Articles

The price of cancer quackery

I don’t have much to add to this one, as it’s a tragic tale. Shadowfax, a blogging ER doc, relates to us what happens when cancer patients rely on quackery like the Gerson protocol instead of scientific medicine:

This was a young woman, barely out of her teens, who presented with a tumor in her distal femur, by the knee. This was not a new diagnosis — it had first been noted in January or so, and diagnosed as a Primary B-Cell Lymphoma. By now, the tumor was absolutely huge, and she came to the ER in agonizing pain. Her physical exam was just amazing. The poor thing’s knee (or more precisely, the area just above the knee) was entirely consumed by this massive, hard, immobile mass about the size of a soccer ball. She could not move the knee; it was frozen in a mid-flexed position. She hadn’t been able to walk for months. The lower leg was swollen and red due to blood clots, and the worst of the pain she was having seemed due to compression of the nerves passing behind the knee. It was like something you see out of the third world, or historic medical textbooks. I have never seen its like before.

So we got her pain managed, of course, and I sat down to talk to her and her family.

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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Medical Ethics

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Swine Flu Vaccine Fearmongering

Fear is a curious thing. It often bears no relation to the actual risk of what we fear. When swine flu first broke out in Mexico, people were understandably afraid.  Travel was restricted, schools were closed, and so many people stayed home that the streets of Mexico City were empty. As the disease spread around the world, Egypt developed a paranoid fear of pigs and committed national pigicide. They ordered the slaughter of all 300,000 of their country’s innocent little porkers, ignoring the fact that the flu is spread person-to-person, not pig-to-person. Now that the disease has officially been labeled a pandemic, fears have switched from the real threat of the disease to an imagined danger from the vaccine. 

Some people just plain hate the idea of vaccines – to the point that they are willing to spread old falsehoods, make up new lies, distort the results of studies, misrepresent statistics, and endanger our public health. There are websites like “Operation Fax to Stop the Vax” and even anti-swine-flu-vaccine rap videos.   Press releases, e-mail campaigns, talk shows, and blogs are being used to stir up irrational fears. These people are irresponsible fearmongers. They are wrong, and they are dangerous.  
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Posted in: Vaccines

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Before you trust that blog…

Doug Bremner has a blog. That blog stinks.

Bremner is an apparently well-regarded psychiatrist, and takes a refreshing look at the influence of industry not just on pharmaceuticals but on the conduct of science itself. His outspoken views have led to attempts to squelch his academic freedoms. But his sometimes-heroic record does not excuse dangerous idiocy.

I can understand how wading into the cesspool that is conflict of interest can leave one cynical. But cynicism and suspicion turned up to “11″ is no longer bravery—it’s crankery. It’s not his snarkiness that burns—it’s his inability to separate his biases from the facts.

It’s not like the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t deserve to be taken to the wood shed. Examples of unethical and downright immoral practices abound, such as ghost-writing, fake journals, and a host of other sins. But the industry has also helped develop a most remarkable pharmacopeia which saves and improves countless lives. There is good, and there is bad. And telling the two apart, well, that makes all the difference.

He tends to go for headlines that hit hard, but miss the point entirely. Examples:

  • Angioplasty Found to be Useless Waste of Money: he cites a journal article which he says concluded that “not useful for patients with stable coronary artery disease (CAD). ” His title would be accurate if angioplasty were used only in stable CAD—it is not.
  • Should I Take Aspirin or Put a Gun To My Head?: here, he sort of gets the difference between primary and secondary prevention, but not really. He also likes to admit that the data contradict his conclusion but he’s nice enough to say, “screw the data”:

    Although technically the risk of stomach bleeding is outweighed by the heart benefits of aspirin (which can only be shown when large numbers of patients are studied), in terms of what that means to you the differences are clinically meaningless.

  • This Just In: Breast Cancer Screening Essentially Useless: yes, Doug, breast cancer screening doesn’t benefit everyone equally. For example, the prevalence of breast cancers in men is low enough that recommending it for you would be stupid—like your article.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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“Oh, come on, Superman!”: Bill Maher versus “Western medicine”

I realize that I’ve spent a fair amount of verbiage (to put it mildly) expressing my frustration with celebrities whose support for pseudoscience and even outright quackery endanger public health. The two most frequent targets of the wrath, sarcasm, frustration, and puzzlement of me and my partners in crime at SBM have been Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey for their having emerged over the last two years as the most vocal celebrity faces of the anti-vaccine movement in general and the anti-vaccine organization Generation Rescue in particular and Oprah Winfrey for her promotion of pseudoscience, quackery, and mysticism on her show. That doesn’t even count Oprah’s inking of a development deal with Jenny McCarthy to do her own weekday talk show, which has poised McCarthy to walk in the footsteps of previous Oprah proteges, such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz. I’ve also lamented how celebrity physicians like Dr. Jay Gordon, Robert “Bob” Sears, and the hosts of the daytime TV show The Doctors have promoted, through the mantra of “balance,” anti-vaccine views in particular and pseudoscience about health in general.

As bad as celebrities such as Oprah, Jim Carrey, and Jenny McCarthy are, though, no one views them as skeptics, at least no one I know and no one in the skeptical movement. Even the reporters and newscasters who credulously interview them, I suspect, realize that Oprah, Jim, and Jenny are not exactly the most scientific of people. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years since I became more involved with the skeptical movement, it’s that being an agnostic, atheist, or skeptic is no guarantee against falling for pseudoscience. The problem is that when someone becomes associated with the skeptic movement for another reason, even if that person is a total woo-meister when it comes to medicine, they tend to be given a pass. I don’t give such people a pass because of their anti-religion views because I consider myself a skeptic and don’t really care much about religion, except when it intersects issues of science and health, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood transfusions, faith healers offering prayer instead of medicine, and fundamentalists undermining the teaching of evolution. If someone who promotes pseudoscience is a prominent critic of religion, to me that makes it even worse when they spout nonsense.

I’m referring to Bill Maher, comedian and host of the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. Thanks to an anti-religion movie (Religulous) and his frequent stance as a “skeptic,” many of my fellow skeptics consider him one of our own, even to the point of giving him an award named after Richard Dawkins. Yet, when it comes to medicine, nothing could be further from the truth. Maher’s own words show that he has anti-vaccine views, flirts with germ theory denialism and HIV/AIDS denialism, buys into extreme conspiracy theories about big pharma, and promotes animal rights pseudoscience. That’s not a skeptic or a supporter of science-based medicine.
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Placebo is not what you think it is

If I read one more crappy article about placebos, something’s gotta give, and it’s gonna be my head or my desk. Wired magazine has a new article entitled, “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why.” Frequent readers of skeptical and medical blogs will spot the first problem: the insanely nonsensical claim that “placebos are getting better”. This not only “begs the question,” but actually betrays a fundamental misapprehension of the concept. I’ve written several times about the nature and ethical implications of placebos, but it’s time for a serious smackdown. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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An Influenza Primer

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently submitted its report to the president in which they stated that this influenza season might kill 30-90,000 people in the US.  This forecast of the upcoming season caught the media’s attention and appears to have stoked the public interest in influenza.  We have had many requests for more information about influenza here at SBM, and so in this post I am going to discuss the basics of influenza and try to put the current pandemic and upcoming season in perspective.

I find it is best to start at the beginning.

What Is Influenza?

Within the public sphere, “The flu” has become shorthand for “I feel like crap.”  I suspect that this is part of the reason why some people think the influenza vaccine doesn’t work.  Medically speaking, however, influenza is a very specific family of viruses that cause a reasonably narrow set of problems for humans.

The influenza season in the Northern hemisphere usually runs from October through May, with a peak mid-February.  Every season in the US between 5-20% of the US population is infected by influenza, and while the majority of people recover well from an influenza infection, not everyone will.  Annually 200,000 people are hospitalized, and on average 36,000 will die either from influenza or its complications.

The classic influenza infection incubates for 1-4 days after exposure.  Its onset is rapid, with most people experiencing high fever, headache, muscle aches, dry cough, sore throat, and nasal congestion.  Gastro-intestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are less common.  Symptoms last from several days to almost two weeks, and a person is contagious from one day before symptoms begin to more than a week after symptom onset.

