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Zika virus, microcephaly, and calls to bring back DDT

zika-virus-mosquito

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last decade-plus of blogging about medicine and alternative medicine, it’s that any time there is an outbreak or pandemic of infectious disease, there will inevitably follow major conspiracy theories about it. I saw it during the H1N1 pandemic in the 2009-2010 influenza season, the Ebola outbreak in late 2014, and the Disneyland measles outbreak last year, when cranks of many stripes claimed that either the outbreaks themselves were due to conspiracies (usually, but not limited to, conspiracies to promote the “depopulation” vaccination agenda of—who else?—Bill Gates) or that nefarious forces were seizing on the outbreak to take away our freedom. The second thing I’ve learned is that inevitably people will try to impose their ideology on to the disease and try to use outbreaks to push their own ideological agenda. Indeed, the Ebola outbreak, for example, was rapidly seized on by politicians to promote quarantines and to halt immigration from the affected countries. This year, the biggest infectious disease-related story thus far is the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil that has been linked to microcephaly and other birth defects, and it’s a case of the same stuff, different year.

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus related to dengue virus and transmitted primarily by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. On the surface, this virus would appear to be relatively benign, with 80% of those infected by it remaining asymptomatic, while the other 20% suffer from what is usually a self-limited, relatively mild illness characterized by fever, rash, arthralgias (joint aches), and conjunctivitis. In the grand scheme of things, after decades of being endemic in many tropical areas Zika virus infection probably didn’t seem so bad and didn’t appear to be much of a public health priority in the regions where Aedes aegypti mosquitoes live, mainly tropical regions in South and Central America, Africa, southeast Asia, and the Pacific islands. Then came the evidence that prenatal infection might cause microcephaly, and everything changed. Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories galore arose with social media speed, as did the ideologically motivated overselling of proposed solutions, such as bringing back DDT to combat the mosquito carrying the disease.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Epidemiology, History, Politics and Regulation

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When antivaccine pseudoscience isn’t enough, Bill Maher fawns over Charlie Sheen’s HIV quack

Bill Maher (right) expresses admiration for HIV quack Samir Chachoua (right), who claims to be able to cure people of HIV and cancer using milk from arthritic goats.

Bill Maher (right) expresses admiration for HIV quack Samir Chachoua (left), who claims to be able to cure people of HIV and cancer using milk from arthritic goats.

I know I must be getting older because of Friday nights. After a long, hard week (and, during grant season, in anticipation of a long, hard weekend of grant writing), it’s not infrequent that my wife and I order pizza, plant ourselves in front of the TV, and end up asleep before 10 or 11 PM. Usually, a few hours later, between midnight and 3 AM one or both of us will wake up and head upstairs to bed, but not always. Sometimes it’s all Friday night on the couch.

Last Friday was a bit different. It wasn’t different in that I did fall asleep on the couch sometime around 10 PM. However, unlike the usual case, when I woke up around 1:30 or 2 AM to head upstairs I was stone cold wide awake, feeling like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, eyes held wide open. So I did what I do when insomnia strikes. I popped up the computer and checked my e-mail and Facebook. Immediately, I saw messages asking me if I had seen Real Time With Bill Maher that night and, oh boy, I really should watch Maher. Apprehensive but curious, I fired up the DVR and watched.

And, shortly after the monologue, was totally appalled by this;

Funny, how the segment hasn’t yet been posted to Bill Maher’s YouTube page, as many of his interviews are. If he ever does post it, I’ll switch out the video above for the “official” source. Somehow, though, I doubt that the video will ever be posted, the reason being that it contains an embarrassingly fawning 10 minute interview with “Dr.” Samir Chachoua, better known (at least to skeptics) as Charlie Sheen’s HIV quack. Somehow, when Charlie Sheen was on The Dr. Oz Show a couple of weeks ago, other things were going on and I didn’t blog about it. Fortunately, Steve Novella did. Now, with Sheen’s very own quack who failed him being fawned over by Bill Maher, it gives me a chance to take down three birds with one stone: Bill Maher, Dr. Oz, and, of course, Sam Chachoua. Sadly for Bill Maher, America’s Quack Dr. Mehmet Oz comes off looking a lot better than he does, and that’s saying something.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Health Fraud, Vaccines

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Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything?

Placebonex
We frequently write about placebo effects here on Science-Based Medicine. The reason is simple. They are an important topic in medicine and, at least as importantly, understanding placebo effects is critical to understanding the exaggerated claims of advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more frequently called “integrative medicine” (i.e., integrating pseudoscience with science). Over the years, I (and, of course, others) have documented how CAM advocates have consistently moved the goalposts with respect to the efficacy of their pseudoscientific interventions. As larger and better-designed clinical trials have been done demonstrating that various CAM therapies without a basis in science—I’m distinguishing these from science-based modalities that have been co-opted and “rebranded” as CAM, such as exercise and nutrition—have no specific effects detectable above placebo effects, CAM advocates move the goalposts and claim that CAM works through the “power of placebo” and do their best to claim that “harnessing” that “power of placebo” is a justification to use their treatments. It turns out, however, that when placebo effects are examined rigorously there’s just not a lot of there there, so to speak. Results are underwhelming, and trying to “harness the power of placebo” without an intervention that actually impacts the pathophysiology of disease can even be dangerous. That’s not to say that learning to maximize placebo responses (whatever they are) while administering effective medical treatments isn’t important; rather, it’s to point out that, by themselves, placebo effects are not of much value.

Unfortunately, none of this has stopped what Steve Novella refers to as the “placebo narrative” from insinuating itself into lay discussions of medicine. That narrative proclaims in breathless terms (as Steve put it) the “surprising power of the placebo effect” without putting it into reasonable perspective or even really defining what is meant by “placebo effect.” First, as we have tried to explain time and time again here, there is no single “placebo effect.” There are placebo effects. Second, the only really correct reference to “the placebo response” or “placebo effect” is the outcome measured in the placebo arm of a clinical trial. The problem is that, all too often, discussions of placebo responses conflate the placebo effect measured in a clinical trial with all the other various placebo effects that add up to the response that is measured in that trial. Those effects include reporting biases, researcher biases, regression to the mean, conditioning, and many other components that contribute to what is measured in the outcome of a clinical trial. Another common misconception about placebo effects is that they are somehow “mind over matter,” that we can heal ourselves (or at least reduce our symptoms) through the power of will and mind. This is not true. Placebo effects are not the power of positive thinking.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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Lyme Testing

The little burrowing bacteria that bores into your pores to cause Lyme disease, EEEEEWWW!!!

The little burrowing bacteria that bores into your pores to cause Lyme disease, EEEEEWWW!!! Darkfield 400x microscopy image of the 10-25µm long Borrelia burgdorferi spirochaete which causes Lyme disease (1993). Provided by the CDC’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL #6631) via the Wikimedia Commons

I hate those oh hell moments. I was up way too late last night, but who can pass up the opportunity to see Patti Smith playing Horses (and more) for the 40th anniversary of the album. Only 44? Behind the Eagles? No way. I would nudge it up a few more spaces. Hard to believe I was 18 when that album came out. Horses is one of the few albums that made the transition from vinyl to CD. It was a tremendous show, and at 69 Patt performs with the energy and passion of a 29 year old. And she sure can spit. I had the evening off, so food and drinks at Swine until well past midnight. First time my wife and I closed a bar. I am too old for this.

But as I was blearily drinking my a.m. coffee on a dreary PDX morning, I opened the browser to SBM and there was a post by Jann. Oh hell. That means I have a post due tomorrow and I had lost track of the time over the holidays. I thought my next post was next Friday. Oh. Hell. So unlike most posts which I write over a week, this one was done in about 4 hours. And I am sure it will show.

How do you diagnose an infection?

Not always so simple. You always start with a history and, for infectious diseases, an exposure history is paramount. People get what they are exposed to, so you want to know travel, animals, diet, water, sex etc. If you have ridden a horse to have sex in an Indian lake while drinking raw milk (not really an unusual history in my practice; people do the darndest things) you have exposure risks for a variety of infections. If you have not left the Willamette Valley it is unlikely that the cause of the illness is malaria, although you always have to consider that the infection came to the patient rather than the other way around. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Lyme, Science and Medicine

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Is scientific peer review a “sacred cow” ready to be slaughtered?

