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Archive for Public Health

An experiment in paying through the nose for “unnecessary care”

Rats. Harriet stole what was going to be the title of this post! This is going to be something completely different than what I usually write about. Well, maybe not completely different, but different from the vast majority of my posts. As Dr. Snyder noted on Friday, it’s easy to find new woo-filled claims or dangerous, evidence-lacking trends to write about. Heck, I did it just last week, much to the continued consternation of one of our regular readers and commenters. Examining certain other health-related issues from a science-based perspective is more difficult, but I feel obligated to do it from time to time, not just for a change of pace but to stimulate the synapses and educate myself—and, I hope, you as well—about areas outside of my usual expertise.

We spend a lot of time writing about the scientific basis of medicine, clinical trials, what is and isn’t quackery, and how “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) subverts the scientific basis of medicine. However, SBM goes far beyond just that. At least I think of it this way. That’s why I’ve looked at issues that go more to the heart of health policy, which should be based on sound science and evidence. That evidence might take different forms than it does for determining, for example, whether Medicaid results in better health outcomes and by how much health insurance does the same. As is the case with policy issues and economics, conclusions are muddled and messy. The error bars are huge, and the number of potential confounders even huger. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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An Apple a Day

We (the authors and editors) at SBM get accused of many nefarious things. Because we deliberately engage with the public over controversial medical questions, we expect nothing less. It goes with the territory. In fact, if there were a lack of critical pushback we would worry that we were not doing our job.

Still, it is disconcerting to see the frequently-repeated ideological accusations in response to simply evaluating and reporting the evidence. That is what we do here – follow the science and evidence. When that trail leads to a conclusion that some people do not like (usually for ideological reasons) a common response is to accuse us of ideology, malfeasance, being part of a conspiracy, or having conflicts of interest or ulterior motives. That is easier, I suppose, than engaging with us on the science.

One common accusation is that we are shills for the pharmaceutical industry, and downplay or ignore the benefits of diet and “natural” treatments. A search through the SBM archives demonstrates that this accusation is false – we criticize bad science and poor-quality control, regardless of who is committing it. Sometimes pseudoscience is used to promote a drug, sometimes a nutritional supplement, and sometimes pure magic. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Public Health

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Vaccines work. Period.

Over my blogging “career,” which now stretches back nearly nine years, and my hobby before that of engaging in online “debates” on Usenet newsgroups back before 2004, I developed an interest in the antivaccine movement. Antivaccinationism, “antivax,” or whatever you want to call it, represents a particularly insidious and dangerous form of quackery because it doesn’t just endanger the children whose parents don’t vaccinate them. It also endangers children who are vaccinated, because vaccines are not 100% effective. The best vaccines have effectiveness rates in the 90%-plus range, but that still leaves somewhere up to 10% of children unprotected. Worse, because herd immunity requires in general approximately 90% of the population and above to be vaccinated against a vaccine-preventable disease to put the damper on outbreaks, it doesn’t take much of a degradation of vaccination rates to put a population in danger of outbreaks. That’s why, even though overall vaccine uptake is high in the US, we still see outbreaks, because there are areas with pockets of nonvaccinators and antivaccinationists who drive vaccine uptake down to dangerous levels. We’ve seen this in California and elsewhere. Other countries have observed even more dramatic examples, the most well-known being the way that fear of the MMR vaccine stoked by Andrew Wakefield’s bad science and the fear mongering of the British press led MMR uptake to plummet. The result? Measles came roaring back in the UK and Europe, from having been considered under control in the 1990s to being endemic again by 2008.

As much as I get chastised by concern trolls for saying this, to antivaccinationists it really is all about the vaccines. Always. They blame autism, other neurodevelopmental conditions, and a wide variety of chronic diseases on vaccines, without evidence that there is even a correlation. They even falsely blame sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) on vaccines, even though there is no evidence of an association and, indeed, existing evidence suggests that vaccines likely have a protective effect against SIDS more than anything else. No matter what happens, no matter what the evidence says, antivaccinationists will always find a way to blame bad things on vaccines, even going so far as to claim at times that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury.

One thing, however, that is often forgotten, is that they also do their utmost to downplay the beneficial effects of vaccines. One such tactic is for antivaccinationists to claim that the pertussis vaccine doesn’t work because we are seeing resurgences of pertussis even in the face of high vaccine uptake. For example, another common trope is what I like to refer to as the “vaccines didn’t save us” or the “vaccines don’t work” gambit, in which it is pointed out that the introduction of vaccines doesn’t correlate tightly with drops in mortality from various diseases. Julian Whitaker even used this gambit when he debated Steve Novella. The fundamental flaw in this trope neglects the contribution of better medical care to the survival of more victims of disease, which decreased mortality. If you look at graphs of disease incidence you will see a profound and powerful effect of the introduction of vaccines on specific vaccine-preventable diseases. In other words, vaccines work. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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The FDA and Personalized Genetic Testing

The company 23andMe provides personal genetic testing from a convenient home saliva sample kit. Their home page indicates that their $99 genetic screening will provide reports on 240+ health conditions in addition to giving you information on your genetic lineage. The benefits, they claim, are that you will learn about your carrier status and therefore the risk of passing on genetic diseases to your children. The information will also inform you about health risks so that you can change your behavior to manage them. Finally the genetic information will tell you about how you might respond to different drugs so that you can “arm your doctor with information.”

