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Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious

VAXXED

I’ve finally seen it. I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, and I didn’t even have to pay to see it! Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.

On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Forget stem cell tourism: Stem cell clinics in the US are plentiful

Snake Oil Salesman & Wagon
I had planned on writing about something else this week, but late last week another story caught my eye, because it served as a perfect follow-up to what I wrote about last week. To recap, I wrote about a man named Jim Gass, a former chief legal counsel for Sylvania, who had suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009 that left him without the use of his left arm, and weak left leg. He could still walk with a cane, but was understandably desperate to try anything to be able to function more normally in life. Mr. Gass was both driven enough, credulous enough, and wealthy enough to spend $300,000 pursuing stem cell tourism in China, Mexico, and Argentina over the course of four years. The result is that he now has a tumor growing in his spinal column, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The New York Times (NYT). Genetic analysis has demonstrated that the cells in this tumor mass did not come from Jim Gass, and the mass has left him paralyzed from the neck down, except for his right arm, incontinent, and with severe chronic back pain. Worse, although radiation temporarily stopped the tumor from growing, apparently it’s growing again, and no one seems to know how to stop it. Given that the traits that make stem cells so desirable as a regenerative treatment, their plasticity and immortality (ability to divide indefinitely), are shared with cancer, scientists doing legitimate stem cell research have always tried to take precautions to stop just this sort of thing from happening in clinical trials. Clearly, “stem cell tourist” clinics, which intentionally operate in countries where the regulatory environment is—shall we say?—less than rigorous are nowhere near as cautious, as they charge tens of thousands of dollars a pop for stem cell treatments that might or might not actually have real stem cells in them.

At the time I wrote that article, I emphasized primarily clinics outside of the US, where shady operators locate in order to be able to operate largely unhindered by local governments. You’d think that such a thing couldn’t possibly be going on in the US. You’d be wrong. Last week, Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist who has previously contributed to Science-Based Medicine, teamed up with Leigh Turner to publish a paper in Cell Stem Cell estimating the number of stem cell clinics in the US. The number they came up with astonished me. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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What’s the harm? Stem cell tourism edition

What's the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There's the harm.

What’s the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There’s the harm.

It’s been over two weeks now since hockey legend Gordie Howe died at the age of 88. Detroit, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is a serious hockey town, as hockey-crazy as any town in Canada (just look at the fancy new hockey arena named after crappy pizza being built downtown only a mile from where I work), and it worshiped Gordie Howe for as long as I can remember growing up here.

The reason I mentioned this is because in late 2014, Howe suffered a series of debilitating strokes that brought him close to death. He survived, but with major neurologic deficits. As a result of Gordie Howe’s fame, representatives of a company known as Stemedica who were also fans of Gordie Howe and whose company is developing stem cell treatments for a variety of illnesses, approached the family and persuaded them to take Gordie Howe to the Novastem Clinic in Tijuana, a clinic that to me appeared to exist mainly as a means for patients not eligible for Stemedica’s clinical trials in the US to receive Stemedica’s stem cells outside of a clinical trial, cash on the barrelhead, no questions asked. In a rather ethically dubious move that could only be viewed as paying for publicity (which it got in abundance), Stemedica administered its stem cells to Gordie Howe for free. If you’re not Gordie Howe, however, it’ll cost you about $32,000.

As is the case for most anecdotes like this, Gordie Howe did improve. That is not surprising, because, as Steve Novella, who is a neurologist and thus takes care of stroke patients as part of his practice, told me at the time, the natural history of stroke is neurologic recovery that eventually plateaus several months after the stroke. This occurs as the inflammation from the initial stroke abates and as much regeneration as the body can muster occurs. Also, as I noted before, Howe had a hemorrhagic stroke, which is more dangerous and likely to kill early but, if the victim survives, he is more likely to experience better functional recovery than in the case of the much more common ischemic stroke, in which a blood clot clogs a blood vessel, resulting in the death of brain tissue supplied by that vessel. In any case, as I described in a three part series of posts (part one, part two, part three), it’s impossible to know whether the stem cell infusion that Howe underwent had anything whatsoever with his partial recovery that allowed him to make a few public appearances in 2015 and 2016.

Unfortunately, the offer by Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies to treat Gordie Howe at Novastem worked brilliantly. Gordie Howe quickly became the poster child for dubious stem cell therapies. Local and national news aired credulous, feel-good human interest stories about his seemingly miraculous recovery, while Keith Olbermann practically served as a pitch man for Stemedica and didn’t take kindly at all to any criticism of his—shall we say?—enthusiastic coverage. The predominant angle taken in stories about Gordie Howe was he had undergone Stemedica’s stem cell therapy and, as result, enjoyed a “miraculous recovery” from his stroke. The vast majority of news coverage also tended to present the magic of stem cell therapies credulously, as all benefit and no risk, as a qualitative analysis published last year clearly showed, finding that the “efficacy of stem cell treatments is often assumed in news coverage and readers’ comments” and that media coverage “that presents uncritical perspectives on unproven stem cell therapies may create patient expectations, may have an affect [sic] on policy discussions, and help to feed the marketing of unproven therapies.”