Peer Review

I’ve frequently noted that one of the things most detested by quacks and promoters of pseudoscience is peer review. Creationists hate peer review. HIV/AIDS denialists hate it. Anti-vaccine cranks like those at Age of Autism hate it. Indeed, as a friend of mine, Mark Hoofnagle, pointed out several years ago, pseudoscientists and cranks of all stripes hate it. There’s a reason for that, of course, namely that it’s hard to pass peer review if you’re peddling pseudoscience, although, unfortunately, with the rise of “integrative medicine,” it’s nowhere near as difficult as it once was.

Be that as it may, peer review, the process by which scientific papers are evaluated by scientific “peers” to look for problems with the science and decide if the paper is appropriate for publication in a scientific journal, is a concept that dates back hundreds of years. However, for the most part, before the middle of the 20th century, the ultimate determination of whether a paper was appropriate for scientific publication was made by editors or editorial committees. Opinions of external reviewers were sometimes sought when deemed appropriate by journal editors, but by no means was this the practice for most manuscripts. Over the last six or seven decades, external peer review by scientists chosen by the journal editor evaluating a submission has become the standard. Similarly, decisions regarding whether or not to fund grant applications are now generally made by a panel of external reviewers. In the case of the NIH, these panels are called study sections and consist of scientists with expertise in the types of applications being referred to the study section for evaluation, along with (usually) a statistician or two and officials from the NIH who take care of organizing and running the meetings of the panel. The scientific members of a study section usually include “permanent” members, who are assigned to fixed terms on the study section, and ad hoc members, called in for one or a few meetings as needed and deemed necessary by the NIH.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Of Mice and Men…and Coconut Oil

Editor’s note: This post is a collaborative effort between Grant Ritchey, a Science-Based Medicine semi-regular, and Stephanie Tornberg-Belanger, a co-author of the research paper discussed below and who brought the study to Grant’s attention. We are pleased to welcome Stephanie as a guest contributor to SBM.


Infographic listing the benefits of coconut oil.

That amazing coconut oil! What can’t it do?

In his last SBM post, Grant reported on a systematic review of the literature that undermined just about everything dentists had been taught in dental school and have been preaching to patients since The Olden Times: flossing, as it turns out, is not the be-all, end-all that we’ve been led to believe with regard to cavity and gum disease prevention. While the message itself was interesting and relevant, the meta-message in that piece is that we all must be willing to slay our own sacred cows when the evidence demands it, even if it requires shedding long-held, cherished beliefs. This is difficult for any human being to do, and skeptics who are presumably open minded are no different (and can sometimes be worse, because we are often overconfidently convinced of our “rightness”).

So with that in mind, gather ’round children, because we have another meta-message for you. This one deals with coconut oil.

(Pause for gasps.) (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Science and Medicine

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“Electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi allergies”: Bogus diagnoses with tragic real world consequences

Is there such a thing as an "allergy to wifi"? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

Is there such a thing as an “allergy to wifi”? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

I debated about writing about this topic, given that I just wrote about it last week on my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, as I thought about it during the weekend, I realized that the tragic story that so saddened and disturbed me to prod me to discuss so-called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” or “electro-hypersensitivity” (EHS) was so horrific that a more detailed, SBM-level discussion was indicated, particularly in light of a similar case electromagnetic hypersensitivity that didn’t end so tragically discussed by Harriet Hall in September. I’m referring, of course, to the case of Jenny Fry, a British teen who hanged herself in June and whose mother has been claiming that her “allergy to wifi” was what drove her to suicide. So, while there will be some overlap with my previous discussion, I will try to step back and take a broader view of the evidence regarding the fake diagnosis of EHS, interspersed with examples (hopefully) illustrating my point. Think of this as the post I wished I had written the first time around but, due to time constraints, couldn’t.

