums in the Great Depression Era. Like cancer, false information and dangerous remedies and treatments are still with us today. With the proliferation of social media platforms and fake news sites, the deluge of misinformation seems overwhelming. Haven’t we all seen the promises of instant weight loss diets and the doom-and-gloom false reports about childhood vaccines? Fortunately there are a few places you can check when you read a press account that suggests breakthrough information has just been discovered that will allow us to cure or prevent a deadly disease. Here are some of them.
It is the job of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate and outlaw new and dangerous products. Keeping up with the volume of bad items and false advertising means they are chasing after the problem, not preventing it. However, they do have a useful consumer website with consumer updates in several languages. Their information covers health fraud, including drugs, devices, foods, and cosmetics. The page of recalled products often lists supposed remedies containing undeclared drugs or those contaminated with Salmonella and other bacteria. There are pages with warnings about unproven therapies for specific conditions, such as autism, as well as useful information about approved treatments from filling in wrinkles to removing tattoos and discussions of devices used to halt migraines or keep the heart beating.
A useful source for checking on the accuracy of medical news is HealthNewsReview.org, which follows up on stories in the news to examine the quality of evidence they provide, and the quality of the reporting about findings. Stories are reviewed by three experts and given a rating from one to three stars. For example, a study linking folic acid supplementation before or in early pregnancy to a lower autism risk gets four stars. A study claiming eating more fish could prevent Parkinson’s disease but relies on a laboratory study of fish, merits a lot of criticism and one star.
Quackwatch.org has a number of useful links and a free weekly electronic newsletter. There are links to articles and assessments organized alphabetically on topics such as Cancer Treatment Watch and Device Watch. While some of the links are old, there are useful items to be found and the list of topics covered is instructive. Among the links are summaries of recent research findings.
Snopes.com a fact-checking website created to report on urban legends also has entries on health care. Addressing the question of wether marijuana kills cancer, it answered “False” and traces the rumor back to its source while offering a link to the National Cancer Institute’s database of peer-reviewed cancer research. Thinking about a cannibal diet? That too has been declared “False” on what has to one of the most farfetched urban rumors now in circulation.
Webmd has a useful article on spotting health scams and links to both government institutes and places to report suspected scams, including the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
These sites lack the brilliant artwork the WPA artists endowed us with but they have valuable information to provide. Check them out.
Janet Golden is a professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden.