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Facebook’s reporting algorithm abused by antivaccinationists to silence pro-science advocates

This is not what I had wanted to write about for my first post of 2014, but unfortunately it’s necessary—so much so, in fact, that I felt the obligation to crosspost both here and on my not-so-super-secret other blog in order to get this information out to as wide a readership as possible.

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On the one hand, I like how easily it lets me stay in contact with family and friends across the country, people whom I would rarely see more than once or twice a year, if even that. On the other hand, I have the same privacy concerns that many other people have with respect to putting personal information, as well as pictures and videos of myself, family, and friends, onto Facebook. Now that I’ve become a (sort of) public figure (or, as I like to refer to myself, a micro-celebrity), I’ve thought that I should cull my friends list to just real friends with whom I have a connection (or at least have met in person or had private e-mail exchanges with) and set up a Facebook page for my public persona, to prevent people whom I don’t know or barely know from divebombing my wall with arguments. As I tell people, I don’t want obnoxious arguments on my Facebook wall; that’s what my blogs are for.

My personal social media preferences aside, Facebook does indeed have many shortcomings, but until something else comes along and steals the same cachet (which is already happening as teens flee Facebook to avoid their parents) and even after, Facebook will remain a major player in social media. That’s why its policies matter. They can matter a lot. I was reminded of this about a week ago when Dorit Reiss (who has of late been the new favored target of the antivaccine movement, likely because she is a lawyer and has been very effective thus far in her young online career opposing the antivaccine movement) published a post entitled Abusing the Algorithm: Using Facebook Reporting to Censor Debate. Because I also pay attention to some Facebook groups designed to counter the antivaccine movement I had already heard a little bit about the problem, but Reiss laid it out in stark detail. Basically, the merry band of antivaccinationists at the Australian Vaccination Network (soon to be renamed because its name is so obviously deceptive, given that it is the most prominent antivaccine group in Australia, that the NSW Department of Fair Trading ordered the anti-vaccine group to change its misleading name) has discovered a quirk in the algorithm Facebook uses to process harassment complaints against users and abused that quirk relentlessly to silence its opponents on Facebook.

I’ll let Reiss explain:

Over the weekend of December 21-22, an unknown person or persons used a new tactic, directed mainly at members of the Australian organization “Stop the Australian Vaccination Network” (The Australian Vaccination Network – AVN – is, in spite of its name, an anti-vaccine organization – see also here; SAVN had been very effective in exposing their agenda and mobilizing against them). In an attempt to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook, they went back over old posts and reported for harassment any comment that mentioned one person’s name specifically. Under Facebook’s algorithm, apparently, mentioning someone’s name means that if the comment is reported it can be seen as violating community standards. Which is particularly ironic, since many commentators, when replying to questions or comments from an individual, would use that individual’s name out of courtesy.

Several of the people so reported received 12-hours bans. Some of them in succession.

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Posted in: Computers & Internet, Public Health, Vaccines

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And Now for Something Completely Different

This will be a departure from my usual posts. Several announcements in the news and medical journals have caught my attention recently, and as I delved into the details, I thought I would share them with our SBM readers. Topics include AIDS cures, the continuing danger of polio, eating nuts for longevity, racial differences in vitamin D, and the use of pharmacogenetic testing to guide the dosage of anticoagulant drugs. They are all examples of science-based medicine in action.

Have patients been cured of AIDS?

I read that the HIV virus had returned in patients thought to have been cured by bone marrow transplants, and I mistakenly thought they were referring to the original claim of cure I had read about. Nope, that one still stands. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Vaccines

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Measles Spike in US

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced in a recent press release the data for 2013 so far shows 175 confirmed cases of measles in the US. This is about three times the usual rate of 60 per year since endemic measles was eradicated in the US, and is the most in the last decade other than 2011, which saw 222 cases.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that primarily causes a respiratory infection. It is not benign. According to the CDC:

About one out of 10 children with measles also gets an ear infection, and up to one out of 20 gets pneumonia. About one out of 1,000 gets encephalitis, and one or two out of 1,000 die.