Bogus science and lawsuits over EHS

By way of background, it’s worth briefly revisiting the case that Harriet discussed. Indeed, if you Google “lawsuit” and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi” the first two pages of results consist mostly of articles discussing it. That’s probably because this is just the latest lawsuit that made the news. It happened in Massachusetts, where the parents of a 12-year-old boy (designated “G” in court records) who was attending Fay School in Massachusetts alleged that the school violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make accommodations to protect G from electromagnetic radiation from the school’s wifi routers. From the complaint’s summary statement:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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Authority versus science on integrative medicine

Should we respect David Katz's authority?

Should we respect David Katz’s authority?

David Katz doesn’t much like us here at Science-Based Medicine. In fairness, I can’t say that I much blame him. We have been very critical of his writings and talks over the years, dating back as far as Steve Novella’s deconstruction of one of Dr. Katz’s more infamous statements about using a “more fluid concept of evidence” to Kimball Atwood’s characterization of his tortured logic to my pointing out that his arguments frequently boil down to a false dichotomy of either abandoning science or abandoning patients.

Last week, Jann Bellamy did her usual great job discussing an unfortunate special supplement of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM) entitled Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Education. This supplement included articles summarizing the results of project called IMPriME (Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Education), funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), to advance the inclusion of “integrative medicine” in Preventive Medicine residency programs. Not surprisingly, this project was led by Dr. Katz. Jann used this special issue as a jumping off point to show, quite correctly, how, when it comes to so-called “integrative medicine,” it is always about the “potential,” which has always been elusive and has never been realized. Unfortunately, the elusiveness of the amazing potential attributed to “integrative medicine” (formerly referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine” or “CAM”) has done almost nothing to dampen the ardor of its cheerleaders for “integrating” as much woo as they can into medicine, which is why a major journal would allow someone like David Katz to edit a special issue dedicated to articles discussing IMPriME’s findings.

Thanks to Jann’s post, it appears that Dr. Katz is most displeased with us again here at SBM. To express his displeasure, he has rattled off a little rant over at his usual non-academic hangout and quack-friendly Internet outlet, The Huffington Post. There, he castigates us with a post entitled Science and Medicine, Fools and Fanatics: The ‘Fluidity’ of Woo. Yes, right off the bat, it’s the same old strategy, to paint advocates of “integrative medicine” as the “reasonable” ones while those of us who object to integrating prescientific quackery into medicine are clearly the “fanatics” (or, if you prefer, the fools). In it, as usual, Dr. Katz lays down some real howlers in defense of his integration of woo with medicine.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Medical Academia

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Immunity: More Than Just Antibodies and Vaccines

immunitySince I graduated from medical school, new scientific developments in immunology have been occurring at a prodigious rate. I knew I could use a refresher course, and serendipity dropped one in my mailbox in the form of a review copy of the new book Immunity, by William E. Paul, MD, chief of the Laboratory of Immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health and a major player in many of the scientific discoveries he describes. It was just what I needed. It brought me up to date, and it left me in awe of the amazing things our bodies do to keep us alive.

We are bombarded with claims that something will “boost the immune system” but the people who say that have no understanding of how the immune system really works. We have anti-vaxxers who still deny the effectiveness of vaccines and the existence of herd immunity, and who imagine all kinds of hypothetical harms from vaccines, but who have little understanding of how vaccines actually work. This book itself could serve as a sort of vaccine to immunize readers against scientifically ignorant arguments. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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No, the Nobel Prize does not validate naturopathy or herbalism

Herbal medicine
The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded Monday, acknowledging the developers behind two drugs used to treat parasite infections. In a shared award, William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura won for the discovery of avermectin, and Youyou Tu won for the discovery of artemisinin. Given both of these products are derived from natural substances, and “natural” remedies are used in different alternative medicine philosophies, it is perhaps not surprising that advocates claimed that this somehow validates practices like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and naturopathy. The Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges (AANMC) made the following announcement on their Facebook page:
aanmc announcement
Which if you follow the link to the CNN story and actually read it, is surprising. It doesn’t mention naturopathy at all. In fact, when you look closer at the two drugs and their development, this year’s Nobel Prize is actually an excellent case study that illustrates the inherent limitations and weaknesses in alternative medicine systems like naturopathy, herbalism or TCM, while reinforcing just what science-based medicine is capable of delivering. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy

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