One of our readers suggested that I review the book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by John M. Barry. It’s not a new book (it was published in 2004) but it is very pertinent to several of the issues that we have been discussing on this blog, especially in regards to the current anti-vaccine movement. It’s well worth reading for its historical insights, for its illumination of the scientific method, and for its accurate reporting of what science has learned about influenza.
In the great flu epidemic of 1918, influenza killed as many people in 24 weeks as AIDS has killed in 24 years. It’s hard to even imagine what that must have been like, but this book helps us imagine it. It tells horror stories: children found alone and starving beside the corpses of their parents in homes where all the adults had died, decomposing bodies piling up because there was no one left who was healthy enough to bury them. Sometimes the disease developed with stunning rapidity: during one 3 mile streetcar trip, the conductor, 3 passengers, and the driver died. In another incident, apparently healthy soldiers were being transferred to a new post by train; during the trip, men started coughing, bleeding, and collapsing; and by the time it arrived at its destination, 25% of the soldiers were so sick they had to be taken directly from train to hospital. 2/3 of them were eventually hospitalized in all, and 10% of them died. The mind boggles. (more…)
Myths and misconceptions about cancer abound. Oncologists are frequently criticized for torturing patients by burning, cutting and poisoning without making any real progress in the war against cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and cancer researcher, tries to set the record straight with his new book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
It is a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works and how it developed, how we learned to randomize, do controlled trials, get informed consent, use statistics appropriately, and how science can go wrong. It is so beautifully written and so informative that when I finished it I went back to page 1 and read the whole thing again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I enjoyed it just as much the second time.
It will be a story of inventiveness, resilience, and perseverance against what one writer called the most “relentless and insidious enemy” among human diseases. But it will also be a story of hubris, arrogance, paternalism, misperception, false hope, and hype, all leveraged against an illness that was just three decades ago widely touted as being “curable” within a few years. (more…)
In 1996, Alan Sokal got a bogus paper published in the journal Social Text. It was a parody full of meaningless statements in the jargon of postmodern philosophy and cultural studies. The editors couldn’t tell the difference between Sokal’s nonsense and the usual articles they publish.
Now a British professor of medical education, Dr. John McLachlan, has perpetrated a similar hoax on supporters of so-called “integrative” medicine. He reports his prank in an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
After receiving an invitation to submit papers to an International Conference on Integrative Medicine, he invented a ridiculous story about a new form of reflexology and acupuncture with points represented by a homunculus map on the buttocks. He claimed to have done studies showing that
responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes.
A Walmart ad in my local newspaper trumpets “75% of all Americans don’t get enough Vitamin D” and offers to sell me Maximum Strength Vitamin D3, 5000 IU capsules to “promote bone, colon and breast health.” Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) tells me that “the majority of Americans and Canadians are receiving adequate amounts of … vitamin D” and that no one should take more than 4000 IU a day. Apparently Walmart and the IOM aren’t talking to each other.
The media have been giving the impression that vitamin D is a new wonder drug. They have told us that we aren’t getting enough sunlight, that a large percentage of us suffer from vitamin D deficiency, and that low levels of vitamin D are associated with cancer, multiple sclerosis, peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to higher overall mortality (but so have high levels of vitamin D!). The anti-vaccine folks have been telling us (without any controlled studies) that vitamin D supplements are better than vaccines for preventing influenza. There’s no good evidence that raising vitamin D levels with supplements actually prevents any of these conditions, but many people think it should, and doctors have increasingly been measuring blood levels and prescribing high dose supplements. Is this just another passing fad like the enthusiasm for vitamin C, or are we belatedly recognizing a serious deficiency problem?
I’ve had a lot of inquiries about “is this information trustworthy?” and “how much vitamin D should I be taking?” I’ve been telling people that I didn’t know, that recent findings will soon result in new recommendations, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the new guidelines. Now we have them, thanks to the IOM. They are not what most of us anticipated. Since so many doctors had been advocating higher levels to prevent things like cancer, I thought official recommended intake levels would go up; instead, they went down.
The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has released proposed new standards to limit working hours for medical residents. Bus drivers are allowed to drive for 10 hours and then are required to have 8 hours off duty. Airline pilots can be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty — being at work, ready to fly — and up to eight hours of actual flight time in a 24-hour period, with a minimum of eight hours for rest between shifts. Physicians in residency training work 80 hours or more a week (compared to 75 hours a month for airline pilots) and are regularly on duty for more than 24 hours at a time. If adequate rest is an important safety measure for drivers and pilots, isn’t it important for doctors too?
When I was an intern and resident, my hours were a little better than some. Instead of every other night, I was on call every third night. I had to work from about 7 AM one day to 5 PM the following day (34 consecutive hours). I stayed in the hospital: there was a call room with a bed, but if we got to lie down it was never for very long. When I got off duty, my sleep-deprived body demanded that I go home and crash. It was only every third day when I worked “only” a 10 hour shift, that I could devote an evening to all the other activities of my life like laundry, grocery shopping, and trying to read medical journals. One memorable weekend I worked from Saturday morning to Monday evening and only got to lie down for about 20 minutes. I don’t think I made any fatigue-induced mistakes that hurt patients, but by Monday afternoon I was groping my way through brain fog and running on fumes. (more…)
Bill Clinton loved hamburgers from McDonald’s. He used to eat a typical American high calorie, high fat, meat-based diet. No more. He had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass in 2004. Recurrent blockages required placement of two stents in February 2010. This got his attention and he went on a strict new diet, losing 24 pounds to get back down to what he weighed in high school.
He is now a vegan.
I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit. I drink a protein supplement every morning — no dairy, I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder so I get the protein for the day when I start the day up.
I did all this research, and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who have gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind, no chicken, no turkey — I eat very little fish, once in a while I’ll have a little fish — if you can do it, 82 percent of people have begun to heal themselves.
On October 19, 2010, the FDA approved a long-awaited new drug, dabigatran, expected to replace warfarin (Coumadin) as a better way to prevent blood clots in susceptible patients. This provides an opportunity to re-visit several issues that we have addressed before, including Big Pharma tactics, drug approval by the FDA, deciding what is adequate evidence, applying science to clinical practice, and making individual health care decisions based on evidence that is sometimes incomplete.
Patients with atrial fibrillation, artificial heart valves, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, antiphospholipid syndrome, and people undergoing certain types of surgery are at risk of blood clots, embolism, and stroke. They are currently being treated with rat poison. Warfarin (Coumadin) is an anticoagulant originally intended to kill rats. It inhibits the vitamin K dependent synthesis of several clotting factors. It saves human lives but is a mixed blessing. It takes several days to achieve therapeutic levels. Patients must be monitored with frequent blood tests to ensure that their prothrombin levels stay between an INR (international normalized ratio) of 2 and 3. When starting out, this means blood tests every couple of days. For some patients, dosage fluctuates and requires frequent adjustments; others can eventually drop down to a monthly blood test. Warfarin interacts with a long list of other drugs that raise or lower its blood levels. It interacts with many foods, and patients have to modify their diet. It can cause serious bleeding complications; while preventing thrombotic strokes it can cause hemorrhagic strokes. It is taken once daily. There is an antidote, vitamin K, that can reverse its effects promptly.
Warfarin is the 11th most prescribed drug in the US. Its benefits clearly outweigh its risks, but we wish the risks were fewer. We have yearned for a better option: something safer, something that would not require monitoring with blood tests, something that foods wouldn’t interfere with, something that would not interact with every other drug in the book. And now it seems we have it: a direct thrombin inhibitor called dabigatran.
Melanie Thernstrom has written a superb book based on a historical, philosophical, and scientific review of pain: The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering. Herself a victim of chronic pain, she brings a personal perspective to the subject and also includes informative vignettes of doctors and patients she encountered at the many pain clinics she visited in her investigations. She shows that medical treatment of pain is suboptimal because most doctors have not yet incorporated recent scientific discoveries into their thinking, discoveries indicating that chronic pain is a disease in its own right, a state of pathological pain sensitivity.
Chronic pain often outlives its original causes, worsens over time, and takes on a puzzling life of its own… there is increasing evidence that over time, untreated pain eventually rewrites the central nervous system, causing pathological changes to the brain and spinal cord, and that these in turn cause greater pain. Even more disturbingly, recent evidence suggests that prolonged pain actually damages parts of the brain, including those involved in cognition. (more…)
American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has a feature called AFP Journal Club, where physicians analyze a journal article that either involves a hot topic affecting family physicians or busts a commonly held medical myth. In the September 15, 2010 issue they discussed “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses,” by Gerber and Offit, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2009.
The article presented convincing evidence to debunk 3 myths:
- MMR causes autism.
- Thimerosal (mercury) causes autism.
- Simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system, triggering autism in a susceptible host.
A salesman is demonstrating a new product at a sports store in the local mall. He has a customer stand with his arms extended horizontally to the sides; he presses down on an arm and the customer starts to fall over. Then he puts a bracelet on the customer and repeats the test; this time he is apparently unable to make the customer lose his balance. He has the customer turn his head as far as he can without the bracelet, and shows that he can turn his head a few degrees more after he puts on the bracelet. (Try this yourself: if you turn your head, wait a couple of seconds and try again, you will always be able to turn it further on the second trial). He similarly shows that the customer is stronger when he wears the bracelet. The customer and the onlookers are mightily impressed by the demonstration, by the salesman’s testimonials, and by the endorsements of famous athletes: they buy the bracelets to improve their athletic performance.
These so-called energy bracelets (also pendants and cards) allegedly contain a hologram embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s energy field to improve your balance, strength, flexibility, energy, and sports performance; and they also offer all sorts of other benefits (such as helping horses and birds and relieving menstrual cramps and headaches). The claims and the language on their websites are so blatantly pseudoscientific it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for them. Here are just a few examples from the Power Balance website:
- We react with frequency because we are a frequency.
- Your body’s energy field likes things that are good for it.
- Why Holograms? We use holograms because they are composed of Mylar—a polyester film used for imprinting music, movies, pictures, and other data. Thus, it was a natural fit.
- A primitive form of this technology was discovered when someone, somewhere along the line, picked up a rock and felt something that reacted positively with his body.