The home page also contains a link to testimonials about how their DNA testing has changed people’s lives.

This all sounds great – the promise of genomics that we have been hearing about now for about two decades. Isn’t this exactly what we were led to expect once we mapped the human genome?

Why, then, has the FDA recently sent a warning letter to 23andMe instructing them to discontinue marketing their Personal Genome Service (PGS)?

The primary reason appears to be a lack of documentation for the validity and reliability of the tests, but I have concerns that go even deeper. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health

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The new Surgeon General nominee and CAM: Is there a problem here?

Our fearless leader, Steve Novella, has informed me that he is traveling today. Unfortunately, I am preparing a talk for later today, and no one else seemed able to come up with a post; so I decided to adapt a recent post from my not-so-super-secret other blog and see what a different readership thought of it. I realize that I’m risking subjecting you all to Gorski overload, but, hey, if the world needs more Mark Crislip, why wouldn’t the world need more David Gorski too? Steve will return next Wednesday, as usual.

I don’t normally give a lot of thought to the Surgeon General because, quite frankly, in recent years it hasn’t been a position of much authority or influence. That’s why I didn’t noticed late last week that President Obama had nominated a new Surgeon General. Normally, my failure to notice isn’t such a big deal, because there really hasn’t been a Surgeon General who has really been particularly well-known or had much of an impact since Dr. C. Everett Koop, although back when President Obama first took office Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s name was floated as a possibility for the position. Obviously, he didn’t get it. (I’m guessing that being a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent probably pays much better than being Surgeon General.) To be honest, I didn’t even know that the prior Surgeon General had stepped down, but apparently she did in July, leaving the position filled by an interim Surgeon General until a new one could be nominated.

The other day, I learned whom President Obama nominated to be her successor, Dr. Vivek Murthy, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School:

President Obama will nominate Dr. Vivek Murthy of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital as surgeon general of the United States, the White House announced Thursday night.

Murthy is a hospitalist at the Brigham and is co-founder and president of Doctors for America, a Washington, D.C.-based group of 16,000 physicians and medical students that advocates for access to affordable, high quality health care and has been a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

If he’s confirmed by the Senate, Murthy would replace acting surgeon general Boris Lushniak. The surgeon general serves a four-year term and the post is essentially a bully pulpit to speak out on public health issues.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Monochloramines in Tap Water

I recently had a clogged drain requiring the services of a plumber. While discussing the details of the job, he took out brochures and a “fact sheet” prepared by his company explaining that my city tap water was going to kill me. Fortunately, they could provide a solution – a home-wide water filtration system.

The plumber seemed naively sincere, and genuinely fearful of the cancer-causing contaminants found in drinking water. He invited me to read through the material he provided while he unclogged by drain. I did better than that. I took the time to do a quick search for some more objective information on the topic.

Monochloramines

The focus of this particular scaremongering is the additive monochloramine, which is added to city water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

Chloramines are disinfectants used to treat drinking water. Chloramines are most commonly formed when ammonia is added to chlorine to treat drinking water. The typical purpose of chloramines is to provide longer-lasting water treatment as the water moves through pipes to consumers. This type of disinfection is known as secondary disinfection. Chloramines have been used by water utilities for almost 90 years, and their use is closely regulated. More than one in five Americans uses drinking water treated with chloramines. Water that contains chloramines and meets EPA regulatory standards is safe to use for drinking, cooking, bathing and other household uses.

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Dietary supplement industry says “no” to more information for consumers (again)

Once again, the dietary supplement industry is fighting efforts to give consumers more information about the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements.

Big Supp is very clever. It sells consumers on the phony idea that they need dietary supplements for good health. Even as the evidence continues to mount that consumers don’t need supplements and shouldn’t take them, the industry continues to convince the public otherwise. And in 2011 they raked in $30 billion.

The state and federal governments have served as handmaidens to the industry in this clever marketing strategy. Congress’s gift to the supplement industry, the Orwellian-named Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) “effectively excludes manufacturers of these products from virtually all regulations that are in place for prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and puts the requirement to demonstrate harm on the FDA, rather than the onus on the manufacturer to show a product is safe and effective,” as SBM’s Scott Gavura pointed out. DSHEA allows supplements to make “structure and function” claims, although no one seems to know what that means, including the FDA.

