In the world of the anti-vaccine underground, there is one time of the year that looms large. Over the last few years, this time has generally come right around the end of May, usually coinciding with the Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial beginning of the summer vacation season here in the U.S. I’m referring, of course, to Autism One, which blights one of my favorite cities in the world, Chicago, every year about this time. True, of late Autism One has been metastasizing, most recently to blight the city of Toronto and the very grounds of the University of Toronto itself. As you may recall, last fall, when Autism One descended upon Toronto, I described it as “a conference of believers in two things: (1) that vaccines cause autism and (2) that ‘biomedical’ and CAM/IM therapies can treat and even reverse autism,” and it’s true, but Autism One is more than that. It’s a combination of a networking meeting for the anti-vaccine set, a revival meeting for the cult of anti-vaccinationism and autism “biomedical” therapy, and a trade show for “biomed” treatments for autism, all dressed up to appear to be a legitimate scientific conference.
Of all the fake scientific conferences out there, Autism One in Chicago, which begins today, far eclipses all the others, including even Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) conference. Closely aligned with the anti-vaccine propaganda group Generation Rescue and its outlet in the blogosphere Age of Autism (both of which, not surprisingly, have been promoting the conference incessantly), Autism One is the granddaddy of fake academic autism conferences, where anyone who’s anyone in the anti-vaccine “autism biomed” underground goes to see and be seen. It even has a keynote address by anti-vaccine celebrity spokesmodel Jenny McCarthy herself this year, just like the previous two years. This year, however, Autism One has expanded from three or four days to a full week, and it has taken on a note of political activism that was generally lacking in previous conferences. In previous years, Autism One pretty much stayed localized to a hotel near O’Hare, far from the center of the city. This time around it’s still at a hotel near O’Hare, but its organizers plan an anti-vaccine protest rally right smack dab in the middle of Grant Park on Wednesday afternoon. All of this leads me to conclud that this year Autism One’s organizers appear to be cementing the relationship between the autism “biomed” movement, the anti-vaccine movement, and the “health freedom” movement.
Imagine you’re an FDA reviewer looking at a new drug application. Drug A relieves a symptom, but doesn’t cure any disease. It doesn’t conflict with other medications. It’s considered safe in pregnant and breastfeeding women. At normal doses, there are virtually no side effects. There’s one unfortunate problem: If you take ten times the dose, liver damage is very likely and may be fatal. In other countries, Drug A is the number one cause of acute liver failure.
Should Drug A be available without a prescription?
Now consider another drug. Drug B also treats a symptom, but can also be used to treat a number of acute and chronic conditions, some of which require monitoring by specialist physicians. Drug B should generally be avoided in children, as it is associated with a rare but fatal toxicity. Even at normal doses, it can cause an array of side effects, and severe digestive system toxicity, resulting in hospital admission, is not uncommon. It interacts with other prescription drugs, and can be fatal in overdose situations.
Should Drug B be available without a prescription?
Mark Crislip is always a hard act to follow, particularly when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he was last Friday. Although I can sometimes match him (and, on rare occasions, even surpass him) for amusing snark, this time around I’m going to remain mostly serious because that’s what the subject matter requires. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a bit of an odd bird in the world of cancer in that I’m both a surgeon and I run a lab. Sadly, there just aren’t very many surgeons doing basic and translational research these days, thanks to declining NIH funding, increasing clinical burden necessitated by declining reimbursements, and the increasing complexity of laboratory-based research. That’s not to say that there aren’t some surgeons out there doing excellent laboratory research, but sometimes I feel as though I’m part of an endangered species, particularly years like this when grants are running out and I need to renew my funding or secure new funding, the consequence of failure being the dissolution of my laboratory. It’s a tough world out there in biomedical research.
