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National Academy of Sciences Report on GMOs

NASGMOreportDespite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.

This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.

Because of all this, the National Academy of Sciences put together an expert committee to systematically review all the evidence regarding this new technology. Their thorough 407 page report is now available.

They pulled together experts with diverse backgrounds, and also took public comment and solicited input from a wide range of interests. They decided specifically not to rely on any previous review, but to conduct their own review of the primary literature. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health

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Are medical errors really the third most common cause of death in the U.S.?

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

Dr. Martin Makary claims that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the US. Is he correct?

Dr. Martin Makary claims that medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the US. Is he correct?

It is an unquestioned belief among believers in alternative medicine and even just among many people who do not trust conventional medicine that conventional medicine kills. Not only does exaggerating the number of people who die due to medical complications or errors fit in with the world view of people like Mike Adams and Joe Mercola, but it’s good for business. After all, if conventional medicine is as dangerous as claimed, then alternative medicine starts looking better in comparison.

In contrast, real physicians and real medical scientists are very much interested in making medicine safer and more efficacious. One way we work to achieve that end is by using science to learn more about disease and develop new treatments that are as efficacious or more so than existing treatments with fewer adverse reactions (clinical equipoise). Another strategy is to use what we know to develop quality metrics against which we measure our practice. Indeed, I am heavily involved in just such an effort for breast cancer patients. Then, of course, we try to estimate how frequent medical errors are and how often they cause harm or even death. All of these efforts are very difficult, of course, but perhaps the most difficult of all is the last one. Estimates of medical errors depend very much on how medical errors are defined, and whether a given death can be attributed to a medical error depends very much on how it is determined whether a death was preventable and whether a given medical error led to that death.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Quality Improvement, Science and Medicine

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Overprescribing Antibiotics

Phial of penicillin from 1946, marking the advent of the now-closing "antibiotic era".

Phial of penicillin from 1946, marking the advent of the now-closing “antibiotic era”. Image from the Wellcome Trust via the Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I had a cutaneous abscess which was treated (quite painfully) with incision and drainage. My doctor told me that antibiotics were not strictly necessary, but I could have them if I wanted. The idea of any treatment that could resolve the abscess more quickly was appealing, but I did not want to contribute to the unnecessary use of antibiotics so I declined.

The use of antibiotics in cutaneous abscess is not straightforward, as there are indications – signs of systemic infection, failure to resolve quickly with just I&D, or in immunocompromised patients. Antibiotics may also reduce the risk of recurrence. These are, after all, bacterial infections.

If I were not very familiar with the issue of antibiotic overuse and emerging resistance I probably would have caved and accepted the antibiotics, and I suspect most patients do. Many patients probably request antibiotics or at least ask about them. I declined, and everything turned out fine. (more…)

Posted in: Guidelines, Public Health

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Medical exemptions to vaccine mandates for sale after SB277! Get ’em before they’re gone!

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.

SB277, which eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates in California, is a very good law, but it's not perfect. Unfortunately, one provision allows the issuance of medical exemptions based on the say-so of doctors using antivaccine misinformation and pseudoscience.

SB277, which eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates in California, is a very good law, but it’s not perfect. Unfortunately, one provision allows the issuance of medical exemptions based on the say-so of doctors using antivaccine misinformation and pseudoscience.

I realize that it’s a cliché to say so, but some clichés are true. Time really does fly. It’s hard to believe that a year ago California—and, by proxy, the rest of the country—was in the throes of a major political war over the bill SB277. SB277, you will recall, was a bill introduced into the California Assembly in the wake of the Disneyland Measles outbreak in early 2015 that eliminated non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates beginning with the 2016-2017 school year. Ultimately, SB277 passed and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last July. It was an uncommon victory for science and public health, and already appears to be having a positive effect on vaccine uptake in kindergarten children.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, to say that the proposal and passage of SB277 into law drove the antivaccine movement into even greater fits of crazy in response is to put it mildly. It became a common trope on antivaccine websites and blogs to see SB277 compared to fascism, in particular the Holocaust. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and “Dr. Bob” Sears explicitly compared SB277 to the Holocaust. Truly, the Godwin was strong in the antivaccine movement. One particularly offensive meme that went around at the time consisted of antivaccinationists suggesting that SB277 was a major step in the direction of requiring unvaccinated children to wear a badge or armband to identify themselves, the way that the Nazis required Jews to wear badges or armbands with a yellow Star of David on them. One, Heather Barajas, even went so far as to be photographed with her children wearing such an “unvaccinated” badge and juxtapose that photo with photos of Jews from the Third Reich wearing yellow Stars of David.
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Reclassifying thyroid cancer and the willful misunderstanding of overdiagnosis

This is a panel showing some of the pathologic criteria for distinguishing invasive encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma from noninvasive. This is real science. Sayer Ji's rant is not.

This is a panel showing some of the pathologic criteria for distinguishing invasive encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma from noninvasive. This is real science. Sayer Ji’s rant is not.

