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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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Measles outbreaks, 2011

We frequently write about the consequences and costs of not vaccinating and how the anti-vaccine movement is causing real harm to real people through its assaults on public health. For example, through his fear mongering in the U.K., Andrew Wakefield, aided and abetted by a credulous and sensationalistic British media, managed to reverse decades of progress that had resulted in measles having come under control; as a result of plummeting vaccination rates in the wake of his 1998 Lancet case series, measles came roaring back in the U.K. Now it appears to be roaring back in Europe as well.

It’s bitterly ironic that news of measles outbreaks in the U.S. and Europe have come to the fore even as, over the long Memorial Day weekend, promoters of the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism gathered in a suburb of Chicago to sell “biomedical” treatments for autism and promote an anti-vaccine world view as part and parcel of the yearly autism quackfest known as Autism One. Adding to the grim irony is that last Thursday Nature published an issue with a special section devoted specifically to vaccines. The timing seemed just too deliciously appropriate to ignore. Think of it. In the Chicago area, there was a collection of anti-vaccine crackpots meeting to present fallacious “science” claiming that vaccines cause autism and all manner of chronic health problems. In contrast, one of the oldest and most distinguished scientific journals in existence publishes several articles in a single issue about vaccines. The karma was even stronger, given that the week before the CDC published a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) last week discussing the status of measles in the U.S.
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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Smallpox and Pseudomedicine

A good case of smallpox may rid the system of more scrofulous, tubercular, syphilitic and other poisons than could otherwise be eliminated in a lifetime. Therefore, smallpox is certainly to be preferred to vaccination. The one means elimination of chronic disease, the other the making of it.

Naturopaths do not believe in artificial immunization . . .

—Harry Riley Spitler, Basic Naturopathy: a textbook (American Naturopathic Association, Inc., 1948). Quoted here.

Here’s what a good case of smallpox will do for you:

If you’re lucky enough to beat the reaper (20-60%; 80% or higher in infants) or blindness (up to 30%), those blisters will leave you scarred for life. Oh, and the next time a good smallpox epidemic comes around, your children born since the last one will catch it and contribute their fair share to the death rate. But not you because you’ll be immune, so you’ll have the “preferred” experience of watching your children die well before you do.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Epidemiology, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Public Health, Vaccines

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When you can’t win on science, invoke the law…

Late last week, the anti-vaccine underground was all atwitter. The reason was the announcement of an impending press conference, scheduled for yesterday at noon in Washington, DC that proclaimed:

Investigators and Families of Vaccine-Injured Children to Unveil Report Detailing Clear Vaccine-Autism Link Based on Government’s Own Data

Report Demands Immediate Congressional Action

Directors of the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy (EBCALA), parents and vaccine-injured children will hold a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (717 Madison Place, NW in Washington, DC) on Tuesday, May 10 at 12:00 PM to unveil an investigation linking vaccine injury to autism. For over 20 years, the federal government has publicly denied a vaccine-autism link, while at the same time its Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) has been awarding damages for vaccine injury to children with brain damage, seizures and autism. This investigation, based on public, verifiable government data, breaks new ground in the controversial vaccine-autism debate.

The investigation found that a substantial number of children compensated for vaccine injury also have autism. The government has asserted that it “does not track” autism among the vaccine-injured. Based on this preliminary investigation, the evidence suggests that autism is at least three times more prevalent among vaccine-injured children than among children in the general population.

I could hardly wait.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Safety Checklist

During my recent stint covering the Neuro ICU I noticed for the first time a checklist posted above each patient bed. The checklist covered the steps to undergo whenever performing an invasive procedure on the patient. I was glad to see that the checklist phenomenon had penetrated my hospital, although the implementation of safety checklists is far from complete.

A recent study published in the BMJ offers support for the efficacy of using checklists to reduce complications and improve patient outcomes. This is a retrospective study looking at mortality and length of stay in Michigan area ICUs, comparing those that had implemented the Michigan Keystone ICU project (including a safety checklist for the placement of central lines) with local ICUs that had not implemented the project. They found a 10% decrease in overall mortality, but the results were not significant for length of stay. Because this was a retrospective study it was not designed to prove cause and effect, but it is highly suggestive of the efficacy of implementing such checklists.

The checklist trend represents a culture change within medicine – and a good one. This change received its greatest boost with the publication of The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande. He presents a compelling case for the need and efficacy of using checklists in order to minimize error.

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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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