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Being Right Versus Being Influential

On May 9th I had the pleasure of lecturing to an audience of critical thinkers at the NYC Skeptics meeting. The topic of discussion was pseudoscience on the Internet – and I spent about 50 minutes talking about all the misleading health information and websites available to (and frequented by) patients. The common denominator for most of these well-intentioned but misguided efforts is a fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific method, and the myriad ways that humans can fool ourselves into perceiving a cause and effect relationship between unrelated phenomena.

But most importantly, we had the chance to touch upon a theme that has been troubling me greatly over the past couple of years: the rise in influence of those untrained in science on matters of medicine. I have been astonished by the ability of “thought leaders” like Jenny McCarthy to gain a broad platform of influence (i.e. Oprah Winfrey’s TV network) despite her obviously flawed beliefs about the pathophysiology of autism. Why is it so hard to find a medical voice of reason in mainstream media?

The answer is probably related to two issues: first, good science makes bad television, and second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way. We are taught to put emotions aside as we carefully weigh evidence to get to the bottom of things. But we are not taught to reinfuse the subject with emotion once we’ve come to an impartial consensus. Instead, we tend to bicker about statistical analyses, and alienate John Q. Public with what appears to him as academic minutiae and hair-splitting.

I’m not sure what we can or should offer in place of our “business as usual” behavior – but I’ve noticed that being right isn’t the same as being influential. I wonder how we can better advance the cause of science (for the sake of public health at a minimum) to an audience drawn more to passion than to substance?

I would really enjoy your input, dear readers of Science Based Medicine, because I’m at a loss as to what we should do next to reach people in our current culture, and with new communications platforms. What would you recommend?

Posted in: General, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Flu Woo Hodge Podge

Perhaps you have discovered for yourself that I am always the last to write a post on a ‘hot’ topic. I am definitely the slowest writer (and thinker?) on this blog, starting each post at least a week before it is up. So the faster writers weigh in first and I am left with clean up.

As I finish writing on Thursday, there have been 892 cases of H1N1 aka Swine flu and 2 deaths in the US. Looks like the world has avoided a disastrous pandemic like the 1919 flu that killed off 2 to 5% of the world. For now. Maybe. I hope.

However, the flood of nonsense about the flu far exceeds the infection rates from H1N1. This entry will be the limited by necessity. The quantity of quackery (9) far exceeds my ability to type. I thought that influenza virus replicated and spread fast. It pales next to the flu woo.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Georgia on my mind

Scales

My inaugural post was about vaccines, and I promised that I wouldn’t write exclusively on this topic. But something rotten is brewing in the state of Georgia and this story is just too important to ignore.

The first successful challenge to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act (NCVICA) has taken place in Georgia, and we all should be just a little bit worried. In Ferrari v. American Home Products Corp., the plaintiffs, Marcello and Carolyn Ferrari of Atlanta, have sued American Home Products Corp. (otherwise known as Wyeth) and the co-defendant GlaxoSmithKline, claiming that the vaccine preservative thimerosal led to their son’s autism. The consequences of this ruling could effect the health of the entire nation. To understand why, we need to delve a bit into what the NCVICA is exactly, and why it was created in the first place.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Swine Flu Update and Overview

In 1918 the Spanish Flu (named after the country of origin of the first reported case) swept the globe, killing 20-40 million people – more than the First World War (which killed 15 million) which was just ending. When an epidemic spreads to multiple regions, especially multiple countries or continents, it becomes a pandemic. Flu pandemics happen 2-3 times each century.

This is probably partly why there has been so much news attention, even some mild hysteria, surrounding recent outbreaks of swine flu, beginning in Mexico. It is hard to say how many cases and how many deaths there have been so far, because information from Mexico is spotty. Specifically it is difficult to say if people who have died with flu-like symptoms really had the swine flu or something else.

Estimates are that more than 800 people have contracted the swine flu in Mexico with 29 confirmed deaths, although none in the last week.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports as of May 5th that there have been 403 confirmed cases in the United States, with the first death just reported. World-wide there have been 1,490 cases in 21 countries (according to the World Health Organization- WHO).

Some Background on Influenza

The influenza or flu virus is an RNA virus that comes in three genera – A, B, and C. Influenza A is the most common type. It can infect mammals and birds, with aquatic birds being its natural endemic host. Each year there is a seasonal epidemic of Influenza A, infecting millions of people world-wide and killing 100-200,000 – mostly the very old, the very young, and the sick.

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Posted in: Public Health

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14 Studies Later*

First off, I have deliberately not read the entries on Fourteen Studies by fellow bloggers on SBM. I wanted to go through the information on the site myself. So if some of the information is repetitive, sorry.

Second, in the interest of openness and transparency, I will state my conflicts of interest up front: none. I have not talked to a drug rep in at least 20 years. Outside of a trip to San Francisco as a fellow, paid for by the company who was funding a drug study my boss was participating in, I have accepted no gifts or money of any kind from big (or little) pharma since I was a medical student. Nothing. I don’t even eat the pizza at conferences (1).

Third, I am a hospital based adult Infectious Disease doctor. I make zero money from vaccines. In fact, I only make money if people get sick with infections. For my bottom line, giving vaccines to prevent disease is counter productive to my bottom line.

Why 14 studies?
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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J.B. Handley, Generation Rescue, and attacks on critics

I am writing this because a colleague of mine has been attacked, specifically, our fearless leader Steve Novella. J.B. Handley, Founder of “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization – Generation Rescue” (whose usurpation by Jenny and Jim was apparently done in an opportunistic fashion but has had a consequence that must be galling to J.B., namely that some interviewers apparently think that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, not J.B. and his wife, are the true founders of Generation Rescue), did not like something that Steve wrote and in his characteristic fashion, has responded with a vicious ad hominem attack. Normally I wouldn’t feel obligated to put my two cents in, as Steve is more than capable of taking care of himself in a scientific argument and quite able to refute anything J.B. can throw at him. Moreover, whenever J.B. Handley attacks someone in a fashion this nasty, it is an excellent indication that the person he is attacking has scored some serious points against him. Indeed, I have twice been on the receiving end of J.B.’s tirades on the Generation Propaganda blog Age of Autism. On one occasion, he referred to me as the “worldwide wanker of woo,” and on another occasion seemed to think that I criticized Generation Rescue so harshly because I “don’t like full page ads,” rather than because I hate pseudoscience and anti-vaccine nonsense. When criticism really hits a nerve with J.B. Handley, he lashes out in a characteristic fashion. Clearly Steve’s reasoned, level-headed criticism of the latest Generation Rescue anti-vaccine propaganda initiative did just that.

In this case, however, I feel some explanation is in order because I feel a bit responsible for having brought J.B.’s wrath down upon Steve. First, a little history (albeit recent history) is in order. As I described in detail last week and the week before, Generation Rescue, with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey at the fore, sometimes with J.B. himself, has mounted an impressive anti-vaccine propaganda effort. It started with a media tour promoting her most recent paean to anti-vaccine pseudoscience and autism quackery written with “co-author” Dr. Jerry Kartzinel. The book is entitled Healing and Preventing Autism: A Complete Guide, and three weeks ago Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey showed up on Larry King Live to tout a truly incompetent and intellectually dishonest “study” that purported to find that U.S. children are the “most highly vaccinated children in the world” and that that’s correlated with our higher autism rates. I would have none of it. Next, Generation Rescue introduced its equally intellectually dishonest “Fourteen Studies” website, which launched dubious attacks from pseudoexperts on fourteen of the major studies that failed to find a correlation between vaccines and autism or thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. I wrote a lengthy post for SBM describing the utter intellectual and scientific bankruptcy of the entire enterprise.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Double-Talk And Paternalism

One of the more frustrating things about practitioners who promote unsafe and scientifically discredited medical practices is their tendency to change their message for different audiences. One day they’ll tell you that they espouse only evidence-based practices and the next they’ll be promoting snake oil. This double talk is hard to combat, since to disprove them one would essentially have to provide a video of their contradictory remarks.

One day I participated in a series of business meetings with a CAM practitioner in attendance (he was an MD who graduated from UCSF). During one meeting he boldly proclaimed his support of scientifically rigorous research, and praised the Cochrane Collaborative’s efforts to provide systematic reviews of the evidence (or lack thereof) for various practices.

Several hours later we were sitting together in another meeting in which I objected to the publication of a consumer article that would assist parents of children with autism in finding a DAN! practitioner who could provide chelation therapy to their children. I explained that there was no evidence for the efficacy of such treatments, and plenty of evidence for their harm (including the death of at least one child that I’d read about in the news). I suggested that an article describing these dangers might be in order, but that an article encouraging chelation use for autism was simply unethical and I would not allow it to be published.

