Re: "Babu wa Loliondo" - Medical misinformation can be difference between life and death

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania between 2010 and 2012, a 76-year-old man named Babu wa Loliondo from a remote Tanzanian village made international news. His name was plastered all over headlines for promising a miracle drink that he claimed was able to cure a variety of illnesses - HIV/AIDS, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, ulcers, glaucoma, you name it.

Word spread rapidly, and soon tens of thousands left their homes and scrambled to his isolated village.

People left their farmland (often their sole source of income) and stopped taking their medication. There were daily reports of bus accidents and huge traffic jams on major highways throughout Tanzania due to congestion caused by the sheer number of travelers. Several died making this pilgrimage, and the country suffered as a whole.

In a nation where 97 percent of its citizens live on less than $2 a day, many squandered the bulk of their life savings to be cured by Babu wa Loliondo, who pocketed $2,500 daily.

Eventually, the World Health Organization got involved to study the efficacy of his drug and inevitably debunked the outrageous claims. Unfortunately, despite advice from medical experts both local and abroad, many still continued making the journey until its popularity finally faded once people saw with their own eyes that there was no lifesaving drug.

I saw firsthand how medical misinformation can spread like wildfire and cause serious harm to the well-being of so many people. I argued with my local villagers endlessly, but to no avail. On a near daily basis, I was reminded of the quote: “You cannot reason someone out of something they were not reasoned into.” Only in a place like this, I thought, could unsupported medical claims be taken so seriously, despite scientific scrutiny and advice from experts that say otherwise.

Now, back in the United States, it’s apparent that medical misinformation knows no boundaries. Thanks to false claims circulating about vaccinations, measles, an extremely debilitating and often fatal disease which had hit a high of 600,000 cases a year in the 1950s but then fell to fewer than 100 in the 2000s, is now back on the rise. Outbreaks of whooping cough, polio, and other preventable diseases have also been reported all over the U.S., all due to a marked decrease in immunizations that had, at one point, nearly wiped these diseases out of existence.

I was stunned, therefore, to see a wall-to-wall exhibit in our very own New Hartford Public Library during August and September heavily promoting an anti-vaccination message. At the library entrance was a picture of a baby with the caption “I wasn’t vaccinated and I’m healthy,” along with posters alleging a link between vaccinations and autism. Although the display has been taken down, the library, a place that is supposed to be a haven for learning and knowledge, was promoting a very dangerous message that has led to an uptick in life-threatening childhood diseases.

As a medical student who has studied the history of vaccines and the fraudulent Andrew Wakefield Lancet paper that initially prompted the vaccine debate, I strongly believe that vaccines are a necessary part of a healthy society. Since their inception, vaccines have been heralded as modern-day miracles for all the countless lives they’ve saved. Now, they're increasingly demonized as threats to the very people they were designed to protect, all without any sound medical evidence.

While there is nothing wrong with patients wanting to learn more about immunizations, it’s another matter entirely when they put their children and their community at risk by refusing to vaccinate. Unfortunately, in today’s climate where we see drug prices skyrocketing overnight, a healthcare system which now places more emphasis on documentation rather than quality patient interaction, and an overall decrease in patient satisfaction, it should come as no surprise that people succumb to medical misinformation.

One of the best ways to counter this trend is through early science literacy. The ability to properly interpret scientific and medical journals will enable patients to make more informed decisions. By starting at a young age, the next generation will be capable of differentiating between medical facts and medical quacks.

Although we should encourage patients to be active participants in their own health, we also need to educate them about how to go about it safely. Science literacy in early education will be the key to ensuring future generations making better and more informed decisions about their health. If we can achieve that, then we can prevent a trip to Babu wa Loliondo.


George Schilling is a 2006 graduate of ​New Hartford Senior High School ​and a 2010 graduate of the University of Massachusetts – Boston. He served as a ​Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania from 2010-2012 and is currently a student at​the ​Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.