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The New Cough and Cold Products for Children: Evidence is Optional and Science is Marketing

Zarbee's Helixia, Oscillococcinum

It’s the time of year where if you’re not sick, someone you know probably is. The influenza season in the Northern hemisphere started out slowly, but seems to be accelerating and hasn’t peaked yet. Add that to cold viruses circulating, and you get the peak purchasing period for cough and cold remedies. John Snyder gave a nice summary of the evidence base for the common treatments a few weeks ago. In short, despite all the advertising, there is little evidence to suggest that most of the “tried and true” products we’ve used for decades have any effect on our symptoms. One of the most sensible developments that’s occurred over the past few years has been the discontinuation or relabeling (depending on your country) of cough and cold products for children. The rationale to pull these products is compelling: Cough and cold remedies have a long history of use, and were sold without prescriptions before current regulatory standards were in place. They were effectively grandfathered onto the marketplace. When it comes to their use in children, the data are even more limited. There are few published trials and the results are complicated by different age groups, irregular dosing, lack of placebo control, and very small patient numbers. What’s even harder to believe was that doses were based mainly on expert opinion, not data, and generally didn’t consider that children don’t handle drugs the way adults do. So why withdraw them from pediatric use, but not adult use? Like most regulation, it comes down to risk and benefit. Both are troubling for pediatric use. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine

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Quantum Snake Oil – A Primer

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. First, for the sake of this thought experiment let’s assume that you have no morals, ethics, or conscience. You are comfortable lying to people, even if they are sick, and even if it will harm their health.

Your task is to get as many people as possible to believe that small bits of plastic can improve their health and treat their symptoms. This is not as difficult as it may at first appear, and the payout can be huge. Small plastic stickers can be mass produced for pennies. The primary investment will be creating and maintaining a website. Then, if you can get people to believe that the plastic stickers are magical, the money will come rolling in.

What claims should we make for the stickers? Let’s stay away from anything that has an objective outcome, so we won’t claim that they can be used as an antibiotic to treat pneumonia, or as a way to treat heart attacks. I also understand that in the US and other countries, they take a close look at claims made to treat specific diseases, but you can make vague “structure function” claims with abandon, so let’s go with those. We can always imply that they are effective for diseases, even serious ones like cancer. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Tribalism and Medical Ethics

Science is intended to discover the “is”, not the “ought;” facts, not values. Science can’t tell us whether an action is moral; it can only provide evidence to help inform moral decisions. For instance, some people who believe abortion is immoral reject birth control methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum on the grounds that it constitutes abortion; science can determine that a particular birth control method prevents fertilization rather than preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum. A new book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene, provides some intriguing insights that are pertinent to medical ethics.

He thinks tribalism is the central tragedy of modern life. Evolution equipped us for cooperation within our own tribe but not for cooperation with other tribes. Cooperation with related individuals helps spread our own genes, but we are in competition with other tribes and cooperating with them might help spread their genes to the detriment of our own. It boils down to Us vs. Me and Us vs. Them. He uses the word “tribes” not in the original sense (Hutus vs. Tutsis), but to include Democrats vs. Republicans, Catholics vs. Protestants, CAM vs. science-based medicine, Arabs vs. Israelis, climate change activists vs. climate change deniers, and any other ideological or nationalistic group. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Evolution, Medical Ethics

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Placebo effects are not the “power of positive thinking”

Here we go again. I once said that, in the wake of study after study that fails to find activity of various “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) beyond that of placebo, CAM advocates are now in the midst of a “rebranding” campaign in which CAM is said to work through the “power of placebo.” Personally, I’ve argued that in reality this new focus on placebo effects as the “mechanism” through which CAM “works” is in reality more a manifestation of the common fantasy that wishing makes it so.

None of this, of course, can stop everybody’s favorite apologist for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and, in particular, using placebo effects therapeutically, from continuing to do what he does with a study that’s been widely reported in the news and even featured on Science Friday last week. Basically, it’s a study in Science Translational Medicine, in which our old friend Ted Kaptchuk teamed up with an investigator interested in migraines, Rami Burstein, to do a study that finds that believing a medicine will work can have a strong effect on its actual activity on migraine. As is the case with most studies in which Kaptchuk is involved, it’s mildly interesting from a scientific standpoint. Unlike most studies in which he is involved, Kaptchuk seems a bit more able to tone down the hyperbole, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, this study, as much as it’s being touted by the press as providing new information on placebo effects, really doesn’t tell us much that is new. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Even in 2014, influenza kills

I don’t think it can be repeated too many times during flu season: People can die of the flu.

The flu vaccine is one of the two vaccines most easily demonized by the antivaccine movement. The first, of course, is Gardasil (or Cervarix), the vaccine against HPV. The reason why Gardasil is so easily demonized is because it protects against an infection whose end result of cancer is many years in the future. Alt-med fans frequently castigate “conventional medicine” for not emphasizing prevention enough, but HPV vaccines put the lie to that. HPV vaccines protect against an infection that is usually fairly harmless in and of itself but has the long term effect of vastly increasing the risk of at least one potentially deadly cancer, and likely several others. Also, HPV infections are commonly sexually transmitted, allowing the moralistic wing of the antivaccine movement and misguided religious people in essence to “slut shame” the vaccine by arguing that it will encourage promiscuity by removing one of the consequences of sexual intercourse, one of the stupidest arguments against the HPV in existence. (Seriously, does anyone think teens and young adults, when their hormones are raging, worry about maybe the possibility of maybe getting cancer 20 years down the road when on the verge of a night of passion now? I don’t.) (more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Acupuncture Whac-a-Mole ™

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana

Most people don’t have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they continue to produce bad clinical studies.
- Carlos Santana (Well, not the last 4 words.)

