A new word has been added to the public’s vocabulary – the Zika virus. It seems we have one more infectious agent to worry about. Here are the facts as we currently understand them regarding the recent Zika epidemic, and also some rumors and conspiracy theories that need debunking.
The Zika virus (of the viral family Flaviviridae, an Arthropod-Borne or arbovirus) is spread through Aedes mosquito bites, the same mosquitoes that also spread dengue fever, West Nile, and yellow fever. The infections themselves are usually mild, causing fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. Many of those infected (about 80%) may even have a subclinical infection, meaning they do not notice any symptoms.
According to the World Health Organization:
Zika virus is diagnosed through PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and virus isolation from blood samples. Diagnosis by serology can be difficult as the virus can cross-react with other flaviviruses such as dengue, West Nile and yellow fever.
It’s nice when a question can be resolved with objective numbers of unequivocal outcomes. Subjective outcomes give scientists a headache.
In this case we are talking about the effect of vaccine exemption laws on vaccine compliance rates. The question here is not the ethical one, the rights of parents to determine the fate of their children vs the right of the state to protect the health of children and the public health. I think the latter trumps the former, but some disagree.
Regardless of what you feel about the ethical question, we need to know if the laws we pass to achieve our goals actually work, or if they don’t work, or even have unintended consequences. Having an admirable goal is not enough; when you make actual decisions (practice decisions, policy decisions, healthcare decisions for you and for family) you want to know that those decisions are having the desired effect.
Antioxidants are better-acquired through food than pills.
Antioxidants are now an iconic example of premature hype making its way into marketing and the public consciousness long before the science is adequately understood. There are multiple lessons to be learned in this story, and a new study just emphasizes those lessons further.
A brief history of antioxidants
One of the unavoidable consequences of metabolism (burning food for energy) is the creation of oxygen free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are molecules that are highly reactive. They essentially contain oxygen with an extra electron, which can react with another molecule, breaking bonds and causing damage.
As you might expect, the body has natural antioxidants which react with ROS to form benign molecules.
In the 1990s it became increasingly apparent that oxidative stress was playing an important role in cell damage, even sometimes triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Many degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, were shown to be driven in part by oxidative stress. In addition, it seemed that ROS play a role in aging.
While some parts of the world are concerned with eating, because of food insecurity, the “worried and well-fed well” are increasingly obsessed with so-called “clean eating.”
This is nothing new, but like every cultural phenomenon, it seems, has increased partly due to the easy spread of misinformation over the internet. If you are anxious about your health, and who isn’t to some degree, your anxiety is fed by a steady diet of pseudo-experts, con-artists, and internet personalities telling you about all the things you eat that adversely affect your health.
This phenomenon is increasingly being recognized as a health issue among experts. In 1996 Dr. Steven Bratman proposed a formal disorder he calls orthorexia nervosa. He writes:
For people with orthorexia, eating healthily has become an extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and sometimes physically dangerous disorder, related to but quite distinct from anorexia.
The public fight over the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is still raging. The debate partly reflects the underlying logic of health prevention measures, which is essentially a statistical game of risk vs benefit. Unfortunately thrown into the mix are ideological opponents to vaccines who are distorting the facts at every turn.
Notice that I said this was a “public” fight, because it is not a serious scientific dispute. There is sufficient evidence to confidently conclude that the HPV vaccines currently available are safe and effective. All medical interventions will contain some risk, it is never zero, but vaccines in general, and the HPV vaccine specifically, have minimal risks and clearly prevent disease.
In addition there is a social angle to the HPV vaccine in that it is given to children to prevent a sexually transmitted disease.
The science of the HPV vaccine
Lumosity is a company that provides online and mobile games that it claimed are scientifically designed to enhance memory, focus, mental flexibility, and even stave off dementia. In a recent decision, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded that Luminosity’s claims are not based on adequate scientific evidence. They imposed a $50 million judgement against Lumos Labs, the company who sells Lumosity, and allowed them to settle for $2 million.
Being mentally active
The idea behind “brain training” is not a bad one, it’s just easy to misrepresent as something it isn’t. The basic notion is that using your brain makes it function better. It is better to be mentally and physically active than inactive. This overview summarized the evidence: (more…)
The battle to rid modern scientific societies from the blatant and harmful pseudoscience of homeopathy continues. This past year has been overall a good one – in the US both the FDA and FTC decided to review their regulation of homeopathy. They have gathered their testimony and are now apparently reviewing everything. Their decisions on this topic are eagerly anticipated and could decide the fate of homeopathy for the next one or more generations.
In the UK the situation is also very positive. Their national health service is considering blacklisting homeopathy so that general practitioners cannot prescribe homeopathic products.
Success in the UK is largely due to The Good Thinking Society, founded by Simon Singh. They have been tirelessly campaigning against NHS coverage of homeopathy and are making steady progress. They are demonstrating that skeptical activism can be effective.
Likewise, SBM and the Society for SBM are having an impact in the US, mainly through persistent persuasive writing and being available as a resource to politicians, the press, and regulators. Members have personally consulted with the FDA, FTC, and staff of senators interested in the issue.
A new study looking at the correlation of antidepressant use during pregnancy and the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been making headlines. While the results are likely significant, they are not as worrisome as the headlines may suggest.
The study: strengths and weaknesses
Overall the study design is solid. They followed 145,456 singleton full-term infants for a total of 904,035.50 person-years of follow-up. That is the strongest aspect of the study, its power. Typically when you capture large numbers you have to trade-off detail of information. As Lincoln might have said, you can capture a lot of information about a small number of people, or a small amount of information about a large number of people, but it is difficult to capture a lot of information about a large number of people.
The use of databases, especially in socialized countries, does help. In this case they used the ongoing population-based cohort, the Québec Pregnancy/Children Cohort. One compromise, however, is that they followed whether or not the mother filled a prescription for an anti-depressant. They did not capture whether or not the mother actually took the medication.
Is it ever ethical for a physician to prescribe a treatment to a patient that they know to be entirely without efficacy? Is it ever possible to do this without deceiving the patient to some degree? I think the answer to both questions is a clear “no.”
Within the flipped reality of “alternative medicine,” however, it suddenly becomes acceptable to deceive patients and sell them worthless treatments, as long as the deception was minimally successful.
A recent editorial in Scientific American by Allison Bond addresses this question. She manages to hit upon many of the reasons placebo medicine is inappropriate, but her reasoning is a bit muddled and she comes, in my opinion, to the wrong conclusion. She wraps her commentary in an anecdote of a terminal patient for whom she cared who found relief from reiki. She concludes:
Of course, when it comes to treating patients with painful, life-threatening diseases, the goal of our care should be to lessen suffering, regardless of where such relief originates. A few months after Ms. W left the hospital, I learned that she had died, and the news hit me hard. I thought back to her treatment under our care and hoped that even among the misery, we had eased her suffering through our therapies—“alternative” or not.
If you have not heard of CRISPR yet, you should have. This is a truly transformative technology that allows for cheap and easy gene editing. It makes a powerful technology easily accessible.
Powerful biological technology, like stem cells to give another example, always seem to provoke profound hope and fear. The ability to manipulate human biology comes with it the hope of treating horrible and currently untreatable diseases. At the same time such technology provokes fear that it will be abused, or that it will violate the sanctity of what it means to be human.
As the public debate over stem cells seems to be fading into the background a bit (like IVF before it), debates over CRISPR and gene editing are likely to come to the forefront.
What is CRISPR?