If there’s one lesson that we here at Science-Based Medicine like to emphasize, it’s that practicing medicine and surgery is complicated. Part of the reason that it’s complicated is that for many diseases our understanding is incomplete, meaning that physicians have to apply existing science to their treatment as well as they can. The biology of cancer, in particular, can be vexing. Some cancers appear to progress relentlessly, meaning that it’s obvious that all of them must be treated. Others, particularly when detected in their very early stages through screening tests, have a variable and therefore difficult to predict clinical course if left untreated. Unfortunately, some people, such as Sayer Ji, don’t understand that. They like their medicine black and white, and if physicians ever change guidelines in order to align them more closely with scientific understanding, they write blisteringly ignorant articles like “‘Oops… It Wasn’t Cancer After All,’ Admits The National Cancer Institute/JAMA.”

Not exactly. An expert panel recommended reclassifying a specific thyroid lesion as not cancerous based on recent science. It’s called medicine correcting itself. Admittedly, this reclassification was probably long overdue, but what would Mr. Ji rather have? Medicine not correcting itself in this situation? In any case, when last I met Mr. Ji, he was happily abusing the science of genetics to argue that Angelina Jolie and other carriers of deleterious cancer-causing mutations don’t need prophylactic surgery because lifestyle interventions will save them through epigenetics, which to “natural health” enthusiasts like Mr. Ji seems to mean the magical ability to prevent any disease. Most recently, he has appeared on the deeply dishonest “documentary” about alternative medicine cancer cures, The Truth About Cancer, to expound on how chemotherapy is evil. His rant about the reclassification of a non-encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid cancer as not cancer is more of the same, as you will see.
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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Statins for everyone? Not so fast.

In rosuvastatin we trust?

In rosuvastatin should we trust?

People love the idea of preventive medicine. Preventing a disease, before it occurs, seems intuitively obvious. But when it comes to taking medicine to prevent a disease before it occurs, people tend to be much less comfortable. Not only are there the concerns about the “medicalization” of healthy people, there are good questions about benefits, risks, and costs. Cardiovascular disease will kill many of us, so there’s been decades of research studying how to prevent that first heart attack or stroke. But even if you’re born with good genes and do everything possible to prevent heart disease (e.g., don’t smoke, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, moderate your alcohol, and keep your weight down) you’re still at risk of heart disease. And if you have one or more risk factors for disease, your lifetime risk goes up dramatically. Once you’ve had your first heart attack or stroke, the effectiveness of medical therapy is clear. Drug therapy with medication like the “statins” class of cholesterol-lowering drugs reduces deaths from cardiovascular disease. Given their unambiguous effectiveness, and the high likelihood that many of us will eventually have cardiovascular disease of some sort, the idea of “pre-treating” otherwise-healthy people with drug therapy to possibly prevent that first event has been held out as a potential public health strategy. There’s new evidence that tests this hypothesis, and the results are surprising. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Public Health

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Why Antibiotic Use Scares Me

Editor’s note: Today we present a guest post from fourth-year medical student Joshua Horton, about the looming problem of antibiotic resistance. Welcome!

Antibiotic sensitive (left) and resistant (right) bacterial colonies. They probably shouldn't be that close together.

Antibiotic sensitive (left) and resistant (right) bacterial colonies. They probably shouldn’t be that close together.

I read a study recently that alarmed me: acute bronchitis is a condition that rarely requires antibiotics, but three quarters of patients presenting with this condition receive a prescription for antibiotics. Even more worrisome, this statistic has not changed in 20 years. To those of us on the cusp of a career in medicine – I am a fourth year medical student – this is terrifying because we are going to have to deal with the consequences. Antibiotic overuse leads to:

  • Increased morbidity and mortality for patients infected with resistant bugs
  • Unnecessary and exorbitant healthcare expenditures
  • The potential to cultivate multi-resistant bacteria that could spread to pandemic proportions

We still take them for granted, but antibiotics are a finite resource. Each time we breed a bug that is resistant to a particular drug, we are forced to relinquish that gun from our armamentarium. With fiscal impetus for pharma to develop new antibiotics waning, we may have reached a point of no return. That’s why this study scared me. Hopefully, clever techniques based on behavioral theory designed to reduce antibiotic prescribing may pull us back from that edge – read on to learn more. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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American Journal of Public Health article touts “potential public health benefits” of homeopathy

Homeopathy: It's just water.

Homeopathy: It’s just water.

An article in the April, 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health caught my eye: “Homeopathy Use by US Adults: Results of a National Survey.” I was pleased to see that homeopathy use is actually quite low. The 2012 National Health Survey found that only 2.1% of U.S. adults used homeopathy in the last 12 months, although that was a 15% increase over 2007. Users were mostly young, white, well-educated women, the typical CAM consumer.

