The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and are for sale at Whole Foods. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994 supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? (more…)
Archive for Epidemiology
Recently, I was sitting in a meeting and reached for the dispenser of Purell hand sanitizer sitting on the conference room table. A colleague of mine gave a small, rueful shake of her head to the person on her other side. Apparently I had erred. I asked what was the matter, and got a brief answer to the effect of “because superbugs.” We exchanged nothing more about it; the interaction was over before the alcohol had dried from my hands.
I wouldn’t have thought anything of such an interaction with anyone else, but my colleague is a PhD student in immunology, six years older and more schooled than I, doing her doctoral research in a lab run by a physician-scientist — a specialist in infectious disease, no less. A touch ironic.
And so I noticed a need for some mythbusting: alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not breed resistant bacteria. (more…)
A cycling enthusiast asked me about helmets. It seems compellingly obvious to me that a head impacting the pavement without a helmet is likely to sustain more damage than a head protected by a helmet. He challenged that, citing a BMJ article by Ben Goldacre that questioned whether the evidence showed that helmets do any good. He said I was making a non-evidence-based assumption and challenged me to actually look at the evidence, so I did.
Goldacre says there is a:
complex contradictory mess of evidence on the impact of bicycle helmets. Like most places where there’s controversy and disagreement, this is a great opportunity to walk through the benefits and shortcomings of different epidemiological techniques, from case control studies to modeling.
He proceeds to give a lesson in epidemiology. He points out that there are a lot of emotion involved, and that epidemiologic studies, because of their inherent imperfections, are probably not capable of resolving the debate.
There are basically two questions:
- What is the effect of wearing a helmet for the individual?
- What is the effect of a public policy that promotes or requires helmet use?
The subject of parental vaccine refusal and the impact that has on disease outbreaks has been covered many times on SBM and elsewhere. I apologize to our readers who are growing tired of the subject, but there is perhaps no subject more deserving of focus and repetition. There’s also an important angle to the discussion that I’ve written on previously and which deserves more attention, and that is the importance of the pro-vaccine parent voice, and the need for that voice to be heard.
It never ceases to amaze me how few of the parents I know think about the risk to their own children from vaccine-exempt children in their schools and communities. Even parents who do think about this rarely seem concerned enough to speak up or even discuss it with others, let alone become active in doing something about it. With the rise in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, including the current high-profile Disneyland measles outbreak, and the ongoing pertussis epidemic in California, the tide seems at least to be turning slightly. The dramatic impact that vaccine refusal and the resultant decline in herd-immunity can have on a community is now penetrating the public consciousness. My hope is that parental awareness and outrage grow regarding the flagrant disregard of science, common sense, and citizenship exhibited by those parents who refuse to properly vaccinate their children. My hope is that the culture of tolerance of this intolerable anti-science threat begins to turn, and that it is no longer seen as acceptable for some parents to put the safety of others at risk.
Which brings me to the focus of this post. (more…)
One of the more difficult conversations to have with a patient as a cancer doctor occurs when a patient, recently informed of her diagnosis of, for example, breast cancer, asks me, “Why did I get this? What caused it?” What almost inevitably follows is an uncomfortable conversation in which explanations of the multiple known causes of breast cancer do not satisfy the patient. The reason, of course, is because when a patient asks, “What caused it?” she doesn’t mean what causes breast cancer in general or in statistical terms. Rather, she means, what caused my breast cancer? It’s a question that can only occasionally be answered. For instance, if it’s lung cancer and the patient is a smoker, then it was almost certainly smoking that caused the cancer, because lung cancer is a relatively rare cancer in the absence of smoking. In the case of breast cancer, contrary to the prevailing belief that leads women with breast cancer to be puzzled about how they could get it when there’s “no cancer” in their families, only around 5-10% of cases have a familial or genetic component. That means that around 90% of breast cancers are what we call “sporadic,” which means that we can’t identify a specific cause. Or, as I like to say, “We just don’t know.” Worse, in the case of breast cancer, the environmental factors we know about appear to contribute modestly at best to the risk of cancer. (More on this later.)
Understandably, patients hate hearing “We just don’t know,” some vague handwaving about genes, and that there is nothing that we know of that they did that caused their cancer. People—including oncologists—really don’t like the concept of “sporadic” cancer, mainly because humans crave explanation. The default assumption is that everything must happen for a reason and there must be a cause for every disease or cancer. Perhaps the most ridiculously emphatic statement of this that I’ve encountered thus far comes from (who else?) über-quack Mike Adams when he heaped contempt on the idea of sporadic disease as “spontaneous disease.” He did this in the context of a story describing how, after Dr. Mehmet Oz had followed recommended care and undergone screening colonoscopy to look for polyps, he was shocked that he actually had some. This led Adams, in his usual inimitable fashion, to construct a straw man so massive that it could be seen from space when he set it on fire, declaring that “colon polyps, in other words, appear without any cause!” and that “mainstream medicine…believes in the theory of ‘spontaneous disease’ that ‘strikes’ people at random.”
On the other hand, there is a lot of randomness in disease, not just cancer, as hard as it is for Mike Adams, or anyone to accept. Just because there is a varying amount of randomness in who gets a disease does not mean that mainstream medicine claims there is no cause to these diseases. Rather, for diseases like cancer, it’s a stochastic process, meaning that chance can play a role—sometimes a big role—in determining who gets sick. Indeed, just last week there was more evidence supporting this idea published in Science. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream press coverage presented the message of the paper a bit too simplistically. Even more unfortunately, it was the authors who encouraged this, as did the Johns Hopkins University press release about the study, which was entitled “Bad Luck of Random Mutations Plays Predominant Role in Cancer, Study Shows“. Yes, I groaned when I read this title.