There are many strains of influenza. The current seasonal influenza is made up of three different influenza subtypes: A(H3N2), A(H1N1), and B.  Don’t confuse the seasonal A(H1N1) strain with the current pandemic 2009 A(H1N1); they are distinct.  I will refer to them as A(H1N1) for the seasonal strain, and 2009 (H1N1) for the pandemic “swine flu” strain.  Influenza B is less common, less virulent, has a slower mutation rate, and is thus a lesser risk; the rest of this discussion is focused on Influenza A. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Sectarian Insertions

I will write occasional posts instead of being on a regular schedule.  The reasons: There are more contributors than positions. Newer people to the field have more ambition and belly fire.  I have a number of projects and papers to finish in increasingly limited time and decreasing efficiency.  So have at it. Meanwhile, some non-random thoughts.

I am as concerned with social and political expression of pseudoscience as with its errors.  Health care reformers can be just as pseudoscientific as sectarians who want to restructure the scientific edifice.  Political ideologues want to centralize the medical system without solid evidence that their substitute would work, let alone work better.  Sectarians already see a national government system as an opportunity for expansionism. Mark Hyman, the Functional Medicine promoter, met with the White House staff, displaying his vision of medicine under a federal plan. Word is out that other sects have also had input. Many hold  suspicions that the proposals front for more ambitious formulations. I am suspicious of their confidence – that they can fix a complex, fluxing system using epidemiology, mathematical models, treatment paradigms, and top-down control.  I might accept some proposals if it were not that all constructed systems are intrinsically inefficient, political, and corruptible. The closer the agents of control are to the controlled, the more control the controlled have over the controllers – if you can follow that.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, History, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist

Preamble

I’ll never forget the day when I argued for protecting parents against misleading and false information about the treatment of autism. I was working at a large consumer health organization whose mission was to “empower patients with accurate information” so that they could take control of their health. My opposition was himself a physician who requested that our organization publish an article that advised parents of children with autism to seek out DAN! practitioners and chelation therapy.

I prepared my remarks with the utmost care and delivered them to a committee of our lay executives. I cited examples of children who had died during chelation treatments, explained exactly why there was no evidence that chelation therapy could improve the symptoms of autism and in fact was based on the false premise that “heavy metals” in vaccines were implicated in the etiology of the disease. I concluded that it would be irresponsible for the company to publish such misleading advice/information for parents, and would in fact be counter to our entire mission.

My physician opponent suggested that it was our company’s duty to inform parents of all their options, that we should not be judgmental about treatments, and that I was part of a paternalistic medical establishment that tried to silence creative thinking.

The committee ended up siding with my opponent. I was flabbergasted and asked one of the committee members what on earth they were thinking. She simply shrugged and said that my opponent was more likable than I was.

This experience marked the beginning of my journey towards fighting fire with fire – understanding that being right is not the same as being influential, and that “winning” an argument (where lives are on the line) requires a different skill set than I learned in my scientific training.

Book Review

And so it was with great interest that I picked up Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age Of Style. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and the Media

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IVF and CAM Use

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to broader acceptance of the need for a consistent scientific basis for medical interventions is the attitude that worthless treatments are harmless. I often have the experience, after reviewing the evidence showing lack of efficacy for a specific intervention, of getting the head-tilt and shrug along with some variation of the dismissive attitude,  “Well, if people feel better, then what’s the harm?” In my opinion, ethics and intellectual honesty indicate that we have to do better than that.

The “what’s the harm” refrain is so tired and overused that it prompted a website by that name, documenting direct harm caused by unscientific treatment modalities. This is a helpful reminder that any intervention that actually does something (has biological activity) must also contain some risks. But this site also has significant limitations. First, it is anecdotal. But also it emphasizes direct harm, while the indirect harm of unscientific methods (for example by delaying definitive treatment) likely vastly outweighs the direct harm. However, indirect harm is extremely difficult to quantify.

Studies looking at the net clinical effects of using or relying upon unscientific methods is therefore desirable. Recently Danish researchers have published one such study:  Use of complementary and alternative medicines associated with a 30% lower ongoing pregnancy/live birth rate during 12 months of fertility treatment.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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