States have done their part in granting chiropractors and naturopaths the authority to give “nutritional” advice and recommend dietary supplements, sometimes on the basis of dubious diagnostic testing purporting to reveal imagined nutritional deficiencies. This gives them carte blanche to sell supplements to their patients, a clear conflict of interest.

And when proposed regulation threatens their profits, the dietary supplement industry and its surrogates enlist the very public it duped to join the battle. The industry convinces the public that someone is trying to take away their access to supplements they never needed in the first place. This threat is dressed up in terms designed to push all the buttons of a public already primed to be leery of “the government” – their “health freedom” may be taken away. Actually, freedom to choose among health care practices is most threatened by withholding readily-available information which would adequately inform health care decisions. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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I refute it thus

Reality is one honey badger. It don’t care. About you, about your thoughts, about your needs, about your beliefs. You can reject reality and substitute your own, but reality will roll on, eventually crushing you even as you refuse to dodge it. The best you can hope for is to play by reality’s rules and use them to your benefit. Combined with a little luck (nothing quite as beneficial as being a white, middle class male in the US) you might have a reasonably healthy health.

The most reliable way to understand reality is science and the scientific method. Used wisely you may have a shot at minimizing morbidity and mortality. Deny or ignore it and reality don’t care. Reality will get us all.

We all have our biases, recognized and unrecognized. I often see the world in terms of infectious diseases. When I read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln I enjoyed the politics and personalities but I was struck by how people constantly died young of infectious diseases. We don’t see mortality in the young anymore for a variety of reasons: better nutrition, an understanding of the pathogenesis of disease, clean water, flush toilets and vaccines.
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Danger Zones of Parental Vaccine Refusal

Back in 2009 I wrote a story entitled, “The New Plague”, about my experiences as a pediatrician with the frightening trend of parental vaccine refusal in New York City. In that post I discussed some of the complex social factors contributing to this phenomenon, and some of the common vaccine myths to which many parents fall prey. I recommend that you read that post, as it is (unfortunately) as timely today as it was then. Now I’m a pediatrician in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I find it necessary to revisit this dangerous trend in parenting.

As I described in my previous post on the subject, my old practice was at an interesting crossroads of several communities that seemed to perfectly embody the socioeconomic and cultural characteristics commonly found in communities with high rates of parental vaccine refusal. Ironically, these tend to include people who are educated and socially privileged; those empowered to question authority. In 2010, I left New York City and moved to Western Massachusetts to take a job at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield. There I was in charge of the teaching clinic where pediatric residents are trained in the outpatient care of children. The children we took care of in Springfield comprised a very high-risk, underprivileged population. Our patients were significantly below the poverty level, with high rates of developmental and educational disability, a high teen pregnancy rate, and high rates of domestic violence, drug use, and gang involvement. Children who were not up to date with their vaccinations were behind because of poor continuity of care, with many missed appointments and gaps in follow-up. I now work at a private practice further north in the Pioneer Valley of Central Massachusetts. Here, my experiences with vaccine lapses are starkly different. Now, when I encounter a child who is not fully vaccinated or is completely unvaccinated, it is the result of a parental decision. A very flawed, dangerous, and misinformed parental decision.
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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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California Acupuncturists Don’t Need to Know English!

English proficiency is not a necessary precursor to becoming a contributing citizen in California’s economy and should not be used by the Board to discriminate against talented and skilled individuals who seek to provide high-quality acupuncture services in California.

— State Senators Curren D. Price Jr. and Darrell Steinberg, letter to the California Acupuncture Board, March 22, 2013.

To appreciate the recklessness of this statement, and to illustrate the Senators’ disconnect with the reality of Oriental medicine, let’s take a look at a consummate example of services provided by acupuncturists. The following video features the “Master” Kim Nam-soo demonstrating his moxibustion technique. He conducted a similar workshop for future acupuncturists in 2010 at Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica, CA. Make sure you do not miss the part where the Master is skillfully adding his own spit to the treatment!

Kim Nam-Soo (also known as “Gudang”) is a 97-year-old acupuncturist from South Korea. In this video, he is teaching a form of moxibustion (burning of a mugwort cone on or near the skin). He is first preparing a wad of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), he is then placing it on an acupuncture point and burning it with an incense stick. Note that he is using his own saliva to make the mugwort more malleable before sticking it to the patient’s skin!

Besides acupuncture and moxibustion, the other services these “talented and skilled” individuals provide consist of massage, cupping, breathing techniques, and the use of herbal, animal and mineral products. In most states, bloodletting is not part of their scope of practice — except for Arkansas.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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