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Monkey business in autism research, part II

Over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed something about the anti-vaccine movement. Specifically, I’ve noticed that the mavens of pseudoscience that make up the movement seem to have turned their sights with a vengeance on the Hepatitis B vaccine. The reason for this new tactic, I believe, is fairly obvious. The fact that the Hep B vaccine is administered shortly after birth seems somehow to enrage the anti-vaccine movement more than just about any other vaccine. Moreover, given that, aside from maternal-child transmission when the mother is infected, hepatitis B is usually only contracted through either bloodborne contact (the sharing of needles, the administration of contaminated blood) or sexual activity, it’s very easy for anti-vaccinationists to make a superficially plausible-sounding argument that it’s not a necessary vaccine, even though there are reasonable rationales for giving it to infants. The image of sticking a needle into a newborn infant trumps that, though, at least for the anti-vaccine movement. Another possibility, suggested by Steve Novella just yesterday, is that, with the collapse under a overwhelmingly huge pile of evidence of the idea that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that used to be used in childhood vaccines until 2001, caused an “epidemic” of autism and the failure of the “too many too soon” slogan to convince anyone who is not already an anti-vaccinationist, the movement needed a new bogeyman to blame for autism. The hepatitis B vaccine, which was added to the pediatric vaccination schedule in the 1990s, around the right time to confuse correlation with causation when it comes to the increase in autism diagnoses (just like thimerosal) was a perfect next target, given that it’s administered shortly after birth.

Indeed, just the other day, the anti-vaccine crank groups the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), and the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism posted a call for the elimination of hepatitis B vaccination for newborns:

Washington, DC – National Vaccine Information Center and Talk About Curing Autism are calling on President Obama to order the immediate suspension of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation of the birth dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine after two recent studies linking the Hepatitis B vaccine to functional brain damage in U.S. male newborns and infant primates.  In a related development today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, including the Health Resources and Services Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  announced that 1 in every 91 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as reported in the November 2009 issue of Pediatrics. Previous data released by the CDC indicated a prevalence of 1 in every 150 children affected by the disorder.

Note how AoA not-so-subtly interposed the latest information about autism prevalence with its call to eliminate the birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine. Very clever. By doing so, it linked the two in readers’ minds, as if one had something to do with the other. There’s no good scientific evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine has anything to do with the “autism epidemic.” Meanwhile, David Kirby is up to his usual nonsense, and the resident anti-vaccine propagandist at CBS News, Sharyl Attkisson, who has been known to feed Age of Autism information on at least one occasion in the past, served up this credulous, noncritical interview with Andrew Wakefield:

The quantity of misinformation in that single six minute video is far beyond the scope of this article. Were I to start dissecting it, I would not have time to do what the purpose of this article was intended to do: To deal with the study Wakefield is hawking. That’s why I leave the dissection of this pièce de résistance of disingenuousness and misinformation as an exercise for SBM readers–after reading the rest of this post, of course. Trust me, it will help you.

At the heart of this latest propaganda onslaught by the anti-vaccine movement are two studies, one a restrospective study in humans and the other a study in monkeys, both of which the anti-vaccine movement is promoting as slam dunk evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine is causing all sorts of horrific problems. Taking both of them on in one post is too much, even for my logorrheic tendencies. So I’ll deal first with Wakefield’s monkey study and then, either later this week or sometime next week, hopefully discuss the human study.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Autism Prevalence

Two recent studies concerning the prevalence of autism in the US have been getting a lot of attention, because they indicate that autism prevalence may be higher than previously estimated. This, of course, fuels the debate over whether or not there are environmental triggers of autism.

One study was conducted by the CDC but has yet to be published. The results were announced ahead of publication by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the autism community. She reports that the new prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now estimated at 1% or 100 in 10,000 children. This is an increase over the last few years. In 2002 the prevalence was estimated to be 66 per 10,000.

The second study was published in the journal Pediatrics and is a phone survey of 78,037 parents. They asked if they had any children who had ever been diagnosed with an ASD. Here are the results:

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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“Obesity Linked to Stupidity”- an Example of Stupid Reporting

A news story on Science a Gogo reports that obesity is linked to stupidity, according to a new study based on brain scans. Apparently the reporter can’t read. That’s not at all what the study showed.