Even fewer saw a homeopathic practitioner (only 19% of all users), although those who did perceived a greater benefit from homeopathic remedies. This difference, speculate the authors, could be due to several factors, one of which is

a more individualized and effective homeopathic prescription by the provider.

What? Are the authors suggesting that the series of off-the-wall questions asked by homeopaths leads to a prescription of an “effective” homeopathic remedy?

They certainly seem to be. Who are these authors, anyway?

They are Michelle L. Dossett, MD, PhD, MPH, Roger B. Davis, ScD, Ted J. Kaptchuk, and Gloria Y. Yeh, MD, MPH. All are, or were, with the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. All are also connected with Harvard and work, in various ways, in “integrative medicine” research. The article was funded, in part, by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and in part by Harvard. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Public Health, Vaccines

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The claim that Gardasil causes premature ovarian failure: Ideology, not science

It's amazing how, to antivaccine activists, it just so happens that a vaccine that targets a sexually transmitted virus must also destroy a girl's ovaries.

It’s amazing how, to antivaccine activists, it just so happens that a vaccine that targets a sexually transmitted virus must also destroy a girl’s ovaries. It must be a coincidence, right?

When you’ve been blogging for over 11 years on your own blog and 8 years on a blog like Science-Based Medicine, particularly when what you blog about is skepticism and science-based medicine, with a special emphasis on rationally and scientifically discussing quackery, inevitably you see the same misinformation and lies pop up again and again. Indeed, those of us in the biz not infrequently refer to such stories as “zombie lies,” because no matter how often you think they’ve been killed they always come back. Personally, I like to refer to them as Jason, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger lies (or just slasher or monster lies), for basically the same reason. You kill them with facts, evidence, science, and reason, but sooner or later they always come back. Always. That’s why trying to refute them is like playing Whac-A-Mole. This time around, a group called the American College of Pediatrics (ACP) is claiming that Gardasil is causing infertility in girls, a claim that showed up last week on that repository of quackery, NaturalNews.com. Oddly enough, despite the article’s hysterical tone, it wasn’t written by NN’s big macher himself, Mike Adams.

The reason that slasher lies keep coming back is because they never really go away completely. They only look that way because they recede for a while until someone new discovers them or their originators decide the coast is clear and they can repeat them again. There’s one particular slasher lie that keeps coming up about the HPV vaccine, usually Gardasil (mainly because that’s the brand of HPV vaccine most commonly used in the US) but not restricted to Gardasil. Sometimes Cervarix falls prey to the same lies, mainly overseas where it is the predominant version of HPV vaccine used. Given that I was in Boston at the annual meeting of the Society of Surgical Oncology over the weekend and was also busy hanging out with Kimball Atwood and Clay Jones one night, surgical colleagues another night, and the Boston Skeptics on Saturday, it seemed to me to be a good time to revisit this topic, particularly given that it hasn’t been covered on SBM before. If this post looks familiar, it’s because it has appeared before, but it was in a different form. Consider this a beefed up version of the prior post, because even when I recycle material I can’t just recycle it unchanged. I have to tinker, add, and, of course, customize for the blog. It’s what I do.
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Posted in: Public Health, Religion, Vaccines

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Are the recommended childhood vaccine schedules evidence-based?

The vaccine schedule: Safe and efficacious.

The vaccine schedule: Safe and efficacious.

We write about vaccines a lot here at SBM, and for a very good reason. Of all the medical interventions devised by the brains of humans, arguably vaccines have saved more lives and prevented more disability than any other medical treatment. When it comes to infectious disease, vaccination is the ultimate in preventive medicine, at least for diseases for which vaccines can be developed. We also know that when vaccination rates fall, it opens the door for diseases once controlled to come roaring back. We saw this phenomenon with the measles a year ago in the Disneyland measles outbreak. We’ve seen it around the country, with measles outbreaks occurring in areas where a lot of antivaccine and vaccine-averse parents live. Perhaps the most spectacular example occurred in the UK, where prior to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent case series in The Lancet that was used to link the MMR vaccine to autism, measles was under control; it came roaring back as MMR uptake plummeted in the wake of the publicity his research engendered. By 2008, ten years after Wakefield’s case series was published, measles was again endemic in the UK. Measles outbreaks flourished. Although MMR uptake is improving again in the UK, there remains a reservoir of unvaccinated children aged 10-16 who can transmit the virus.

Thanks, Andy.

Fortunately, Wakefield has been relegated to sharing the stage with crop circle chasers, New World Order conspiracy theorists, sovereign citizen cranks, and other antivaccine cranks like Sherry Tenpenny. Unfortunately, the damage that he has done lives on and has metastasized all over the developed world. Given the persistence of the antivaccine movement, which fuels concerns about vaccines in parents who are not themselves antivaccine but are predisposed to the antivaccine message because they distrust government and/or big pharma or have a world view that overvalues “naturalness,” I was quite interested in an article that appeared in The BMJ last week. Basically, it asked the question “Is the timing of recommended childhood vaccines evidence based?
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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