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Random Flu Thoughts

I normally write the first draft of this blog the weekend before it is due, and this is no exception.  However, I am ill this weekend.  Headache, myalgias., painful cough, but only mildly ill.  The worst part is the interferon induced brain fog; my thoughts flow with all the speed of pudding and I was not appreciably better as the week progressed, although no cracks about how  you can’t any difference in my writing over baseline.

I doubt the cause of my symptoms is influenza.  According to the CDC site and Google flu trends there is little influenza activity in the US at the moment, so it is probably one of the innumerable viruses that can cause a flu-like illness.  I am also not ill enough to think I have influenza, but I could be having a modified course as I was vaccinated a month ago.  Of course, the doctor who treats herself has a fool for a patient and an idiot for a doctor. Flu season approaches, so from my interferon addled brains, flu thoughts.

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Milk Thistle and Mushroom Poisoning

If you’ve been fortunate to live in the parts of the US that were soggier than usually as of late – or unfortunate enough to have had flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms – then you’ve be noticing a tremendous burst of mushrooms.

For mycologists – mushroom enthusiasts – there are two classic chestnuts: “There are old mushroom collectors and bold mushrooms collectors, but there are no old, bold mushroom collectors.”

Or, in a more concise Croatian proverb, “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.”

As such, this is the time of year that emergency rooms and regional poison centers begin to see a burst in poisonings from mushroom ingestion, due primarily to amateur misidentification of the fruiting bodies.

Just this past week, Jason McClure at Medscape Oncology News (free reg req’d) wrote about the unusual bloom of mushrooms in the northeastern US and the concomitant bloom of mushroom poisonings this fall.

But “mushroom poisoning” is an imprecise diagnosis for the ER physician. The constellation of symptoms caused by toxic mushrooms is as diverse as the colors and shapes of these wonders of nature. From another Medscape article on emergency management of mushroom poisoning by Dr. Rania Habal from the Emergency Medicine department of NYU:

Mushrooms are best classified by the physiologic and clinical effects of their poisons. The traditional time-based classification of mushrooms into an early/low toxicity group and a delayed/high toxicity group may be inadequate. Additionally, many mushroom syndromes develop soon after ingestion. For example, most of the neurotoxic syndromes, the Coprinus syndrome (ie, concomitant ingestion of alcohol and coprine), the immunoallergic and immunohemolytic syndromes, and most of the GI intoxications occur within the first 6 hours after ingestion.

Ingestions most likely to require intensive medical care involve mushrooms that contain cytotoxic substances such as amatoxin, gyromitrin, and orellanine. Mushrooms that contain involutin may cause a life-threatening immune-mediated hemolysis with hemoglobinuria and renal failure. Inhalation of spores of Lycoperdon species may result in bronchoalveolitis and respiratory failure that requires mechanical ventilation.

Mushrooms that contain the GI irritants psilocybin, ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscarine may cause critical illness in specific groups of people (eg, young persons, elderly persons). Hallucinogenic mushrooms may also result in major trauma and require care in an intensive care setting. Lastly, coprine-containing mushrooms cause severe illness only when combined with alcohol (ie, Coprinus syndrome).

Among the poisonous mushrooms, Amanita phalloides is perhaps the most deadly. If you’ve spent any time in a biochemical laboratory you will have learned of the primary toxin of the mushroom, α-amanitin. This potency of this toxin comes from its remarkably high affinity for RNA polymerase II, the primary RNA polymerase for making messages that are converted into proteins.

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Public Health

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Does Weight Matter?

Determining the net health effects of independent factors can be tricky, especially when those factors cannot be controlled for in experimental studies. For things like body mass index (BMI) we must rely on observational data and triangulate with multiple studies to isolate the contributions from BMI. But it can be done.

The data, however, are likely to be complex and noisy, and therefore there is plenty of opportunity for ideology to trump objectivity in interpreting the data. There are those who, for whatever reason, deny that we are having an obesity epidemic in the West, and those who deny the health implications of being overweight as an independent factor.

BMI

The terms overweight and obesity have had various definitions in the past, but in recent years the various health organizations have settled on consensus operational definitions (for obvious practical reasons). Their definition relates to body mass index, which is a person’s weight in kilograms (kg) divided by their height in meters (m) squared.