No kidding.

Why, you might ask, am I reminding you of Gordie Howe’s use of stem cells to treat his strokes? Simple, it became part of a marketing blitz, credulously swallowed whole by Keith Olbermann and many reporters, for unproven stem cell therapies, which have been portrayed as very promising (which is likely true, although that promise hasn’t yet been proven or realized) and harmless, which is definitely not true, as evidenced by the story of Jim Gass, as published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and a variety of other media. Before I discuss Mr. Gass in more detail, however, let’s recap a bit about stem cells. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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False balance about Stanislaw Burzynski and his disproven cancer therapy, courtesy of STAT News

Stanislaw Burzynski: 40 years of failure to prove that his antineoplastons are effective against cancer.

Stanislaw Burzynski: 40 years of failure to prove that his antineoplastons are effective against cancer.

One common theme that has been revisited time and time again on this blog since its very founding is the problem of how science and medicine are reported. For example, back when I first started blogging, years before I joined Science-Based Medicine in 2008, one thing that used to drive me absolutely nuts was the tendency of the press to include in any story about vaccines an antivaccine activist to “tell the other side” or to “balance” the story. So in a story on vaccines, on one side you would have Paul Offit, a bona fide, legitimate vaccine expert, and on the other side you would have J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, or a lesser light of the antivaccine movement. This same trope included stories about autistic children in which a reporter does a human interest story about a family struggling with raising an autistic child in which he lets the parents spout antivaccine misinformation, providing only a brief token quote by a scientist for “balance.” Thus, whether they intended it or not, the reporter would let the emotional impact of the story serve as persuasion to believe the parents’ antivaccine views. So, even though there was not (and hasn’t been at least since 2001 or probably much earlier) anything resembling legitimate scientific controversy over the question of whether vaccines cause or contribute to autism, the press aided the antivaccine movement in keeping alive the appearance of a controversy. It was, as I like to call these things, a manufactroversy, a controversy manufactured by the antivaccine movement to give the appearance of an actual scientific controversy. It’s a time-dishonored journalistic failing that is still a major problem with reporting on, for example, anthropogenic global climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Sometimes, however, the press is teachable. A few years ago, after already having blogged about vaccines and autism for several years, I started noticing fewer stories with false “balance” and more stories that simply treated the antivaccine movement like the fringe movement it was, either not bothering to mention it or, if it had to mention it, basically letting scientists explain why it’s bad science and dangerous to public health. These days, false balance and stories that are antivaccine propaganda are relatively rare, aside from stories by fringe journalists like Sharyl Attkisson and Ben Swann. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I wish I could say that I really believe it was due to the efforts of skeptics and science advocates more than it was due to the discrediting of a major antivaccine figure, Andrew Wakefield, but even six years after Wakefield lost his medical license and saw his infamous 1998 Lancet paper linking the MMR vaccine to bowel disease in autistic children (the one that ignited the MMR scare in the UK) retracted, I’m not entirely sure. Be that as it may, there still remain blind spots in the press. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, no matter what Mother Jones and Consumer Reports say

The zombie story that cell phones cause cancer has risen from the grave yet again.

The zombie story that cell phones cause cancer has risen from the grave yet again.

There are certain myths that are frustratingly resistant to evidence, science, and reason. Some of these are basically medical conspiracy theories, where someone (industry and/or big pharma and/or physicians and/or the government) has slam-dunk evidence for harm but conspires to keep it from you, the people. For example, despite decades worth of negative studies, the belief that vaccines are harmful, causing conditions ranging from autism to sudden infant death syndrome, to all varieties of allergies and autoimmune diseases, refuses to die. Fortunately, this myth is one that, after more than a decade of hammering by scientists, skeptics, and public health advocates, has finally taken on enough of the patina of a fringe belief that most mainstream news sources no longer feel obligated to include the antivaccine side in stories about vaccines for “balance.” It is a zombie myth, one that, no matter how often it is “killed,” always seems to rise again. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the myth that cell phones cause cancer, as some very credulous reporting late last week demonstrated in the form of headlines like this:
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and the Media

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“Integrative” medicine versus “alternative” medicine

“Integrative” medicine versus “alternative” medicine

I’ve written a lot about the language issue with respect to alternative medicine. As I like to put it (at least in shortened form), first there was quackery. Quacks did not like that name at all, and thus was born alternative medicine. And the quacks did think it good—for a while. There was a problem, however. “Alternative” medicine implied (correctly, of course) that what was being discussed was not real medicine, and the quacks could not abide that. Thus was born “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM).

And the quacks thought this very good indeed.

Unfortunately, it was not long before the problem with the term CAM became apparent. It had the word “complementary” in it. The implication of that word, of course, is that what they were doing was still somehow not real medicine. It was complementary to real medicine, the icing on the cake, if you will. Real medicine could do without it, and having that implication in the very name that their evolving specialty had taken on was offensive to the quacks.

