“I’ve been interested in alternative health for many, many years,” says Veronica Haupt, from her seaside home near Cape Town, South Africa. “And then, of course, what happened with the coronavirus It really sparked another level of interest in me.”
Veronica didn’t want to share a photo of herself. She’s a naturopath – someone who offers “natural” health advice that may not be based on scientific evidence.
And its path in this segment is common. She first became interested in wellness and enjoyed reading about unconventional health treatments. Then she began to distrust the components of Covid-19 vaccines – and the fact that they are mandatory in some workplaces.
But this is where her path diverged from that of many in this “wellness” community.
“I think the whole idea of infectious diseases that you can catch from someone else is an absolute myth that has been perpetuated for many, many decades in humanity,” says Veronica.
She, like a growing group of people on the internet, and despite all the scientific evidence, does not believe that there are germs that cause disease.
An analysis of social media data using keywords used by germ deniers suggests that the conversation barely existed before 2020 and grew with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But it did not stop there. It continued to grow, with the highest number of relevant keyword mentions in 2023, higher than any of the previous three years at the height of the pandemic.
On Facebook and Telegram, groups dedicated to germ denial have tens of thousands of members. Some members do not believe in the existence of viruses, while others believe that germs exist but do not cause disease.
Many reference a discredited 19th century theory.
Just when the theory that germs cause disease was being proven, a French scientist named Antoine Bechamp came up with an idea called terrain theory. He claimed that germs were harmless things that just turned into something disease-causing inside an unhealthy body.
Bechamp’s theory fell apart as more and more evidence of disease-causing germs emerged. Now, certain groups have seized on Bechamp’s idea.
This seems to have less to do with a sudden commitment to the theory of a 19th century French scientist and more to do with a total rejection of anything conventional – the growing belief that if a government or health institution says something, it must automatically be wrong.
This is not the same as questioning governments and analyzing all available evidence.
Dan Wilson, a molecular biologist with an educational YouTube channel that tries to debunk this denialism, says these unscientific beliefs fit into a broader idea of ”wellbeing.”
It is the pursuit of a general feeling of physical and psychological well-being through diet, exercise and other health practices. It often involves the rejection of pharmaceutical medications, which are seen as “unnatural.” This topic generates millions of posts on social media.
Wilson says wellness favors explanations about illness that give individuals a sense of control. Just change what you consume, the movement claims, and you can not only avoid all diseases but also live the best life possible.
“It’s not necessary to go as far as denying the germ theory. But just the idea that you can take supplements a certain way or live a certain lifestyle and not have to worry about getting sick,” says Wilson.
Of course, not all diseases are caused by germs – they can be caused by genetics, lifestyle and the environment.
But Veronica believes, without any specific evidence, that all diseases are caused by something toxic entering our bodies – pollution, or perhaps electromagnetic frequencies.
And she tells her clients, “Your health is in your hands, not your doctor’s.”
This is where germ denial can have real consequences.
The largest Facebook group dedicated to the belief that germs don’t cause disease is full of advice and instructions on how to avoid doctors, medications and vaccines.
It has grown from 150 members in 2019 to more than 30,000 today.
“Germ theory denial and the anti-vaccine crowds definitely have a lot of overlap. I would say the germ theory denialist circle exists within the anti-vaccine circle,” says Wilson.
He watched as this went from something he saw once in a while to something that is increasingly becoming a feature of anti-vaccine arguments.
“I call them the flat-Earth advocates of biology because, just like the flat-Earth advocates, we can show pictures of the round Earth and people will still deny it,” says Wilson.
“We can take the virus and infect an animal with it, make it sick. We can also find the same genetic sequence in humans and track it through a population as it is transferred from person to person and watch a wave of disease pass through this population.”
Viruses and other germs can be seen under a microscope, he adds.
“But despite this wealth of evidence, different forms of germ denial theory are gaining traction. For example, they advocate the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS. I am worried that this will become yet another mainstream conspiracy theory.”
In the early 2000s, in South Africa, Veronica’s home country, then-president Thabo Mbeki refused to accept that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus. He was also reluctant to provide life-saving antiretroviral drugs that stop the virus from replicating in the body.
This stance is estimated to have caused more than 300,000 preventable deaths, according to a study by Harvard University.
People working on HIV prevention and treatment in South Africa say the current situation is unrecognizable compared to 20 years ago and point out that AIDS denial is not a big problem they face today.
But just the silent questions about the topic on the internet are enough to worry scholars who research HIV, such as Roberto Pereira, who works on HIV prevention in South Africa.
“I don’t think it’s right (to raise these questions), especially when it’s something that has caused so much pain in this country. It really makes me uncomfortable,” says Pereira.
“You don’t want to see history repeating itself, but it seems like history repeats itself quite often.”
This text was published here