[Editor’s note: I realize this post might look familiar to some, although it has been tweaked and updated. Grant deadline Tuesday, meaning no time to produce original content up to the standards of SBM that you have come to expect. At the same time, I figured I had to contribute something this week. Hopefully this update on a certain bit of antivaccine posturing will do. Fear not, though. Harriet will take my Monday slot, and we have a very special guest post for you on Tuesday. I’ll be back at it, same day and time, same Bat channel, next week.]
The antivaccine movement and conspiracy theories go together like beer and Buffalo wings, except that neither are as good as, yes, beer and Buffalo wings. (Maybe it’s more like manure and compost.) In any case, the antivaccine movement is rife with conspiracy theories. I’ve heard and written about more than I can remember right now, and I’m under no illusion that I’ve heard anywhere near all of them. Indeed, it seems that every month I see a new one.
There is, however, a granddaddy of conspiracy theories among antivaccinationists, or, as it’s been called, the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. That conspiracy theory postulates that “they” (in the U.S, the CDC) have known for a long time that vaccines cause autism, but “they” are covering it up. In other words, the CDC has, according to this conspiracy theory, been intentionally hiding and suppressing evidence that antivaccinationists were right all along and vaccines do cause autism. Never mind what the science really says (that vaccines do work don’t cause autism)! To the antivaccine contingent, that science is “fraudulent” and the CDC knew it! Why do you think that the antivaccine movement, in particular Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., went full mental jacket when Poul Thorsen was accused of financial shenanigans (i.e., fraud) with grant money from the federal government? It was a perfect story to distract from the inconvenient lack of science supporting the antivaccine view that vaccines cause autism. More importantly, from the antivaccine standpoint, it was seen as “validation” that the CDC studies failing to find a link between autism and vaccines were either fraudulent or incompetently performed. Why? Because Thorsen was co-investigator on a couple of the key studies that failed to find a link between the MMR and autism, antivaccinationists thought that his apparent financial fraud must mean that he committed scientific fraud. They’re the same thing, right? Well, not really. There were a lot of co-investigators, and Thorsen was only a middle author on those studies.
Without a doubt the big medical story of the last week or so has been the ongoing outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa, the most deadly in history thus far. Indeed, as of this writing, according to a table of known Ebola outbreaks since 1976 at Wikipedia, in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three nations affected thus far, there have been 1,440 cases and 826 deaths. Worse, the World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting that it is spreading faster in Africa than efforts to control it. In particular, late last week it was announced that two Americans who had been infected with Ebola were going to be flown back to the US, specifically to Emory University, for treatment, a development that ramped up the fear and misinformation about Ebola virus to even greater heights than it had already attained, which, unfortunately, were already pretty high. Indeed, the ever-reliably-histrionic Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com wrote a typically hysterical article “Infected Ebola patient being flown to Atlanta: Are health authorities risking a U.S. outbreak?” On Saturday, we learned that Dr. Kent Brantly, an aide worker for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charity run by Franklin Graham, son of the well-known preacher, Billy Graham, who had been evacuated from Liberia aboard a private air ambulance, had arrived in Georgia.
This latest development inspired medical “experts,” such as Donald Trump, to stoke fear based on the arrival of two infected Americans in the US. For instance, last Friday, after it was first announced that the Ebola-infected Americans would be flown back to the US, Trump tweeted:
The state of New York allows religious and medical (but not philosophical) exemptions from school vaccination mandates. New York City has a policy of excluding unvaccinated schoolchildren from classes when there is an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease reported in a particular school. Two sets of parents whose children had religious exemptions sued New York City and the state in federal court when their children were temporarily excluded from school under the policy, in some cases for up to a month. In other words, they were demanding that their unvaccinated children be allowed to attend even though there was an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease at the school.
These cases were consolidated with another filed by parents, the Checks, who claimed their child had been improperly denied a religious exemption. The parents had applied for a medical exemption, which was denied, as well as a religious exemption, which was granted, but then revoked. (The record is somewhat confusing on this sequence of events, but that sequence is not relevant to our discussion.) The unvaccinated child was ultimately sent to a private school, even though she should have been excluded from admission under New York City law there as well.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed all three cases (they had been consolidated and assigned to one judge) in an opinion holding that neither the students’ nor the parents’ constitutional rights were violated, including their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal. (more…)
I know by now I shouldn’t be, but I am still amazed by how readily so many people buy into the seemingly endless array of bogus sCAM nostrums. Many are marketed and hawked for the treatment or prevention of diseases that are poorly managed by science-based medicine. There are countless examples of dietary supplements that are purported to effectively treat back and joint pains, depression, anxiety, autism, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue; the list goes on and on. The lure for these treatments is at least understandable and, although frustrated that scientific literacy and rational thought loses out, I empathize with the desire to believe in them. On the other end of the spectrum is the even more ethically corrupt substitution of safe and effective treatments with products that are not. I encountered what I find to be possibly the most frightening and dangerous example of this recently at my practice. A family new to the area called to schedule a routine health-maintenance visit for their 5-year-old daughter. When our nurse reviewed the medical records the mother had faxed over, she noted that the child was unimmunized and explained to her that she would need to begin catch-up vaccinations. The mother matter-of-factly stated that her daughter was actually fully vaccinated with a vaccine alternative. She had received a series of homeopathic vaccines from a naturopath. I am not going to discuss this egregious example of sCAM here, though it was addressed in previous SBM posts.1,2 Instead I’d like to focus on another part of the sCAM spectrum. Here lies a form of sCAM that, in some ways, is even more difficult for me to comprehend. These are products invented, marketed, and sold solely for the treatment or prevention of fictitious diseases or problems that exist only in the realm of fantasy. (more…)
Evil Mr. Vaccine and the consequences of vaccination.