Four weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I explained why wearing a bra does not cause breast cancer. After I had finished the post, it occurred to me that I should have saved that post for now, given that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The reason is that, like clockwork, pretty much every year around this time articles touting various myths about breast cancer will go viral, circulating on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr like so many giant spider-microbes on the moon on Saturday. Sometimes, they’re new articles. Sometimes they’re old articles that, like the killer at the end of a slasher film, seem to have died but always come back for another attack, if not immediately, then when the next movie comes out.
So I thought that this October I should take at least a couple of them on, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll stick to the topic of breast cancer myths for the whole month. After all, our “atavistic oncology” crank (you remember him, don’t you?) is agitating in the comments and e-mailing his latest “challenge” to my dean, other universities, and me. It was almost enough for me to put this post on hold for a week and respond to our insistent little friend’s latest “evidence,” but for now I’ll just tell Dr. Frank Arguello, “Be very careful what you ask for. You might just get it.” Maybe next week. Or maybe on my not-so-super-secret other blog. Or maybe never. Because Dr. Arguello has officially begun to bore me.
In the meantime, I’m going to stick with the original plan, at least for now.
So, first up this week is a myth that I can’t believe that I haven’t covered in depth sometime during the nearly seven years of this blog’s existence, other than in passing a couple of times, even though it’s a topic that deserves its own post. I’m referring to the claim that antiperspirants cause breast cancer. I bet you’ve seen articles like this oldie but not so goodie from über-quack Joe Mercola entitled “Are Aluminum-Containing Antiperspirants Contributing To Breast Cancer In Women?” or this older and even moldier article from seven years ago entitled “Why women should avoid using anti-perspirants that could cause breast cancer” or this one from last year entitled “Attention Deodorant Users: New Studies Link Aluminum To Breast Cancer“. Surprisingly, I haven’t found that many from this year yet. (Maybe the Ebola scare is distracting the usual suspects and diverting their efforts.) The same ones, however, keep reappearing every year, and they’re all based on the same sorts of claims and the same studies. So let’s dig in, shall we? (more…)
That there is an “autism epidemic” is taken as a given by those who feel autism has a dominant environmental cause. The Age of Autism blog, for example, bills itself as a, “Daily Web Newspaper of the Autism Epidemic.” The term “epidemic” also implies an environmental factor, such as an infection.
The epidemiology of autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has never supported the conclusion that there is an autism epidemic. There is no doubt that the number of autism diagnoses has increased in the last two decades, but the evidence strongly suggests this increase in an artifact of how autism diagnoses are made, and not representative of a true increase.
Adding to this data, a newly published study looks at autism and ASD prevalence worldwide: “The epidemiology and global burden of autism spectrum disorders“. They found:
In 2010 there were an estimated 52 million cases of ASDs, equating to a prevalence of 7.6 per 1000 or one in 132 persons. After accounting for methodological variations, there was no clear evidence of a change in prevalence for autistic disorder or other ASDs between 1990 and 2010. Worldwide, there was little regional variation in the prevalence of ASDs.
EDITOR NOTE: THERE IS AN ADDENDUM, ADDED SEPTEMBER 10.
Besides being a researcher and prolific blogger, I still maintain a practice in breast cancer surgery. It’s one of the more satisfying specialties in oncology because, in the vast majority of cases I treat, I can actually remove the cancer and “cure” the patient. (I use the quotes because we generally don’t like to use that term, given that some forms of breast cancer can recur ten or more years later, but in many cases the term still fits, albeit not as well as we would like.) Granted, I get a little (actually a lot of) help from my friends, so to speak, the multimodality treatment of breast cancer involving surgical oncology, radiation oncology, and medical oncology, but breast cancer that can be cured will be primarily cured with surgery, with chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and radiation therapy working mostly to decrease the risk of recurrence, either local in the breast or distant elsewhere in the body. Through this multimodality approach, breast cancer mortality has actually been decreasing over the last couple of decades.
However, as a breast cancer surgeon, I not infrequently have to deal with many of the common myths that have sprung up around breast cancer. Some are promoted by quacks; others are just myths that sound plausible but aren’t true. (That’s why they persist as myths.) One such myth has been in the news lately, in particular last week; so I thought now was a good time to take a look as any. Besides, I spent most of the weekend out of town visiting my wife’s family, and I didn’t have a lot of time for this post. So this week sticking to something I know well makes sense and inspired me to make like Harriet Hall and Steve Novella and keep my post to a reasonable length for a change. There’s also so much less mucking about on PubMed and Google that way to make sure I’m not missing something, too.
Without a doubt the big medical story of the last week or so has been the ongoing outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa, the most deadly in history thus far. Indeed, as of this writing, according to a table of known Ebola outbreaks since 1976 at Wikipedia, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three nations affected thus far, there have been 1,440 cases and 826 deaths. Worse, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that it is spreading faster in Africa than efforts to control it. In particular, late last week it was announced that two Americans who had been infected with Ebola were going to be flown back to the US, specifically to Emory University, for treatment, a development that ramped up the fear and misinformation about Ebola virus to even greater heights than it had already attained, which, unfortunately, were already pretty high. Indeed, the ever-reliably-histrionic Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com wrote a typically hysterical article “Infected Ebola patient being flown to Atlanta: Are health authorities risking a U.S. outbreak?” On Saturday, we learned that Dr. Kent Brantly, an aide worker for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charity run by Franklin Graham, son of the well-known preacher, Billy Graham, who had been evacuated from Liberia aboard a private air ambulance, had arrived in Georgia.
This latest development inspired medical “experts,” such as Donald Trump, to stoke fear based on the arrival of two infected Americans in the US. For instance, last Friday, after it was first announced that the Ebola-infected Americans would be flown back to the US, Trump tweeted:
Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2014