What the Study Really Said

The study was entitled “Brain structure and obesity.”It was published in Human Brain Mapping. There were 10 authors listed, with the two interviewed for the news report being the lead author (CA Raji) and the last listed author (PM Thompson). The study evaluated MRI scans of 94 elderly subjects who were cognitively normal and remained cognitively normal for at least 5 years after their scan. It found that obese people had 8 percent less brain tissue than people with normal weight, while overweight people had 4 percent less tissue. The deficits were in areas of the brain that have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The story reports that this put the subjects at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease. But the subjects remained cognitively normal for at least 5 years after the scan. They were not rendered stupid. They did not develop Alzheimer’s. They remained cognitively normal. You might also interpret the study as showing that obese patients with those findings on brain scan could be predicted not to develop Alzheimer’s or develop any other cognitive deficits for at least five years. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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Petit canard, grand canard

The flu pandemic of 1918 was horrific. Millions of people died (by some estimates 4% of the world’s population), and the medical establishment worked feverishly to find a cause and a treatment. There were many dead-ends in the search for the cause of the flu. One of the most enduring errors was the attribution of the pandemic to a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae (H flu). It turned out that the flu was actually caused by a virus rather than a bacterium, but H. flu is still an important discovery. The fight against influenza was in many ways successful (although too late for the 1918 pandemic)—it led to the discovery of influenza and many other viruses, and the development of effective influenza vaccines. It is analogous to the discovery of HIV and the advances in science and medicine pioneered by HIV researchers. Influenza birthed the field of virology.

But what if we had stopped at one of our dead ends? What if we had held to the belief that H flu caused influenza, or that HTLV-1 caused AIDS? In science, dead-ends usually reveal themselves—eventually. As new discoveries fail to appear, scientists re-examine their underlying assumptions. H flu was found in many flu victims, but not all. Other researchers found that fluids that were run through filters that stopped bacteria were still infectious (in human volunteers!), leading them to conclude that there must be an infectious particle smaller than a bacterium. A quarter of a century after the Great Influenza pandemic, effective vaccines against influenza were in production.

While the world was torn by the first “modern” war, and influenza destroyed military and civilian populations, doctors were trying everything that might help.  In the U.S., sera and vaccines against various agents such as pneumococcus were produced and used with some efficacy, but many other immunologic treatments were dead-ends.  One of these dead-ends was named Oscillococcinum.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The “Iron Rule of Cancer”: The dangerous cancer quackery that is the “German New Medicine”

Given that I trained as a cancer surgeon, do laboratory and translational cancer research, and spend my clinical time taking care of breast cancer patients, not surprisingly one topic that gets me the most irritated and provokes a lot of my verbiage for SBM is cancer quackery. As I was perusing my list of posts the other day, it occurred to me that there’s one huge topic that in the more than a year and a half I’ve been blogging for SBM I’ve never covered. It’s a particularly pernicious and dangerous quackery. Indeed, it’s a quackery I mentioned during part of my talk at the Science-Based Medicine Conference, which Steve organized and where several SBM bloggers spoke the day before TAM7 started.

I’m referring to the dangerous and vile quackery known as the German New Medicine (Die Germanische Neue Medizin). Pioneered by Ryke Geerd Hamer, it is a quackery that claims lives. So what is this German New Medicine? Well, it appears to be a Theory of Everything Medical, and in particular everything having to do with cancer:

THE GERMAN NEW MEDICINE provides us with illuminating explanations about the origin, development and healing of both physical and mental disorders. In 1981, Dr. Hamer discovered that every DISEASE is caused by a shock experience that catches us completely off guard. He found that this shock not only occurs in the psyche but simultaneously in the brain and on the organ level. At the moment the unexpected trauma takes place the shock impacts a specific area in the brain causing a lesion that is clearly visible on a brain scan as a set of sharp concentric rings. With the impact the affected brain cells communicate the disturbance to the corresponding organ. Whether the organ responds with a tumor growth (cancer), with tissue degeneration, or with functional loss, is determined by the exact type of conflict shock. Based on the analysis of over 40,000 case studies Dr. Hamer is the first to provide scientific proof that cancer is not caused by a malfunctioning organism producing deadly cancer cells but is rather the result of an innate meaningful survival program that has been successfully practiced for millions of years. Since HEALING can only occur after the conflict has been resolved, the GNM-therapy focuses on identifying and resolving the original conflict. By understanding healing symptoms such as painful swelling, infections, fever, or inflammation in their psychological, biological and evolutionary context, we are able to liberate ourselves from the fear and panic that often come with the onset of an illness. Dr. Hamer’s findings offer a completely new understanding of so-called diseases. His scientific discoveries revolutionize entirely our view of medical conditions and their causes.

The German New Medicine presents a comprehensive system that allows us to understand what type of conflict causes the onset of a particular disease, how the disease manifests itself in the conflict active phase, what can be expected in the healing phase, and how all the developments are connected to the brain, verifiable with a brain scan.

The German New Medicine is a natural science, based on FIVE empirically disovered BIOLOGICAL LAWS that apply, in a strong scientific sense, to each and every case of disease of man and mammal.