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Posted in: Public Health

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The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s muddled draft policy on “non-allopathic” medicine

Detroit is my hometown, and three and a half years ago, after nearly twenty years away wandering between residency, graduate school, fellowship, and my first academic job, I found myself back in Detroit minted as surgical faculty at Wayne State University and practicing and doing research at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. One thing that I had forgotten about while I was away for so many years is just how intimately southeast Michigan interacts with Canada. This closeness is not surprising, given that Detroit and Windsor are separated by only about a half mile of Detroit River. Indeed, a there are a lot of Canadians who cross the border on a daily basis to work in the Detroit area, many of them in the medical center within which my cancer center is located. The reason I point this out is not to wax nostalgic for trips to Windsor or for the occasional trip to Stratford to see plays but to point out that Ontario is right next to us. What happens there is of concern to me because I know quite a few people who live there and because it can on occasion influence what goes on over here on the U.S. side of the border.

I recently learned that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has been working on updating its policy on the use of nonconventional medical therapies. The wag in me can’t help but wonder why such a policy would need to say anything other than that, if it isn’t science- and evidence-based, the CPSO doesn’t support using it, but in a less sarcastic moment I realized that such a policy is probably not that bad an idea, as long as it doesn’t legitimize pseudoscience, which is, of course, the biggest pitfall to be avoided when writing such a policy. Not too long ago, the CPSO released its draft policy and has asked for public comments, with the deadline being September 1. I was happy to learn that I had not missed the deadline, because there is much to comment about regarding this policy, but it’s definitely true that time’s short. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so happy when I read the title of the draft policy, namely Non-Allopathic (Non-Conventional) Therapies in Medical Practice, with a subtitle of “Formerly named Complementary Medicine.” The full policy in PDF form can be found at this link.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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On the Orwellian language and bad science of the anti-vaccine movement: “SmartVax” versus “MaxVax”?

If there’s one thing that’s true of the human race, it’s that when it comes to persuasion language is has power. Words have power. Just ask the advertising industry or politicians, who rely on their skills manipulating language to persuade for their very livelihood and authority. In the specific bailiwick of this blog, Science-Based Medicine, many of us have spent considerable verbiage describing how advocates of unscientific modalities rebranded as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and/or “integrative medicine” (IM) are incredibly skilled at the manipulation of language and renaming of terms in order to make them sound more persuasive, particularly to make it sound as though their modalities are scientifically supported or that it’s just another “alternative” to SBM. In fact, Kimball Atwood has made a special study of the language of CAM, even going so far to do an amusing feature that he used to call the Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo. Indeed, the very name “integrative medicine” is a masterful term that makes it sound as though they’re just “integrating” the best of scientific medicine and “traditional” or “alternative” medicine when in fact what is happening all too often is the “integration” of quackery with medicine or, as I sometimes like to call it, “integrating” fake medicine with real medicine. Unfortunately, my definition of “integrative medicine” doesn’t appear to be winning, although I was gratified that I got several Tweets during our panel at TAM9 quoting my line about integrating quackery with medicine.

The anti-vaccine movement has been pretty good, albeit not as masterful as, say, Andrew Weil, when it comes to manipulating language to its own end. Who can forget three years ago, when the meme started spreading throughout the anti-vaccine movement that it’s “not anti-vaccine but rather ‘pro-safe vaccine’” and started demanding that the government and pharmaceutical companies “green our vaccines.” The reason is obvious; even anti-vaccine activists know that it’s a public relations loser to be explicitly anti-vaccine, which is Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaccine groups that participated in her “Green Our Vaccines” rally did their best to downplay and hide their radical anti-vaccine base. They failed. (The signs about vaccines as “weapons of mass destruction” rather undercut the “pro-safe vaccine” message. I’ve dealt with this fallacy before in depth, explaining why it is appropriate to call them “anti-vaccine,” even as they strenuously deny that they are. More recently, the preferred narrative has been “too many, too soon,” which leads me to another term coined by the group SafeMinds and promoted on—where else?—Age of Autism.

