While Vietnamese often self-diagnose by researching symptoms online, a practice known as asking ‘Dr Google,’ ‘Facebook health experts’ are slowly gaining a strong following in the shady world of medical misinformation.
These so-called “experts” deal in bizarre-sounding medical tips with no scientific backing, sometimes leaving those who take their advice considerably worse for wear.
While Google can be hit-or-miss when it comes to offering sound medical advice, unsubstantiated medical information on Facebook has mostly proven to be dangerously misguiding.
Despite the life-threatening perils, the ‘community’ of Vietnamese people who religiously believe in information, tips, and methods on healthcare and childcare provided by ‘Facebook health experts’ is growing larger and larger by the day.
For instance, followers of the ‘natural childbirth’ trend circulating on social media choose to give birth at home instead of in the hospital, use breast milk to treat the children’s diseases in lieu of medicine, and let a newborn’s immune system handle serious diseases rather than getting vaccinations.
To this cult-like community, the combined medical knowledge accumulated over the course of human advancement coupled with warnings and recommendations from doctors with years of medical school and practice under their belts pales in comparison to ‘words of wisdom’ from ‘Facebook doctors.’
“Human beings should do what other animals do when it comes to birthing – follow nature,” a local mom who claims to practice ‘natural childbirth’ commented on Facebook.
By ‘following the nature,’ the mother means giving birth at home and denying hospital care and medication under all circumstances for children.
“A mother should deliver on her own, hold the baby when it says hello to the world, and breastfeed him or her,” she said, summarizing the basic principles of a belief widely condemned by medical professionals worldwide.
|Doctors take care of a mother and her newborn child at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
One of the latest birthing trends among Vietnamese social media users is lotus birth, also known as umbilical nonseverance - the practice of leaving the umbilical cord uncut after childbirth so that the baby is left attached to the placenta until the cord naturally separates at the umbilicus, usually three to ten days after birth.
As no studies have been done on lotus birth, no evidence exists to support any medical benefits of the birthing method.
Nevertheless, 'Facebook health experts’ are urging women to practice lotus birth at home. One course, advertised to start in June in Ho Chi Minh City, charges VND15 million (US$650) per learner, promising instructions by an Australian expert in the field.
In early March, a mother in northern Vietnam posted a photo on her Facebook showing a newborn with her umbilical cord uncut, lying next to a basin where her placenta was being stored.
The mother claimed to have delivered at home and neither cut the umbilical cord nor had the newborn vaccinated, as a way of “following the nature.”
The health ministry has since released a warning against the scientifically unverified method.
|The screenshot of a Facebook update of a Vietnamese who claimed to have successfully practiced 'lotus birth' at home. The placenta, with the uncut umbilical, is blurred in this photo.|
Even so, it was reported earlier this week that a woman in Ho Chi Minh City and her newborn died during a home delivery using this ‘natural method.' As of Friday morning, the case remained unverified, according to Vietnam’s health authorities.
Some 98 percent of births in Vietnam are made at healthcare facilities with assistance from medical workers, a success the health ministry takes credit for, according to Tran Dang Khoa, deputy head of the ministry’s mother and child health department.
While home birth is now only practiced in rural and remote areas, the mushrooming number of home births taking place in big cities has taken the country’s medical industry by surprise.
Delivering at home also means there is rarely anyone with medical training, such as a medical worker or midwife, on hand to help if anything should go wrong during labor.
Earlier this month a woman in the northern province of Lao Cai gave birth at home with the help of only her mother-in-law.
The elder woman ended up slicing open the unborn child’s head while it was still in its mother’s womb, believing that putting a knife inside the mom’s sexual organ would help ease her labor.
|A pregnant woman is seen in this photo illustration. Photo: Reuters|
A mother’s milk cures all
Among those people who spreading various methods of ‘natural birthing’ online in Vietnam, a woman known as Phuong Hong Nhat Le has the largest following.
Le preaches to her Facebook followers that breast milk is a miracle drug, capable of treating heart disease and eyesores, even allowing “cut thumbs to grow back."
The benefits of breast milk are owed to its “rich content of stem cells, which help to improve our body,” Phuong told her followers.
Unfortunately, followers of Le and others like her often choose not to fact check such information, leading to perilous situations for helpless newborns.
In November 2017, a 16-day-old baby was hospitalized in Hanoi with her eyes in critical conditions, after her mother used breast milk to treat her eyesore, according to Nhan Dan (People) newspaper.
The mother, a 19-year-old woman, admitted that she was following a tip shared on Facebook, without knowing that it would only worsen her child’s condition.
|A bottle of breast milk is seen in this photo illustration. Photo: Reuters|
No vaccination, no problem
Another health trend attracting Vietnam’s Facebook users is the so-called ‘anti-vaccine movement,’ whereby local parents refuse to have their children vaccinated for fear of fatal side effects.
Several Facebook pages have been created to spread the message that children should not be vaccinated and instead their immune system should develop independently, going against warnings by doctors that not having children vaccinated could pose dangers not only to the kids, but to the whole community.
One such group, named “Vaccine – Yes or No?”, saw its membership grow to 20,000 between June and July 2017.
The majority of the group’s members have confirmed that they have never had their children vaccinated, while others have said they chose not to have their kids receive all of the health ministry’s required injections.
Other members have expressed unsubstantiated claims that vaccinations could lead to autism.
The anti-vaccine movement has resulted in immediate consequences: the number of encephalitis and whooping cough cases, diseases that are mostly preventable by vaccination, are on the rise in Vietnam.
During the Jan-May period of last year, 119 cases of whooping cough were recorded, with two children eventually killed by the disease. A huge number of those patients were found to have either received no or insufficient vaccinations.
Similarly, while children are expected to get encephalitis vaccinations, 21 cases of infection were recorded in June 2017, with many patients in a critical condition after not being vaccinated.
|A child receives an injection in this photo illustration. Photo: Reuters|
According to health professionals, followers of the ‘following the nature’ trend misunderstand the true meaning of ‘nature.'
“Natural healthcare means if a patient suffers from iron deficiency anemia, doctors should advise them to eat iron-rich fruits and vegetables instead of taking iron pills, which smell bad,” N.T.S., a doctor who claims to “follow the nature the right way," wrote on his Facebook.
Nguyen Ba My Nhi, deputy director of Tu Du Hospital, one of Vietnam’s leading maternity hospitals, also said ‘natural childbirth’ actually means vaginal delivery, rather than giving birth at home.
“Home birth is dangerous as the labor poses multiple risks to both mother and child, which will lead to fatality without timely help from medical workers,” she said.
Pham Quang Thai, head of the northern branch of the vaccination office under the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, said the online anti-vaccine movement is mainly to blame for the outbreak of preventable diseases among children.
“When more people refuse to have their children vaccinated, the community’s immunity is reduced, making it easier for outbreaks to occur,” he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
|Doctors are pictured with a newborn baby in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Thai said supporters of the anti-vaccine movement have “relied too much on unverified or inaccurate information” and even information that has been proven false, such as “vaccination leads to autism.”
Vu Ba Quyet, director of the National Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynecology, echoed Mai’s view, adding that “something must be done” to stop “impressionable women from believing in health trends that drag back civilization.”