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Med students fight false health info

So-called alternative medicine can be harmless, but may also pose serious health hazards, medical students say.

Hopeavettä.
The information surrounding homeopathic products such as silver water is considered dangerous by many medical professionals. Image: Dennis Storhannus / Yle

Medical students in Finland have formed a new NGO with the goal of combating health hoaxes and alternative medicine claims online.

The founders of the Vastalääke association (Finnish for "antidote") are a group of students who say they aim to distribute tested, verified medical information on the internet in understandable form.

Chair Tatu Han said the group will start up in January, 2019. The association is funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation.

The NGO's founding comes on the heels of recent reporting on cases of alternative medicine causing harm to people in Finland. Similarly, anti-vaccine beliefs have also been in the headlines this year.

Yle reported in October that some people have even turned to a dangerous, corrosive paste called black salve in attempts to self-treat skin cancer. Black salve burns away skin tissue and leaves behind a dark scar.

Finnish law does not prohibit fringe medicine treatments, but Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Annika Saarikko put forward a bill proposal in October to try to curb the dissemination of false and dangerous medical information.

The Finnish Medical Association has called for a ban on alternative treatments being used on children.

Social media bolsters quackery

Medical student Han said that people may believe false claims for a number of reasons.

"The contemporary age emphasises individuality and having the power to investigate things on one's own. Someone might think that since some treatment or diet seemed to work for them personally, the same method is certain to work for everyone else," Han said.

Despite the prevalence of logical fallacies such as these, Han adds that Finnish people still retain a high level of trust in empirical medicine and in the medical community. A 2016 science barometer showed that Finnish medical trust has stayed consistently high, with some 66 percent of respondents saying they are confident or very confident in the institutions of medicine.

"However, social media outlets make disseminating false information extremely easy and quick, while people tend to stick with people they already agree with online," said Han.

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