As tough as biomedical research is in cancer, to my mind far tougher is research trying to tease out the relationship between environmental exposures and cancer risk. If you want complicated, that’s complicated. For one thing, obtaining epidemiological data is incredibly labor- and cost-intensive, and rarely are the data clear cut. There’s always ambiguity, not to mention numerous confounding factors that conspire to exaggerate on the one hand or hide on the other hand correlations between environmental exposures and cancer. As a result, studies are often conflicting, and making sense of the morass of often contradictory studies can tax even the most skillful scientists and epidemiologists. Communicating the science and epidemiology linking environment and cancer to the public is even harder. What the lay person often sees is that one day a study is in the news telling him that X causes cancer and then a month later another study says that X doesn’t cause cancer. Is it any wonder that people are often confused over what is and is not dangerous? Add to this a distinct inability on the part of most people, even highly educated people, to weigh small risks against one another (an inability that has led to phenomena such as the anti-vaccine movement), and the task of trying to decide what is dangerous, what is not, how policy is formulated based on this science, and how to communicate the science and the policy derived from it to the public is truly Herculean.
A few years ago a friend asked me to comment on advice given to her adult daughter by a psychiatrist whom she’d consulted for depression. The psychiatrist had recommended testing samples of saliva and urine for hormone and neurotransmitter levels, the results of which would likely indicate a need for supplements to correct deficiencies or imbalances. According to the psychiatrist, who had an academic appointment at a medical school in New York City, “I have been using these supplements with a great deal of success.” My friend is not medically or scientifically sophisticated, but this made her a little uncomfortable. In that, she was entirely justified.
During our recent panel discussion at the NECSS, a member of the audience identified himself as a clinical pathologist at a major medical center, and wondered what he might do to become involved in the good fight against encroaching pseudoscience in medical schools. Clinical pathology is the medical specialty that concerns itself, in summary, with laboratory tests—their development, their validity, their interpretation, their usefulness and, by implication, their misuse. A topic that we haven’t much featured on SBM (we touched upon it here, here and here, and probably elsewhere) is that of bogus laboratory or other diagnostic tests.
Early in my own education in modern quackery, I found it particularly distasteful not merely that quacks misuse laboratory tests, but that several commercial laboratories market misleading tests. To the untrained eye these laboratories appear to be legitimate, even to the point of their being approved by apparently legitimate certifying bodies. We’ll discuss that below, but first let’s look more closely at the psychiatrist’s recommendations to my friend’s daughter and at other examples of bogus tests.
Over the past two plus years of the existence of Science-Based Medicine (SBM) we have been highly critical of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) – going so far as to call for it to be abolished. We are collectively concerned that the NCCAM primarily serves as a means for promoting unscientific medicine, and any useful research it funds can be handled by other centers at the NIH.
So we were a bit surprised when the current director of the NCCAM, Josephine Briggs, contacted us directly and asked for a face-to-face meeting to discuss our concerns.
That meeting took place this past Friday, April 2nd. David Gorski, Kimball Atwood and I met with Dr. Briggs, Deputy Director Dr. John Killen, Karin Lohman PhD (Director, Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation) and Christy Thomsen (Director, Office of Communications and Public Liaison).
Dr. Briggs very graciously began the meeting by telling us that she and her staff have been reading SBM and they find our arguments to be cogent and serious. She shares many of our concerns, and feels that we are an important voice and are having an impact. She then essentially turned it over to us to discuss our primary concerns regarding the NCCAM.
We were prepared for this.
For a number of reasons, well-argued many times here on SBM, it would be beneficial to American citizens if the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) were abolished. This does not seem to be in the cards anytime soon. Here, then, are my suggestions for making the Center less dangerous and less of a marketing tool for pseudomedicine than it has been since its inception. Some suggestions might even make the Center somewhat useful. They are listed in order of priority. The Center should:
1. Abandon all unethical trials, beginning with the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT, which is under the joint auspices of the NHLBI). This should be done in a very public manner. The reasons for abandoning the TACT, in summary, are as follows.
March 4, 2010
Today I went to the one-day, 2nd Yale Research Symposium on Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Many of you will recall that the first version of this conference occurred in April, 2008. According to Yale’s Continuing Medical Education website, the first conference “featured presentations from experts in CAM/IM from Yale and other leading medical institutions and drew national and international attention.” That is true: some of the national attention can be reviewed here, here, here, and here; the international attention is here. (Sorry about the flippancy; it was irresistible)
I’ve not been to a conference promising similar content since about 2001, and in general I’ve no particular wish to do so. This one was different: Steve Novella, in his day job a Yale neurologist, had been invited to be part of a Moderated Discussion on Evidence and Plausibility in the Context of CAM Research and Clinical Practice. This was not to be missed.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) has released a report, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy, in which they recommend that the NHS stop funding homeopathy. The report is a rare commodity – a thoroughly science-based political document.