Instead of agreeing with me, the CAM MD suggested that I was being “narrow” and that I should allow consumers to “explore all their options.” I was stunned. This was the same person who had just said that he fully supported scientific inquiry. So I asked him how he could say that he supported evidence-based medicine, and then turn around and ignore evidence at will – even at the peril of human life.

His response dumbfounded me:

“I am just as comfortable practicing within an evidence-based framework as I am outside it.”
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Posted in: General, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, part II: Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine propaganda machine, and “Fourteen Studies”

I hadn’t planned on writing about the antivaccine movement again this week, so soon after having had to subject myself to yet another round of Jenny McCarthy on Larry King Live and a truly execrable Generation Rescue “study.” I really hadn’t. For one thing, there’s just so much nonsense laid down by antivaccinationists these days that it’s utterly impossible for one blogger to keep up with it all. I could write about them every single day and still not counter the sheer mass of pseudoscience, misinformation, and general ignorance that antivaccine activists spout each and every day, and because this is Autism Awareness Month lately the misinformation has been coming particularly fast and furiously. Sometimes, however, there arrives a bit of misinformation that is so egregious that it requires some response, regardless of how burned out on the topic I might be; so I guess I’ll just have to suck it up and plunge into the morass again.

The reason is that, in retrospect, I now realize that the Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour was clearly merely phase I of Generation Rescue’s April public relations offensive. In rapid succession last week, courtesy of J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, who in order to have a couple of famous faces fronting his organization has allowed himself to be displaced, so that Generation Rescue has now been “reborn” as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization (the better to capitalize on her D-list celebrity yoked to Jim Carrey’s formerly A-list (but rapidly plunging) celebrity), announced Generation Rescue’s latest initiative in a post on its antivaccine blog Age of Autism entitled Fourteen Studies? Only if you never read them.:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends: The Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour has begun


As hard as it is to believe, 2009 started out very promising from the perspective of actually countering the misinformation of the antivaccine movement. Antivaccine hero Andrew Wakefield, who with the help of the credulous and sensationalistic media started the entire MMR-autism scare in the U.K. a decade ago, was revealed as not just having been in the pocket of trial lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers and having been an incompetent scientist but as a scientific fraud, thanks to the investigative tenacity of Brian Deer. Thanks to Wakfield, the measles, once declared conquered in the U.K. in the mid-1990s, has come roaring back to the point where it has been declared endemic again by the ealth Protection Agency (HPA), the public health body of England and Wales. This was rapidly followed by the rejection by the Special Masters of the Vaccine Court of the claims of all the test cases in the Autism Omnibus case. It was a one-two body blow to the antivaccine movement.

Unfortunately, the antivaccine movement is nothing if not resilient. After all, the science has consistently been against each of its favorite claims, namely that the mercury in the thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines or that the MMR vaccine causes autism. They simply move the goalposts and pivoted effortlessly to much harder to falsify ideas, such as blaming “toxins” in vaccines or proclaiming that our current vaccine schedule is “too many too soon.” After scientific setback after scientific setback that have revealed the antivaccine movement to be nothing more than the 2009 equivalent of creationists or the flat Earth movement, why would it matter to them that Andrew Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited and their signature legal action, the Autism Omnibus, has gone donw in flames? It doesn’t. Certainly it didn’t stop David Kirby from duping Keith Olbermann into chastising Brian Deer for nonexistent conflicts of interest; a group proclaiming loudly “We Support Dr. Andrew Wakefield” with a petition; David Kirby, Generation Rescue, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. from trying to distract attention from the defeat of the antivaccine movement in the Autism Omnibus ruling; or Andrew Wakefield himself from “complaining” to a press board about Brian Deer’s alleged misbehavior and errors. After all, science doesn’t matter to the antivaccine movement.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Where’s the outrage?

I thank everyone for my warm welcome to the SBM community. Although vaccine myth is of particular interest to me, I promise that my posts wont all be vaccine related. There is, unfortunately, much to discuss. In fact I had a difficult time deciding which vaccine-related issue to write about for my inaugural post. In the end I came up with more of an opinion piece, but it’s an issue worth airing. Things in anti-vaccine land may be reaching a dangerous turning point.


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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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