Now, the SafeMinds/AoA approach is being dubbed “SmartVax.”
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine

Background

This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Behavior and Public Health – To Nudge or Legislate

As health care costs rise and great attention is being paid to the health care system in many countries (perhaps especially the US), the debate is heating up over how to improve public health. Many health problems are greatly increased by the lifestyle choices individuals make – smoking, weight control, and exercise to name a few. The problem is that it is notoriously difficult to change behavior.
There are different ways to approach the challenge of improving lifestyle choices to reduce chronic illness. We can take actions aimed at the individual or aimed at society. These actions can be gentle or passive (the so-called “nudge theory”), or they can be more draconian, such as banning certain activity. We can, of course, do all of these things simultaneously, and may need to in order to have a significant impact.

Affecting Individual Behavior

A common criticism of mainstream physicians is that they do not have much impact on the lifestyle of their patients. This is largely true – although there is no convincing evidence that any practitioners have a significant impact on lifestyle. This is mainly the result of the fact that it is extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior.

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Posted in: Public Health

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Anti-vaccine propaganda in The Baltimore Sun

The hypothesis that vaccines cause autism has been about as thoroughly falsified through research as any health hypothesis can be. Even if, by bending over backward into a back-breaking contortionist pose to be “open-minded”, some people will concede that there’s still a bit of room for reasonable doubt about whether there is no link between vaccines and autism in “susceptible” populations, there is no room for reasonable doubt left over whether vaccines caused the so-called “autism-epidemic” of the last two decades. They did not. Similarly, the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which used to be in several childhood vaccines until the end of 2001, when thimerosal was removed from all but some flu vaccines, has been about as cleared of being a cause of autism as it is possible for a substance to be. Basically, if thimerosal-containing vaccines were a cause of autism, we would have expected to see a decrease in autism prevalence beginning three to five years after the removal of thimerosal. Epidemiological studies have failed to find such a decline and have also failed to find evidence of correlation. I realize that anti-vaccine activists argue that there are still trace amounts of thimerosal in some vaccines, but, even so, thimerosal exposure in children fell almost overnight to levels lower than the 1980s, which was before the beginning of the “autism epidemic.” At the very least, one would expect autism rates to fall back to 1980s levels if thimerosal in vaccines were a driving force behind this “epidemic.” They haven’t. Quite the contrary, they’ve continued to climb.

So why does the manufactroversy that vaccines cause autism persist? There is no longer a scientific controversy; by and large, the question has been asked and answered. Vaccines do not cause autism, as far as we can detect. True, it’s impossible to completely prove a negative hypothesis, but if there is any way that vaccines do cause autism, it’s at a level below the ability of large epidemiological studies with tens or even hundreds of thousands of children to detect. Yet the fear persists.

One reason is that it’s very hard to eradicate a false belief, once entrenched. I’ve discussed many times how difficult it is to change people’s minds, as motivated reasoning leads them to seek confirming evidence and discount all else. Disconfirming evidence can even lead people to harden their beliefs even more. In particular, the hardcore anti-vaccine activists who persist in spreading the vaccine-autism myth have an interest and motivation in this mythology at least as potent as the interest pharmaceutical companies have in defending vaccines—more so, arguably, given the emotional attachment people have for their children. After all, all pharmaceutical companies are interested in, according to this mythology, is profit. If a parent, correctly or incorrectly, somehow comes to believe that something or someone has hurt his or her child, it is among the most potent motivations known to do something about it.

Another reason is that the concept has become entrenched in our culture—or at least parts of our culture—to the point where it appears regularly in the media, thus reinforcing the idea among those who don’t pay attention to the issue or those who do but haven’t decided if they believe that vaccines cause autism that maybe there is something to fear. Maybe there is still a controversy. A perfect example appeared in The Baltimore Sun over the weekend entitled We don’t know enough about childhood vaccines and subtitled Researcher asks: Are 36 doses of vaccine by age 2 too much, too little, or just right? I contend that the editors of The Baltimore Sun, by publishing this anti-vaccine propaganda, which would have been at home on the websites of the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism or on the website of anti-vaccine groups SafeMinds, Generation Rescue, the International Medical Council on Vaccination or the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). Examining this article, written by Margaret Dunkle, described as a “senior research scientist at the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University and director of the Early Identification and Intervention Collaborative for Los Angeles County” and as having “a family member who is vaccine-injured,” is what I would consider a “teachable moment” in analyzing the tactics of the anti-vaccine movement.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Exorcism and Sorcery as Health Benefits?!