The committee went beyond simply stating that homeopathy does not work, and revealed impressive insight into the ethical, practical, and scientific problems caused by NHS support for an implausible and ineffective pseudoscience.
The STC formed in October of 2009, and this is their second report. The goals of the STC itself are significant step forward:
The purpose of Evidence Check is to examine how the Government uses evidence to formulate and review its policies.
We certainly can use more of that.
A MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE THAT HAD A (SORT OF) HAPPY ENDING
Back in September and then again last week, I wrote briefly (for me) about an incident that I considered to be a true miscarriage of justice, namely the prosecution of two nurses for having reported the dubious and substandard medical practices of a physician on the staff of Winkler County Hospital in Kermit, Texas. The physician’s name is Dr. Rolando Arafiles, and he happened to be a friend of the Winkler County Sheriff, Robert Roberts, who also happened to have been a patient of Dr. Arafiles and very grateful to him for having saved his life. The nurses, Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, were longtime employees of Winkler County Hospital, a fifteen bed hospital in rural West Texas. Although some of you may have seen extensive blogging about this before, I thought it very important to discuss some of the issues involved on this blog. Moreover, there is an aspect to this case that the mainstream media reporting on it has missed almost completely, as you will see. Finally, this case showed me something very ugly about my profession, not just because a doctor tried to destroy the lives of two good nurses through his connections to the good ol’ boy network in Winkler County
Let’s recap what happened, a story that reached its climax last Thursday. In 2008, Dr. Arafiles joined the staff of Winkler County Hospital (WCH). It did not take too long for it to become apparent that there were serious problems with this particular doctor. Mitchell and Galle, who worked in quality assurance were dismayed to learn that Dr. Arafiles would abuse his position to try to sell various herbal remedies to patients in the WCH emergency room and the county health clinic and to take supplies from the hospital to perform procedures at a patient’s home rather than in the hospital. No, it wasn’t the fact that Dr. Arafiles recommended supplements and various other “alt-med” remedies, it’s that he recommended supplements and various other “alt-med” remedies that he sold from his own business–a definite no-no both ethically and, in many states, legally. Mitchell reported her concerns to the administration of WCH, which did pretty much absolutely nothing. Consequently, on April 7, 2009, Mitchell and Galle anonymously reported their concerns to the Texas Medical Board (TMB). In June, WCH fired the two nurses without explanation.
BACKGROUND: A BAD, BAD LAW
One of the themes of this blog has been how, over the last couple of decades, the law has been coopted by forces supporting “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) in order to lend legitimacy to unscientific and even pseudoscientific medical nonsense. Whether it be $120 million a year being spent for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) or attempts to insert provisions mandating that insurers in the government health care co-ops that would have been created by President Obama’s recent health care reform initiative (which at the moment seems to be pining for the fjords, so to speak), the forces who do not want pesky things like regulation to interfere with their selling of pseudoscience have been very successful. Arguably the crown jewel of their legislative victories came in 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed. Demonstrating that pseudoscience is a bipartisan affair, the DSHEA was passed, thanks to a big push from the man who is arguably the most powerful supporter of quackery in government and the man most responsible for the creation of the abomination that is NCCAM, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), along with his partner in woo, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). It should be noted that Harkin happens to be the recipient of large contributions from supplement manufacturer Herbalife, demonstrating that big pharma isn’t the only industry that can buy legislation related to health.
Dr. Lipson has discussed the DSHEA before (calling it, in his own inimitable fashion, a “travesty of a mockery of a sham“) as has a certain friend of mine. Suffice it to say that the DSHEA of 1994 is a very bad law. One thing it does is to make a distinction between food and medicine. While on its surface this is a reasonable distinction (after all, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to hold food to the same sorts of standards to which drugs are held), as implemented by the DSHEA this distinction has a pernicious effect in that it allows manufacturers to label all sorts of botanicals, many of which with pharmacological activity, as “supplements,” and supplements, being defined as food and not medicine, do not require prior approval by the FDA before marketing: