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The Tamiflu Spin

I will start, for those of you who are new to the blog, with two disclaimers.

First, I am an infectious disease doctor. It is a simple job: Me find bug. Me kill bug. Me go home. I spend all day taking care of patients with infections. My income comes from treating and preventing infections. So I must have some sort of bias, the main one being I like to do everything I can to cure my patients.

Second, in 25 years I have, to my knowledge, accepted one thing from a drug company. The Unisin (that’s how I spell it) rep, upon transfer from my hospital, sent me a Fleet enema with a Unisin sticker on it. I show it proudly to all who enter my office. I do not even eat the drug company pizza at conference, and I cannot begin to tell you painful that is.

As we leave (I hope) the H1N1 season and enter seasonal flu season, there has been a flurry of articles, originating in the British Medical Journal , questioning whether oseltamivir is effective in treating influenza. The specific complaint at issue is whether or not oseltamivir prevents secondary complications of influenza like hospitalization and pneumonia. Although you wouldn’t guess that was at issue from the reporting.  As always, there is what the data says, what the abstract says, what the conclusion says, and what other people say it says.  Reading the medical literature is all about blind men and elephants.

There is, evidently, going to be an investigation by the European Union Council of Europe  into whether or not the H1N1 pandemic was faked to sell more oseltamivir. Sigh.
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Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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e-Cigarette Safety

Ever since news of the harmful effects of tobacco smoke hit the public consciousess around the middle of the 20th century the tobacco industry and others have been looking for a “healthy” alternative. Are e-cigarettes just latest in a list of failed attempts to make smoking safe?

In case you are a new visitor to our planet (welcome) using tobacco products has been determined to be a significant risk factor in developing certain kinds of lung cancer and vascular disease, including strokes and heart attacks (the top three killers).  The tobacco industry initially tried desperately to deny or downplay the scientific evidence for the health risks of smoking, engaging in a campaign of doubt and confusion, but those efforts ultimately failed.

Some companies marketed light, low tar, and filtered cigarettes with the claim, direct or implied, that they were a more healthful alternative to regular cigarettes. However, there has never been convincing evidence that such cigarettes are less of a health risk. Still, the marketing stuck and now 90% of all cigarettes sold are filtered.

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Posted in: Public Health

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The anti-vaccine movement strikes back against Dr. Paul Offit

In my five years in the blogosphere, two years blogging for SBM, and over a decade in Internet discussion forums about medicine and “alternative” medicine, I’ve learned a few things. One thing that I’ve learned is that one of the biggest differences between those whose world view is based on science and who therefore promote science-based medicine and those promoting pseudoscience, quackery, and anti-science is that science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free, open, and vigorous debate. Indeed, to outsiders, this debate can seem (and sometimes is) vicious. In other words, if you’re going to be a scientist, you need to have a thick skin because you will have to defend your hypotheses and conclusions, sometimes against some very hostile other scientists. That same attitude of a Darwinian struggle between scientific ideas, with only those best supported by evidence and with the most explanatory power surviving, is a world view that those not steeped in science have a hard time understanding.

Among those who don’t understand science, few have a harder time with the rough-and-tumble debate over evidence and science that routinely goes on among scientists than those advocating pseudoscience. Indeed, in marked contrast to scientists, they tend to cultivate cultures of the echo chamber. Examples abound and include discussion forums devoted to “alternative” medicine like CureZone, where never is heard a discouraging word — because anyone expressing too much skepticism about the prevailing view on such forums invariably finds himself first shunned by other members of the discussion forums and then, if he persists, booted from the forum by the moderators. In marked contrast, on skeptical forums, most of the time almost anything goes. True, the occasional supporter of woo who finds his way onto a skeptical forum will face a lot of criticism, some of it brutal. However, rarely will such a person be banned, unless he commits offenses unrelated to his questioning of scientific dogma, such as insulting or abusive behavior towards other forum participants or trolling. Such people may annoy the heck out of us skeptics sometimes, but on the other hand, they do actually from time to time challenge us to defend our science and prevent us from becoming too complacent. Indeed, that’s what I like about skeptics and being a scientist. Nothing or no one is sacred.
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Radiation from medical imaging and cancer risk

ResearchBlogging.orgScience-based medicine consists of a balancing of risks and benefits for various interventions. This is sometimes a difficult topic for the lay public to understand, and sometimes physicians even forget it. My anecdotal experience suggests that probably surgeons are usually more aware of this basic fact because our interventions generally involve taking sharp objects to people’s bodies and using steel to remove or rearrange parts of people’s anatomy for (hopefully) therapeutic effect. Ditto oncologists, who prescribe highly toxic substances to treat cancer, the idea being that these substances are more toxic to the cancer than they are to the patient. Often they are only marginally more toxic to the cancer than to the patient. However, if there’s one area where even physicians tend to forget that there is potential risk involved, it’s the area of diagnostic tests, in particular radiological diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, and the variety of ever more powerful diagnostic studies that have proliferated over since CT scans first entered medical practice in the 1970s. Since then, the crude images that the first CT scans produced have evolved, thanks to technology and ever greater computing power, to breathtaking three dimensional-views of the internal organs. Indeed, just since I finished medical school back in the late 1980s, I’m continually amazed at what these new imaging modalities can accomplish.

The downside of these imaging modalities is that most of them require the use of X-rays to produce their images. True, over the last 15 years or so MRI, which uses very strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation rather than ionizing radiation to produce its images, has become increasingly prevalent. MRI is great because it produces more contrast between different kinds of soft tissue than CT scans do. However, CT tends to be superior for examining calcified organs, such as bone. (The breast surgeon in me notes that breast MRI is pretty much useless for detecting microcalcifications, an important possible indicator for cancer.) Also, MRI scans require a prolonged period of laying still in a very tight tube, which is a problem for patients with any degree of claustrophobia, although “open” MRIs are becoming increasingly available. More importantly for the quality of images, because they require a patient to lie more still than a CT, MRIs tend to be prone to more motion artifacts, which is perhaps why CT is more frequently used to image the abdomen other than large solid organs such as the liver. The point is that, although MRI is becoming more prevalent, CT scans aren’t going away any time soon. They have different strengths and weaknesses as imaging modalities and are therefore best suited for different, albeit overlapping, sets of indications.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Another wrinkle to the USPSTF mammogram guidelines kerfuffle: What about African-American women?

A while back I wrote about rethinking how we screen for breast cancer using mammography. Basically, the USPSTF, an independent panel of physicians and health experts that makes nonbinding recommendations for the government on various health issues, reevaluated the evidence for routine screening mammography and concluded that for women at normal risk for breast cancer, mammography before age 50 should not be recommended routinely and should be ordered on an individualized basis, and that routine formalized breast self-examination (BSE) should also not be routinely recommended. In addition, for women over 50, it was recommended that they undergo mammography every other year, rather than every year. These recommendations were based on a review of the literature, including newer studies.

To say that these new recommendations caused a firestorm in the breast cancer world is an understatement. The USPSTF was accused of misogyny; opponents of health care reform leapt on them as evidence that President Obama really is preparing “death panels”; and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius couldn’t run away from the guidelines fast enough. Meanwhile, a society I belong to (the American Society of Breast Surgeons) issued a press release accusing the USPSTF of sending us back to the “pre-mammography” days when, presumably women only found breast cancer after it had grown to huge size (just like Europe and Canada, I guess, given that the recommendations for screening there closely mirrors those recommended by the USPSTF). Meanwhile, in the most blatant example of protecting its turf I’ve seen in a very long time, the American College of Radiology went full mental jacket with a press release that was as biased as it was insulting. Meanwhile some physicians even likened the recommendations to going back to being like Africa, Southeast Asia and China as far as breast screening goes in that he actually speculated that he’d now become very busy treating advanced, neglected breast cancers. Unfortunately, as Val pointed out, the communication of the USPSTF guidelines to the public was almost a perfect case study in how not to do it. Even though the science was in general sound and the USPSTF recommendations were in essence close to identical to what other industrialized nations do, they were communicated in just such a way as to produce maximum misunderstanding and misuse for political purposes.

Despite all the hysterical and in some cases disingenuous attacks on the new guidelines, there is one criticism that actually resonates with me because I work at a cancer center in a very urban environment with a large population of African-American women. Last week I heard on NPR this story:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer! (revisited)

Pictured: Probably not carcinogenic.

Pictured: Probably not carcinogenic.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s been about a year and a half since I’ve written about this topic; so I thought I’d better update the disclaimer that I wrote at the beginning:

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies.
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

There. That’s better. Hopefully that will, as it did last time, serve as a shield against the “shill” argument, which is among the frequent accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area. So, as I did back in 2008, I just thought I’d clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Unfortunately, as I have known for a long time, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable, either here or elsewhere. Posting such disclaimers never seems to work against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures. Even so, even after nearly ten years involved in skepticism and promoting science-based medicine, hope still springs eternal.

There are two reasons that I think the issue of mobile phones and cancer needs an update on our blog: First, it has been a year and a half since I last wrote about it. At that time I castigated Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, who at that time was director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute for what I viewed as fear mongering over cell phones and cancer based on at best flimsy evidence. Second, there have been two fairly high profile studies looking at whether there is a link between mobile phone use and cancer. One of these our fearless leader Steve Novella has already discussed, but there was another one that he didn’t see because it didn’t get quite as much publicity, possibly because the corresponding author is based in Korea. I will take this opportunity to discuss them both.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Public Health

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The Mammogram Post-Mortem

The Mammogram Post Mortem
Steve Novella whimsically opined on a recent phone call that irrationality must convey a survival advantage for humans. I’m afraid he has a point.
It’s much easier to scare people than to reassure them, and we have a difficult time with objectivity in the face of a good story. In fact, our brains seem to be hard wired for bias – and we’re great at drawing subtle inferences from interactions, and making our observations fit preconceived notions. A few of us try to fight that urge, and we call ourselves scientists.
Given this context of human frailty, it’s rather unsurprising that the recent USPSTF mammogram guidelines resulted in a national media meltdown of epic proportions. Just for fun, and because David Gorski nudged me towards this topic, I’m going to review some of the key reasons why the drama was both predictable and preventable.  (And for an excellent, and more detailed review of the science behind the kerfuffle, David’s recent SBM article is required reading. https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1926 )
Preamble
In an effort to increase early detection of breast cancer, American women have been encouraged to get annual screening mammograms starting at age 40. Even though mammograms aren’t as sensitive and specific as we’d like, they’re the best screening test we have – and so with all the caveats and vagaries associated with what I’d call a “messy test,” we somehow collectively agreed that it was worth it to do them.
Now, given the life-threatening nature of breast cancer, it’s only natural that advocacy groups and professional societies want to do everything in their power to save women from it. So of course they threw all their weight behind improving compliance with screening mammograms, and spent millions on educating women about the importance of the test. Because, after all, there is no good alternative.
However, the downside of an imprecise test is the false positive results that require (in some cases) invasive studies to refute them.  And so this leaves us with 2 value judgments:  how many women is it acceptable to harm (albeit it mildly to moderately) in order to save one life? Roughly, the answer is a maximum of 250 over 10 years (I came up with that number from the data here: https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=565 if as many as half of women receive a “false alarm” mammogram over a period of 10 years of testing, and half of those undergo an unnecessary biopsy). And second: how many tests are we willing to do (this is more-or-less an economic question) to save 1 life? The answer is roughly 1900.
So when the USPSTF took a fresh look at the risks and benefits of mammography and recommended against screening average risk women between 40-50 (and reducing mammogram frequency to every other year for those over 50), what they were saying is that they would rather injure fewer women and do fewer costly tests for the trade off of saving fewer lives. In fact, their answer was that they were willing to perform 1300 mammograms to save 1 life, not 1900 (as has been our standard of care).
This value judgment is actually not, in and of itself, earth shattering or irresponsible. But it’s the societal context into which this judgment was released that made all the difference.
1. Timing Is Everything: Or, why not to bring a party hat to a funeral
First of all, it’s almost amusing how bad the timing of the USPSTF guidelines really were. The country was in the midst of trying to pass our country’s first serious healthcare reform bill in decades (at least, the house reform bill was being voted upon the week that the USPSTF guidelines were released) and opponents of the bill had already expressed vehement concern about arbitrary government rationing of healthcare services.
What worse time could there have been to announce that a government agency is (against the commonly held views of the rest of the medical establishment) recommending reduction in frequency  of a life-saving screening test for women? The fact that the guidelines leader said she hadn’t thought about the greater context when she scheduled the press release is quite astonishing. On the one hand, I suppose it shows how disconnected from potential political bias the workgroup really is. On the other hand, it is violates Public Relations 101 so completely as to call into question the judgment of those making… er… judgments.
2. You Can’t Replace Something With Nothing: Or How To Take Scissors From A Baby
Let’s just say for a moment that we all agree that mammograms aren’t the greatest screening test for breast cancer. They’re rather expensive, and wasteful perhaps one might even argue that in a healthcare system with limited resources, one healthy woman’s screening test is another woman’s insulin.  But – it’s all we have. And they do save lives… occasionally.
Anyone who’s seen a child pick up something harmful realizes that the only way to take it from them without tears is to replace it with something harmless. You can’t just take away mammograms from women who have come to expect it, without offering them something more sensible. If there is nothing, then I’m afraid that discontinuing them will result in considerable outrage which you may or may not wish to engage. Given the size and power of the breast lobby – I’d say it’s pretty much political suicide.
3. Know Your Opposition: Or Don’t Bring A Knife To A Gun Fight
And that brings me to point #3. The breast cancer movement is one of the most powerful and successful disease fighting machines in the history of medicine. And bravo to all the women and men who made it such a visible disease. The amount of funding, research, and PR that this cancer gets is astounding – it dwarfs many other worthy diseases (like pancreatic cancer or lymphoma), and is a force to be reckoned with.
Which is why, before you undermine a cherished tenet of such a group, you take a long hard look at what you’re going to say… Because it will be shouted from the hilltops, scrutinized from every conceivable angle, and used to rally all of Hollywood, the medical establishment, and everyone in Washington to its cause. Yeah, you better be darn sure you’re “right” (whatever that means in this context) before attempting to promote a service cut back to this group.
4. Know Who You Are: Or Unilateral Decision Making Is Not A Great Idea – Especially For Government
And finally, it’s important not only to know who you’re dealing with, but to know your mission in society so you can be maximally effective. The US government exists to honor the will of the people and serve its citizens. The best way to do that is to listen to them carefully, engage in consensus-building, and try to be a good steward of resources. When government behaves in ways counter to our expectations, it provokes some legitimate negativity.
So, for example, when a small group of civil servants hole themselves up in a room to create guidelines that will potentially take preventive health services away from women – resulting in a larger number of deaths each year… and they don’t invite input from key stakeholders, and announce their views in the midst of a firestorm about “rationing”
In summary
The new USPSTF guidelines for mammogram screenings debacle serves as a perfect public relations case study in what not to do in advancing healthcare reform. It was the perfect storm of high profile subject, bad timing, poor argument preparation, and lack of back up planning. Though we could have had a rational discussion about the cost/benefit analysis of this particular screening test, what we got instead was the appearance of a unilateral rationing decision by an out-of-touch government organization, devaluing women to the point of death. Throw that chum in the water of human frailty and you’ll get the same result every time: a media feeding frenzy that makes you regret the moment that guideline development became a twinkle in your task force eye.

Steve Novella whimsically opined on a recent phone call that irrationality must convey a survival advantage for humans. I’m afraid he has a point.

It’s much easier to scare people than to reassure them, and we have a difficult time with objectivity in the face of a good story. In fact, our brains seem to be hard wired for bias – and we’re great at drawing subtle inferences from interactions, and making our observations fit preconceived notions. A few of us try to fight that urge, and we call ourselves scientists.

Given this context of human frailty, it’s rather unsurprising that the recent USPSTF mammogram guidelines resulted in a national media meltdown of epic proportions. Just for fun, and because David Gorski nudged me towards this topic, I’m going to review some of the key reasons why the drama was both predictable and preventable.  (And for an excellent, and more detailed review of the science behind the kerfuffle, David’s recent SBM article is required reading.)

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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and the Media

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A temporary reprieve from legislative madness

While doctor visits for influenza-like illnesses seem to be trending downward again, and “swine flu” is becoming old news, I’d like to draw attention to an H1N1 story that has received very little coverage by the mainstream media.

Doctors in several states can now protect their most vulnerable patients from the H1N1 virus without worrying about breaking the law. In order to save lives, several states have announced emergency waivers of their own inane public health laws, which ban the use of thimerosal-containing vaccines for pregnant women and young children.

Legislators in California, New York, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Delaware, and Washington state have enacted these science-ignoring laws in response to pressures from the anti-vaccine lobby and fear-struck constituents. Except for minor differences, each state’s law is essentially the same, so I will focus on the one from my state of New York.

New York State Public Health Law §2112 became effective on July 1, 2008. It prohibits the administration of vaccines containing more than trace amounts of thimerosal to woman who know they are pregnant, and to children under the age of 3. The term “trace amounts” is defined by this law as 0.625 micrograms of mercury per 0.25 mL dose of influenza vaccine for children under 3, or 0.5 micrograms per 0.5 mL dose of all other vaccines for children under 3 and pregnant women. Because thimerosal (and thus, mercury) exists only in multi-dose vials of the influenza vaccines (both seasonal and novel H1N1), this law really only applies to these vaccines. The mercury concentration of the influenza vaccines is 25 micrograms per 0.5 mL, which therefore makes their use illegal. Unfortunately, the only form of the H1N1 vaccine initially distributed, and that could be used for young children and pregnant women, was the thimerosal-containing form. The thimerosal-free vaccine was the last to ship, and in low supply, and the nasal spray is a live-virus vaccine, not approved for use in pregnancy or children under 2. That meant, without a waiver of the thimerosal ban, these groups could not be vaccinated.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The Institute for Science in Medicine enters the health care reform fray

I’ve been writing about the attempts of proponents of various pseudoscience, quackery, and faith-based religious “healing” modalities to slip provisions friendly to their interests into the health care reform bill that will be debated in the Senate beginning today. If you want to know what’s at stake, check out the first press release of a newly formed institute designed to promote science-based medicine in academia and public policy, the Institute for Science in Medicine.

It’s an embryonic institute, only recently formed by 42 physicians and scientists, several of whose names will be quite familiar to regular readers of SBM, but it’s jumping right into the fray. This is what the ISM is:

The ISM is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting high standards of science in all areas of medicine and public health. We are a watchdog group of medical professionals who believe the best science available should be used to determine health policy and establish a standard of care that protects and promotes the public health. We oppose legislation that seeks to erode the science-based standard of care and expose the public to potentially fraudulent, worthless, or harmful medical practices or products.

Given how when faced with science going against them purveyors of unscientific medicine and medical beliefs try to win in politics where they can’t win in science (as my earlier post today describes for naturopaths in Ontario and the anti-vaccine movement in Oregon), just as we do on SBM, those of us who have helped to form the ISM have our work cut out for us.

Steve Novella has more.

Posted in: Announcements, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Naturopaths and the anti-vaccine movement: Hijacking the law in service of pseudoscience

Time and time again, we’ve seen it. When pseudoscientists and quacks can’t persuade the scientific and medical community of the validity of their claims, they go to the law to try to gain the legitimacy that their claims can’t garner through proving themselves by the scientific method. True, purveyors of pseudoscience and unscientifically-derived medical practices do crave the respectability of science. That’s why they try so hard to take on the trappings of science. The problem is that they just can’t do it right, try as they might, or when they do it right their methods are shown to be no more effective than a placebo, aside from the occasional seeming “positive” results that would be expected based on random chance alone. However, failing to achieve the respectability that the mantle of science provides, practitioners and advocates of pseudoscience frequently try to codify their woo into the law.

The reason that they would do this is not too hard to discern. Few legislators and politicians are scientists, and even fewer are scientifically inclined. Back when I still lived in New Jersey, I may have been lucky enough to have had a Congressional Representative who really was a rocket scientist (well, a physicist, actually), but now that I live in Michigan I’ve gone from having a scientifically inclined Congressional representative to having one of the dimmest bulbs in Congress representing me. What that means is that it’s far easier to persuade politicians that this woo or that woo deserves to be permitted or even licensed. That’s how we now have many states licensing acupuncturists, naturopaths, and even “homeopathic physicians,” as Arizona does. The pressure for this sort of acceptance of unscientific medical modalities is building, as well, as Kimball Atwood has documented. Another example is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which was passed in 1994 and in essence ties the FDA’s hands when it comes to regulating most supplements. Indeed, the very existence of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is a testament to the success of this approach, as a powerful Senator (Tom Harkin, D-IA) almost single-handedly foisted this scientific atrocity on the NIH against the desires of scientists. The results have included a $30 million scientific boondoggle of a trial to test chelation therapy and a profoundly unethical trial of Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez’s “protocol” for pancreatic cancer patients that a recent clinical trial has shown to be worse than useless. The most recent example of this trend is the way that CAM supporters have tried to hijack President Obama’s health insurance reform initiative to insert coverage for everything from any licensed “alternative medicine” practitioner to Christian Science prayer healing.

Recently, two new fronts have been opened up in this battle. One is disturbingly close to me, as it involves the Canadian province of Ontario whose north shore on the Detroit River is less than two and a half miles from my office, the other in Oregon, which, although it’s happening nearly 2,000 miles away from where I live and practice, could portend a new and disturbing tactic of the anti-vaccine movement to do what various other purveyors of pseudoscience have done before and try to win in state legislatures where they can’t win in science or the courts. Of course, in a democratic republic, it is the right of everyone, even supporters of quackery, to try to petition his or her legislators, but it is equally the responsibility of those of us supporting science-based medicine to try to educate legislators why allowing them to alter the law to protect their pseudoscience has the potential to result in great harm.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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