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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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Breast implants and anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL): Is there a link?

I must admit that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with breast implants. On the one hand, as a breast cancer surgeon, I see them as a major benefit to my patients who are unfortunate enough to require mastectomy in order to control their disease. The armamentarium of techniques for reconstructing breasts after mastectomy generally falls into one of two categories, either various form of muscle flaps or breast implants. However, some women are, for various reasons, not eligible for various muscle flap reconstructions. That leaves either breast implants–or nothing. Certainly, some women are perfectly fine with no reconstruction after mastectomy, but many, if not most, women are not. For these women, it would be difficult to overstate how much of a boon to body image and self-esteem reconstruction can be, particularly given how much better at it plastic surgeons have become over the last couple of decades.

On the other hand, breast implants make my life as a breast cancer surgeon more difficult for a variety of reasons. First, they tend to make mammography more difficult by obscuring part of the breast, thus decreasing the sensitivity of mammography. Good mammography facilities can get around this to some extent by using various displacement techniques, but it takes some effort, and it doesn’t completely correct the problems that implants cause for mammographic screening. Moreover, when a woman who has had implants placed for cosmetic reasons comes to see me for a breast mass or an abnormal mammogram, the presence of the implants can complicate treatment decisions. If the abnormality or mass is close to the implant, we worry about rupturing it in the process, particularly if the implant is not below the pectoralis major muscle. Even when the implant is subpectoral, the muscle overlying it frequently ends up being so stretched out that the muscle in essence forms part of the capsule around the implant and ends up being a lot thinner than you might expect. Let me tell you, my anal sphincter tone is always much tighter when operating near an implant, particularly a silicone implant. True, I’m perfectly capable of removing an implant if it’s accidentally ruptured, but such an outcome is not desirable, particularly with silicone implants, where cleaning up the leaking silicone can be difficult.

It doesn’t help that silicone breast implants have been the subject of controversy since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when thousands of women with silicone implants reported a variety of ailments, including autoimmune disease and a variety of other systemic illnesses. These reports led to a rash of lawsuits and, ultimately, the banning of silicone breast implants for general use in 1992. After that, silicone breast implants were only permitted in women requiring breast reconstruction or women enrolled in clinical trials studying breast implants. This ban was partially lifted in 2006, as evidence accumulated that the claims of autoimmune diseases and increased cancer risk due to silicone breast implants were not supported by clinical and scientific evidence and two products made by Allergan Corp. (formerly Inamed Corp.) and Mentor Corp. Not surprisingly, given that the furor over silicone breast implants as a cause of autoimmune and other systemic diseases is based on about as much solid scientific evidence as the antivaccine furor over vaccines as a cause of the “autism epidemic,” there was widespread criticism of this decision. Even now, it is not difficult to find articles about breast implants with titles like Breast Implants: America’s Silent Epidemic and websites like the Humantics Foundation and Toxic Breast Implants . I do note, however, that the number of such sites and articles does appear to be declining and, at least to my impression, seems to have decreased markedly over the last 10 years or so.

Having reviewed the literature and found evidence for a link between silicone breast implants and the systemic diseases attributed to them to be incredibly weak at best, I had little problem with the FDA’s decision. Actually, the only thing I had a problem with at the time, my opinions of how breast implants interfere with breast cancer detection and treatment notwithstanding, is that the FDA was probably being more cautious than the evidence warranted after 14 years.

Was I wrong?
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Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Obesity Denial

It seems that for every established science there is an ideological group who is motivated to deny it. Denialism is a thriving pseudoscience and affects any issue with the slightest political or social implications. Sometimes, even easily verifiable facts can be denied, as people seem willing to make up their own facts as needed.

Denialists have an easy job – to spread doubt and confusion. It is far easier to muddy the waters with subtle distortions and logical fallacies than it is to set the record straight. Even when every bit of misinformation is countered, the general public is often left with the sense that the topic is controversial or uncertain. If denial is in line with a group’s ideology, then even the suggestion of doubt may be enough to reject solid science.

We see this when it comes to the effectiveness of vaccines, the evolution of life on earth, and anthropogenic global warming. A recent Pew poll shows that the campaign of global warming denial has been fairly successful – while the science becomes more solid around the consensus that the earth is warming and humans are contributing to this, the public is becoming less convinced.

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Posted in: Epidemiology, Public Health

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Lest We Forget: Influenza Can Be Devastating

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…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Public Health

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Freeways, autism, and correlation versus causation

I have a love-hate relationship with epidemiology.

On the one hand, I love how epidemiology can look for correlations in huge sample sizes, sample sizes far larger than any that we could ever have access to in clinical trials, randomized or other. I love the ability of epidemiology to generate hypotheses that can be tested in the laboratory and then later in clinical trials. Also, let’s not forget that epidemiology is sometimes the only tool available to us that can answer some questions. Such questions generally involve hypotheses that can’t be tested in a randomized clinical trial because of either ethical concerns or others. A good example of this is the question of whether vaccines cause autism. For obvious ethical reasons, it’s not permissible to perform a randomized clinical trial in which one group of children is vaccinated and one is not, and then outcomes with respect to neurodevelopmental outcomes, such as autism and autism spectrum disorders, are tracked in the two groups. The ethical concern with such a study, of course, is the potential harm that would be likely to come to the unvaccinated control group, children who would be left unprotected against common and postentially deadly communicable diaseases.

On the other hand, epidemiology is one of the messiest of sciences, and epidemiological studies are among the most difficult in all of science to perform truly rigorously. The number of factors that can confound are truly amazing, and as a result, it’s very, very easy for an epidemiological study to detect apparent correlations that are either spurious or appear much stronger than the “true” correlation. There can be confounding factors beneath confounding factors wrapped in more confounding factors, the relationships among which are not always apparent. Not infrequently, a condition can appear to be correlated with, for instance, an environmental factor, but in reality that environmental factor and the condition both correlate with a third, unknown confounder. Worse, epidemiologists know that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but the general public, for the most part, does not, which is why, when anti-vaccine activists, for instance, point out to a rising autism prevalence and then point out that autism prevalence started rising around the same time the vaccine schedule was expanded, to the average layperson the argument sounds compelling. As a result, the design of an epidemiological study is paramount in order to account for or minimize such factors. That’s why I always said I can’t be an epidemiologist. Even though I was very good at math in college, the statistics still made my brain hurt, and I don’t have the patience for the messiness of trying to account for all the possible confounding factors.

However, for all their strengths and flaws, epidemiological studies are an integral part of science-based medicine. They are used to identify predisposing factors to diseases and conditions, environmental contributors to disease, and adverse reactions to drugs, among many other useful pieces of data. That’s why, from time to time, I like to examine epidemiological studies, particularly if they’re epidemiological studies that are getting a lot of press.

The use and abuse of autism epidemiology studies

For instance, studies like this one described in a story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday entitled Proximity to freeways increases autism risk, study finds: More research is needed, but the report suggests air pollution could be a factor:
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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