About 500 Americans died each year of measles prior to the introduction of the vaccine. Measles is still endemic in Europe and many other parts of the world, causing about 20 million infections and 164,000 deaths each year. (more…)

Posted in: Vaccines

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Beyond the flu shot: A closer look at the “alternatives”

Once again, it’s influenza season. The vaccine clinics are open, and the hysterical posts about the vaccine’s danger are appearing in social media. There’s familiarity to all of this, but also a big new change – at least in Canada, where I am. Pharmacists can now administer the vaccine. And it’s completely free to anyone in Ontario (where I am), so the barriers to obtaining the vaccine are pretty much eliminated. There’s no longer a need to drag your kids to their family doctor or line up at a public health clinic. Anyone can walk into a pharmacy, show their health card, and walk out minutes later, vaccinated.  It’s another enabling change that may help improve immunization rates, as uptake rates in the population remain modest.

This year’s flu season is (as of week 47) fairly quiet. Google Flu trends suggests a fairly typical picture, nothing like what we saw in 2009/10, the year of H1N1. My city’s influenza tracker reports only a dozen cases so far this season. Many of us will get our flu shot, continue with our lives, and not think about the flu until next season’s announcements. That’s the hope, anyway. Influenza can kill, and in its more virulent forms, is devastatingly deadly. The worst case scenario (so far) is almost unimaginable today. In 1918/19 an influenza pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide (5% of the population). So among public health professionals, that worry about the next wave is always present. Much has been written at this blog <plug>nicely compiled in the SBM ebook,</plug> on the efficacy and safety of the flu vaccine. In short, the vaccine is effective for both individual and population-level protection, but only modestly so, and its effectiveness varies based on its match with circulating strains. And despite widespread use for decades, there are frustrating limitations with the current vaccine beyond efficacy, including the need to repeat the shot annually. Someone said something about “going to battle with the army you have”. (I thought it was Crislip but he was quoting Rumsfeld.) The quote is apt. It’s not a perfect vaccine, but it does offer protection – if not directly to you, then indirectly to those at greater risk of infection. Hospitals and health facilities have been criticized for demanding health professionals either get the vaccine or wear a mask – and the arguments against vaccination are losing. But even the strongest advocates of influenza vaccine will acknowledge its limitations, which perhaps contributes to the understandable perception that there is more that could be done- beyond reasonable and effective precautions like handwashing and hygiene. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Vaccines

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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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Scam Stud

We have evolved in order to survive reality, not to understand it. And it is a good thing that understanding and survival are not tightly linked as many people are apparently totally disconnected from the reality I inhabit, the one described by the natural sciences. When I started writing and podcasting about the SCAMverse I was under the impression that people who used SCAMs were simply misinformed. If people were made aware of the facts of the matter, they would see the error of their ways and put away their SCAMs as the childish thoughts they are.

Silly me. Reality, as I understand it, is often if little interest to proponents of SCAM. This was brought home by the Food Babe with an essay Should I get the Flu Shot? Spoiler alert. Her answer is “No, I’m not taking the Flu Shot. Ever.”

It is how she reaches that conclusion that is amazing. There are nouns and adjectives and adverbs and verbs and article and prepositions. They are strung together to form sentences and paragraphs, but somehow, though an almost magical alchemy, all that writing transmutes into content that is completely divorced from reality as I understand it. It is a tour de farce that reaches the definition of the Pauli Principle, where “It is not only not right, it is not even wrong.” (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Integrative Medicine’s Collateral Damage

Integrative medicine combines the practice of medicine with alternative medicine. Proponents tend to take a paragraph or two to say this, but that is what remains when boiled down to its essence. By putting this more concise definition together with Tim Minchin’s often-quoted observation about alternative medicine, you get: integrative medicine is the practice of medicine combined with medicine that either has not been proved to work or proved not to work. If it is proved to work, it is medicine.

I couldn’t find an official start date for integrative medicine, but it seems to have been around for about 15-20 years. (Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, an early adapter, opened in 1997.) Yet despite some lofty pronouncements about transforming patient care, there is still no good evidence that integrative medicine improves patient outcomes. It seems unlikely that such evidence is forthcoming. It is illogical to assume that adding therapies that do not work, or are proven not to work, would benefit a patient except by inducing the ethically problematic placebo response.