So they changed it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Science and the Media

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Vaxxed and the Tribeca Film Festival: How Robert De Niro learned the hard way about Andrew Wakefield and the antivaccine movement

Robert De Niro made a massive mistake last week.

Robert De Niro made a massive mistake last week. Fortunately, he started to make up for it.

One of the disadvantages of only doing one blog post a week here at Science-Based Medicine is that sometimes stuff happens at too fast a pace for me. If something happens on Tuesday, by the time Sunday rolls around and it’s time for me to do my weekly post, it’s often old news, too old to bother with. That’s why it’s a good thing that I have my not-so-super-secret other blog, where I can keep up with such events. On the other hand, the advantage of a once-a-week posting schedule is that there are times I can look back at a story that evolved over the last week and, instead of blogging about it in daily chunks, I can put together a post that tells the whole story and puts it in context. Something like that happened last week. The beauty of it is that I played a major role in bringing the story to public consciousness, followed the story as it evolved, and now can provide a fairly complete recounting. Or so I hope.

First, however, let’s take advantage of another good thing about waiting to blog about a story, namely getting to see the reactions of quacks to what happened. No one can do it better than everybody’s favorite all around quack, crank, and all-purpose conspiracy theorist Mike Adams, who greeted me yesterday morning with this headline: VAXXED film pulled from Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival following totalitarian censorship demands from pharma-linked vaccine pushers and media science trolls. What on earth is Adams talking about, you might wonder? In case you haven’t been following the news, here’s a link to the New York Times story on the same incident: “Robert De Niro Pulls Anti-Vaccine Documentary From Tribeca Film Festival.” Basically, the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival selected an antivaccine documentary directed by Andrew Wakefield for screening and then thought better of it after a major uproar and a whole boatload of bad press.

I’ll deal with Adams’ post a bit later because it’s so hilariously nutty but also because it is basically the propaganda line that antivaccinationists are putting on this PR debacle brought about by Andrew Wakefield and Robert De Niro. (I never thought I’d use those two names in the same sentence.) Let’s go back a week and see what I mean. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Persecution of Scientists Whose Findings Are Perceived As Politically Incorrect

galileo
It dates back at least to Galileo. A scientist finds evidence that contradicts a cherished popular belief. Instead of a rational examination of his evidence, he is subjected to vicious personal attacks. Alice Dreger examines the phenomenon in her book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. She is eminently qualified to do so. She is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics, a historian, a gifted writer, an activist for patient rights, and an indefatigable investigative journalist who has herself been a victim of the kind of persecution she describes.

The histories she recounts are horrifying. She gives example after example of activists using lies and personal attacks to suppress evidence they don’t like. She reveals dirty linen in the most unexpected places. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and the Media

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Kangaroo Mother Care, Skin-To-Skin Contact, and the Risk of Sudden Unexpected Postnatal Collapse

Skin to skin sleeping baby
In January, a study published in Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ flagship peer-reviewed journal, presented evidence in support of Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) and its primary intervention: prolonged skin-to-skin contact (SSC) between a mother and her newborn child. I was originally asked to discuss this report at the time by the editors of The Scientific Parent, which is a great resource by the way, but I wanted to expand on my initial thoughts after letting them simmer for a bit over the past few weeks. Please check out the great work done by Leslie and Julia over at TSP after you finish this post.
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Posted in: Science and the Media

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Did chiropractic neck manipulation kill Katie May?

Katie-May

Well, we’re back.

Yes, after having our WordPress database somehow borked to the point where no new posts could be added and no existing posts could be edited since Friday, Science-Based Medicine is back in business—finally! As a result, some of you might have seen this post elsewhere, as it was considered to be somewhat time-sensitive, and I didn’t want to delay, particularly given that I didn’t know how long SBM would be down. Fortunately, we’re back a bit sooner than I thought; so let’s look at something that was in the news over the weekend.

Katie May was a model, and by all accounts a very successful one, having appeared in Playboy, Sports Illustrated, and other magazines and websites. Self-proclaimed the “Queen of Snapchat,” she also had nearly two million Instagram followers and was a major social media force, having recently parlayed her modeling and social media career into entrepreneurship. She also died unexpectedly on Thursday night at the too-young age of 34, leaving behind a seven-year-old daughter. What makes May’s tragic death an appropriate topic for SBM is not so much her young age but rather the circumstances surrounding her death, particularly the cause. Basically, May died of complications due to stroke, as her family confirmed in a statement issued on Friday:

“It is with heavy hearts that we confirm the passing today of Katie May – mother, daughter, sister, friend, businesswoman, model and social media star – after suffering a catastrophic stroke caused by a blocked carotid artery on Monday,” the statement reads.

“Known as MsKatieMay on the Internet and the “Queen of Snapchat,” she leaves behind millions of fans and followers, and a heartbroken family. We respectfully ask for privacy in this this difficult time. Those wishing to contribute to the living trust being set up for the care of her young daughter may do so at her GoFundMe page.”

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and the Media

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