One is a guitar player, one is a philosopher. I get them confused.

I think George was in charge of SCAM research at the NIH. It was Dr. Gorski who first used the term Whac-a-Mole to describe what we do. The same badly-done studies are done over and over and misrepresented over and over, with only very minor variations on a theme. This is especially true of acupuncture, the most extensively studied pseudo-medicine in search of something, anything, for which it might be effective. They are still searching.

I loved going mano-a-mano with my kids when they were younger on the Whac-a-Mole machine in the Seaside arcade followed by root beer and elephant ears. It was the last time I beat either of them at any athletic endeavor. So I enjoy Whac-a-Mole, with mechanical rodents or bad research. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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2013 Legislative Review: placenta take out

It’s official in Oregon now. You can take your placenta, along with your new baby, home from the hospital. This was already a practice among the CAM set but apparently new mothers were running afoul of laws designed to protect us from bio-hazards. New legislation exempts “the removal from a health care facility . . . of a placenta by a postpartum mother.”

Now, why would anyone want a placenta? Well, SBM is nothing if not your complete source of all things CAM and Harriet Hall has already covered the subject. The short answer is that in Traditional Chinese Medicine placenta-eating is thought to confer all sorts of health benefits on the new mother. I learned of this new law from USA Today, which explains that “some experts say” it has positive health benefits. Well, thank goodness for that. Wouldn’t want a new law passed without “experts” weighing in.

But if handling a placenta makes you squeamish, not to worry. The Placenta Power Wellness Service in Portland (among others) will steam, dehydrate and encapsulate it into a handy pill form for about $150-$250. (Each placenta will make 80-120 capsules, according to the website). If you wish, you can get raw placenta encapsulation instead. Placenta tincture, placenta salve and a print of your placenta (sort of like those newborn footprints) are available for extra. That would be a real conversation starter, sitting there on the mantel.

According to Placenta Power Wellness Service, anecdotal evidence shows women experience an increase in energy, mood enhancement, milk supply and feelings of elation. Plus, it’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine “for centuries.”

And folks, that is all you need to get a statute passed adding practices or products to the legally-available health care armamentarium: anecdotes, sometimes relayed by “experts.” Traditional use is icing on the cake. (Or maybe the placenta.) It’s the reason for the DSHEA, the chiropractic, acupuncture and naturopathic practice acts, “health freedom” laws, and getting the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia dumped in toto into federal law, with updates courtesy of the homeopathic industry. “I’ve seen it work!” “It worked for me!” Depending on the method, the evidence for the astounding variety of practices and products legally permitted by these laws generally ranges between none and some, with, I’d wager, most hovering in the “it can’t work” to the “we don’t know if it works” range. Not to mention the evidence of safety, or lack thereof. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Obstetrics & gynecology, Politics and Regulation

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The Limits of Neuroplasticity

I am daily annoyed by overhyped headlines reporting medical and other science news. I think news outlets and the public would be better served if they fired all their headline writers and let the authors and editors craft headlines that actually reflect the story. Of course, often the story is overhyped as well, so this would not be a panacea to annoying science reporting.

Take this headline from The Week (please): “This pill could give your brain the learning powers of a 7-year-old“. The article discusses a recent study (full article here) looking at the effects of a drug, valproic acid, on the ability of young adult male subjects to learn pitch. It might be a good exercise for regular SBM readers to take a look at the full article now and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the study.

The study found that those subjects taking valproic acid, which is a drug used to treat seizures, migraines, and mood disorders, did slightly better overall in learning to identify the pitch of various tones. The main limitation of the study is that it is very small – 24 participants enrolled, 18 completed. Further, they did not establish a good baseline performance, as the subjects were practicing as they went along. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Vitamin E for Alzheimer’s

Recently you may have seen headlines like “Vitamin E slows decline in patients with mild Alzheimer’s” or “There’s still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but the latest hope for slowing its progression is already on drugstore shelves.” They were referring to an article in the January 1, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) announcing the results of the TEAM-AD VA Cooperative Randomized Trial of vitamin E and memantine (Namenda) for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The study attracted a lot of media attention. Most of the news reports I have seen were accurate and cautious, explaining the nuances of the study rather than suggesting that everyone should run out and buy vitamin E; but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of readers ignored the fine print and did just that. It would be interesting to track sales of vitamin E and see if there was a bump following the publicity.

We know of no treatment that will delay, prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, or that affects the underlying disease process. It’s a tragic, frustrating disease that takes away the very things that make us who we are: memory and personality. It is affecting more and more people as the numbers of elderly increase. Available prescription medications are only modestly effective in slowing functional decline and delaying the need for institutionalization. They are expensive, they don’t help everyone, and when they do help, they only help for a limited time. It is very exciting to think an inexpensive vitamin could help patients with mild to moderate AD, but we must resist the temptation to read too much into this study. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Announcing the Society for Science-Based Medicine

We are proud to announce a new organization: The Society for Science-Based Medicine.
A Society for a community of like-minded individuals, both in and out of health care, who support the goals of Science-Based Medicine.

People should not suffer, die, go bankrupt, and lose time and hope because of complementary and alternative pseudo-medicine.
(more…)

Posted in: Announcements, Science and Medicine

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