Whatever its goals initially, integrative medicine now appears to serve two purposes. First, it attracts funding from wealthy patrons (Samueli, Bravewell) and the government (the military, NCCAM). Second, it is a marketing device used by hospitals, academic medical centers and individual practitioners. As an added bonus, alternative medicine is usually fee-for-service because very little of it is covered by insurance. And whatever its charms as a money-making device, given the lack of proven health benefit it is fair to ask: is integrative medicine worth it? To answer that question, let us look at what might be called the supply side of integrative medicine practitioners’ delivery of alternative medicine. Here we run into some unpleasant facts proponents seem unwilling to acknowledge: integrative medicine’s collateral damage. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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What are words for?

Do you hear me

Do you care

Do you hear me

Do you care

My lips are moving and the sound’s coming out

The words are audible but I have my doubts

That you realize what has been said

You look at me as if you’re in a daze

It’s like the feeling at the end of the page

When you realize you don’t know what you just read

What are words for when no one listens anymore

What are words for when no one listens

What are words for when no one listens it’s no use talking at all

I might as well go up and talk to a wall

‘Cause all the words are having no effect at all

Missing Persons on blogging. Or so I thought. I was surprised to learn the song was written by the brothers Gibb.

Words are important. I try and choose my words carefully when writing so that they accurately reflect not only my thoughts but reality. When I speak, not so much. My frontal lobe filters often fail if I think might I might get a laugh.

I tell housestaff, precision of writing reflects precision of thought. It is one of the reasons I write; the act of writing forces some coherence into what can be muddled and inchoate thoughts. Even though I have residents who write notes, I always write my own. Often I do not make a final decision as to a plan until I put pen to paper, or electrons to screen. Writing crystallizes thought.

Not, evidently, for everyone, as 10 Facts About the Flu Vaccine and the Flu nicely demonstrates. (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Vaccines

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Another antivaccine zombie meme: polio vaccine and SV40 and cancer, oh, my!

Another antivaccine zombie meme: polio vaccine and SV40 and cancer, oh, my!

The Internet has produced a revolution with respect to information. Now, people anywhere, any time, can find almost any information that they want, as long as they have a connection to the global network and aren’t unfortunate enough to live in a country that heavily censors the Internet connections coming in. In addition, anyone any time can put his or her opinion out on the Internet and it might be read by people on the other side of the planet. For example, it continually amazes me that my blatherings here are read by people in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Europe and pretty much every other continent. Before the Internet, there was no way I would ever have achieved my current measure of minor celebrity status (and I do mean minor). Now, with enough good (I hope) writing and some links from some popular sources, and I can make my opinion known worldwide.

The dark side of this is that cranks can also make their opinions known worldwide, and, all too frequently, they are much better at it than skeptics are. For example, this very blog used a generic, vanilla WordPress template for the longest time, only updating it a few months ago. Meanwhile crank websites like NaturalNews.com are decked out in the latest, greatest web accoutrements, complete with video. One other problem with the democratization of information is that there now exist what I like to call “zombie memes.” In the world of quackery and pseudoscience, these are pseudoscientific claims on the Internet that never die, no matter how often they are refuted. Generally, such memes/claims pop up, make a fuss, are refuted, and then disappear. Then a few months (or even a year or two) later, something will happen to resurrect them. Maybe it’s a clueless mortician cremating the remains of such a zombie meme during a rainstorm and letting whatever it is that resurrected the dead meme in the first place permeate the soil of a graveyard of dead memes. Maybe it involved injecting a glowing fluid into the corpse of the meme. Who knows? Who cares that much? All I know is that these zombie memes keep popping up again and again as though they were new.

Re-animator-imagem

Now that the World Wide Web (at least as we know it, in its graphically browsable form) is approaching its twentieth birthday, we now have enough perspective to see these things. Steve Novella pointed out one zombie meme just the other day about the MMR, as did a certain person well known to this blog. Just yesterday I noticed another of these zombie memes arising from the dead yet again to feast on the brains of the living and thus make them cranks too. (At least, that is the goal of their continual resurrection.) This one popped up at that online repository of all things quackery, NaturalNews.com, in a post by Mike Adams himself entitled Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys. Other versions of this meme pop up from time to time with titles like CDC Admits 98 Million Americans Received Polio Vaccine In An 8-Year Span When It Was Contaminated With Cancer Virus.

Let’s dive in, shall we?
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Posted in: Vaccines

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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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