Luis Fernando Verissimo, a Brazilian writer, once proposed “voodoopuncture”. Instead of going to the acupuncturist, you would be treated without leaving home. The voodoopuncturist would stick acupuncture needles in the voodoo dolls of you! I add that voodoopuncture could be outsourced to Haiti and/or China. It is a win-win-win situation!

– Leonardo Monasteri, Brazilian economist

As unbelievable as this might sound, “voodoopuncture” is no fiction at all.

The practice is called “Tong Ren healing,” and involves needling or hammering an acupuncture mannequin, as if it were a voodoo doll. The main Tong Ren “Master” in the US is an acupuncturist in the Boston area by the name of Tom Tam. He treats groups of terminally ill and debilitated patients in a deliverance ceremony that is noting but a revamped Taoist exorcism — only the clay or straw doll is replaced by a plastic mannequin:

Unfortunately, Tom Tam is not the only licensed healthcare provider who is treating patients with hocus pocus and crackpottery. There are over 30,000 other adepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the US who practice medicine based on notions of health and disease that are rooted in paranormal and magical beliefs. Some of these practitioners take their delusions to the outer limits of absurdity: consider, for instance, “acutonics” and “colorpuncture” as described in these videos:

In anthropology of religion, the principles that underline the above practices are called “imitation” (e.g. using a doll to affect a person), and “correspondence” (e.g. using a sound to affect an object). They are the hallmarks of what is called “sympathetic magic,” meaning the belief that a person, or a thing, can be affected through something that represents it, or that has similar attributes.1 The principle of magical correspondence in TCM is called wu xing (五行) in Chinese, and is known as the Five Phases/Elements Theory in English. It can be summarized as follows:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Anti-vaccine warriors vs. research ethics

Three weeks ago, the anti-vaccine movement took a swing for the fences and, as usual, made a mighty whiff that produced a breeze easily felt in the bleachers. In brief, a crew of anti-vaccine lawyers headed by Mary Holland, co-author of Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children, published a highly touted (by Generation Rescue and other anti-vaccine groups, that is) “study” claiming to “prove” that the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) had actually compensated children for autism. As is typical with such “studies” generated by the anti-vaccine movement, it was bad science, bad law, and just plain bad all around. The authors intentionally conflated “autism-like” symptoms with autism, trying to claim that children with neurological injury with “autism-like” symptoms actually have autism. Never mind that there are specific diagnostic criteria for autism and that, if the children actually had autism, many of them would have been given a diagnosis of autism. Never mind that what they were doing was akin to claiming that all patients with “Parkinson’s-like symptoms” have Parkinson’s disease. (Hint: They don’t.) Never mind that all they did was to demonstrate a prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among the VICP-compensated children that was clearly within the range of what would be anticipated if there were no relationship between vaccines and autism. Never mind all that. This was Holland’s big chance, but it went over like the proverbial lead balloon. No one bit, other than FOX News.

The study rapidly faded into the obscurity it so richly deserves, in spite of mighty efforts by Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, and the likes of Ginger Taylor to keep it alive and use it as a rallying point to persuade legislators to pass anti-vaccine-friendly legislation. You could feel the frustration in its backers as Holland’s study, into which groups like Generation Rescue had apparently poured their hopes of being vindicated, crashed and burned.

However, there’s one aspect of this study that I didn’t discuss. In fact, I thought of it as I read it, but I wasn’t sure. What I (and others) have noticed is that there was no statement in the article that approval had been obtained from the relevant institutional review boards (IRBs) to do human subjects research. For those not familiar with what an IRB is, an IRB is a committee that oversees all human subject research for an institution. It is the IRB’s responsibility to make sure that all studies are ethical in design and that they conform to all federal regulations. Basically, IRBs are charged with weighing the risks and benefits of proposed human subject research and making sure that

  1. risks are minimized and that the risk:benefit ratio, at least as well as it can be estimated, is very favorable;
  2. to minimize any pain, suffering or distress that might come about because of the experimental therapy; and
  3. to make sure that researchers obtain truly informed consent.

During the course of a study, regular reports must be made to the IRB, which can shut down any study in its institution if it has concerns about patient welfare.
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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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