The repository of quackery known as Mercola.com describes the “Five Biological Laws” of German New Medicine thusly:
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Infiltration of Quackademic Medicine into Mainstream: A pernicious influence

Editor’s note: Kausik Datta, Ph.D. is postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He works in immunology, specifically as related to two major mycoses (Aspergillosis and Cryptococcosis). Rationality and skepticism have been his long-standing interests, which led him into science- and evidence-based medicine. This is his first contribution to this blog.

Quackademic ‘Medicine’* is a collective of pseudoscientific, data-free, evidence-less, nonsensical therapeutic modalities (the so-called “alternative” therapies) – otherwise known as “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) or integrative or holistic medicine. These include, among other things, chelation therapy (for autism and cardiovascular diseases); chiropractic; use of random nutritional supplements; abuse of various prescription drugs; coffee enemas; naturopathy; homeopathy; reiki; energy healing that invokes manipulation of ‘life force’ or qi; acupuncture; ‘healing touch’, and intercessory prayer – the list goes on, since there is essentially no limit to human stupidity and no depth that the human mind cannot plumb.

Qualified professionals – those who are in the business of doing the hard work of science to gather critical evidence regarding the action of a therapy, as well as those who implement those modalities routinely and save lives – may perhaps find it easy to dismiss the proponents of quackademic medicine as an ill-informed, misguided, or downright lunatic, fringe. However, much like a bad case of household mold infestation, this community with its myrmidons continues to thrive and grow, impervious to reason, immune to evidence, unable to comprehend the danger they pose (and the harm they cause) to themselves, their children and millions of others on the planet. As discussed in the science blog Respectful Insolence, a large part of that harm derives from their promotion of unfounded (and repeatedly proven to be untrue) fears of vaccines causing autism, discouraging a lot of parents from vaccinating their children and prompting many of them to seek quack treatments (some of which are potentially dangerous) to try to ‘cure’ autistic
children. But still another part – a far more pernicious and pervasive one – has to do with the growing presence (and, it seems, acceptance) of quackademic pseudoscience in establishments of mainstream academic medicine.
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Posted in: Medical Academia

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Head-In-The-Sand Consumer Affairs

Editor’s Note: Please be aware that Ben is deployed in Iraq right now. What that means is that his Internet access is somewhat sporadic. He will show up from time to time to answer comments, however.

ERRARE HUMANUM EST, SED PERSEVERARE DIABOLICUM
- To err is human, but to persist
diabolical -

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD)

The California (CA) Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) has an informational booklet on Acupuncture and Asian Medicine that besides depicting many New Age fantasies about prescientific medicine, also makes the unfounded claim that based on a 1997 consensus panel, the NIH formally “endorses” the use of acupuncture for a set of specific conditions, and that there is “clear evidence” that it is effective for some of them. This booklet is available at:

http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/pubs_forms/consumer_guide.pdf

Wondering about this “clear evidence,”  I wrote a letter a few months ago to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and asked for a clarification.

Their candid response explicitly stated that the CA booklet “misstates the purpose of the 1997 consensus panel on acupuncture.” The NCCAM also added that as a “Federal research agency, the NIH does not endorse any product, service or treatment, nor are NIH consensus documents statements of policy.”
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Guess Who’ll Win A Nobel Prize, Win An 8GB iPod Touch

The following is an announcement from my friends at Medgadget.com:

Next Monday, the Nobel Foundation will announce the winner(s) of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In the following two days, two more Nobels will be revealed: in Physics and in Chemistry. Because of the success of last year’s inaugural Guess-A-Nobel Contest, we decided we’ll repeat this event annually until there is no more science worthy of the prize. This year we’re giving out three 8GB Apple iPod Touch devices to those who correctly guess in each of the three science categories. Because we profile a good deal of apps for the iPhone/Touch platform, we thought this might be a useful tool beside all the fun it can provide on the off time. Furthermore, if someone does manage to guess all three correctly, he or she will be getting the souped-up 64 GB version of the iPod device with all the trimmings.


Here are the rules of the game: (more…)

Posted in: Announcements

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What’s wrong with this picture?

My youngest and I often do the “Find 6 Different Things” in the Sunday comics. He is good at finding anomalies. All day at work I showed the picture in the link that follows and asked: What is wrong with this picture?

Almost everyone found at least one thing wrong (I find two) in less than 10 seconds, my 12 year old included.

Click on the link,  look at the first  photograph and you tell me.

What’s wrong with this picture?

http://www.oregonlive.com/health/index.ssf/2009/09/new_clinic_opens_at.html

I will post  my answer tomorrow in the comments.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Humor

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