There’s nothing like cold hard data to counteract opinion and propaganda. The anti-vaccine movement hit upon a clever marketing phrase with their “Too Many, Too Soon” campaign. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to capture the complexity and nuance of scientific data with a witty slogan, so such slogans tend to work better for those who don’t really care about such things as scientific data.
I’ll give it a try in any case: how about “too few, too late.” Or maybe, “A day late and an antigen short.”
OK, now you know why I’m not in the marketing business. So let’s talk about the actual scientific data.
The recommended vaccine schedule is not, it turns out, arbitrary or designed to maximize the profits of the vaccine industry. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended vaccine schedule is designed to give children vaccines as soon as they need them and are old enough to handle them – maximizing benefit while minimizing risk. Booster shots are optimized to produce a sufficient antibody response for maximal protection. I don’t think anyone would argue that the schedule is perfect, but it is rational and evidence-based. (more…)
Bloodletting: a good reason to discard disproven therapies
All of us at SBM have repeatedly expressed frustration at the continuing influx of pseudoscience into the health care system. Judging from comments posted on this site and private communications we receive, our readers share this frustration but are at a loss to figure out how to get through to legislators and other policy makers. Unlike naturopaths and chiropractors, we don’t have the money to hire professional lobbyists. Fortunately, an opportunity to sound off against SCAMs has presented itself, completely free of charge.
Now that the Affordable Care Act enrollment debacle is dying down, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is turning its attention to divining just what the heck Section 2706 of the ACA, the non-discrimination provision, means. (Actually there are other federal agencies involved; to simplify things, here we’ll refer to them collectively as “HHS.”) HHS has opened the issue to public comment, but only until June 10. Let’s take a look at why this is important and what you can do about it.
(There are providers other than chiropractors, naturopaths and acupuncturists involved in this fight. For example, you’ll see public comments from nurse anesthetists and nurse practitioners. But I’m not worried about providers who stick to science.) (more…)
Myths tend to be persistent and require periodic maintenance debunking. The anti-vaccine movement arguably can credit its recent increase in effect to successfully spreading fears that vaccines in general, and particularly either the MMR vaccine (mumps, measles, and rubella) or the vaccine preservative thimerosal, are linked to autism. This claim was never based on legitimate science, and over the last 15 years has been overwhelmingly repudiated by multiple independent lines of scientific evidence.
It is easier to spread fears than it is to reassure anxious parents with abstract scientific data, but still we must try. It also seems that giving people information is not an effective way to change their opinions or their behavior. But at the very least I hope to better inform those who are already on board with the science-based approach, and perhaps we can reach the occasional person on the fence who is simply misinformed and open to changing their mind.
A new meta-analysis seems like a good opportunity to remind the public that vaccines are safe and effective, and that they are not linked to neurodevelopmental disorders. The study is: “Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies,” by Taylor, Swerdfeger and Eslick, is published in the journal Vaccine. They found: (more…)
Over the weekend, I was perusing my Google Alerts, along with various blogs and news websites, looking for my weekly topic, when I noticed a disturbance in the pseudoscience Force. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed many times before, but, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually blogged about it here, at least not specifically, although I have mentioned it, particularly in posts about Stanislaw Burzynski. I have, however, blogged about it over at my not-so-super-secret other blog, which means that some of the thoughts (if you can call them that) that I plan to lay down in this post will likely seem familiar to some of you, but I think this is an important enough topic that I should cover it here, too. As arrogant as I might sometimes seem, even I’m not so deluded as to think that the fraction of SBM readers who are regulars at my not-so-super-secret other blog is anything greater than a clear minority, and even for those of you for whom there’s overlap I’ll try to make things different enough to be interesting.
On Friday, Sharon Hill published a post over at Doubtful News entitled Chiropractors get their spine out of place over critique. It’s about how chiropractors have reacted to a post by Steve Salzberg over at Forbes entitled New Medicare Data Reveal Startling $496 Million Wasted On Chiropractors. Salzberg’s blog post was basically about just that, namely the amount of money billed Medicare by chiropractors, information that’s possible to obtain since the government released Medicare billing data for individual practitioners. Salzberg pointed out that half a billion dollars is a lot of money, more than twice as much as what is wasted every year on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). The result was rapid. Chiropractors swarmed, complaining to Forbes.com, and making the usual threats to sue, much as they actually did sue Simon Singh and, fortunately, saw their lawsuit blow up in their faces.
This, of course, can be looked upon as a purely mercenary protection of turf and livelihood not unlike how Daniel Kopans attacks any study that finds mammography to be less effective than thought (or even ineffective) in decreasing deaths from breast cancer. There is, however, a form of backlash against criticism of pseudoscience that is different and, when I first encountered it, more disturbing to deal with. It’s a level of pure, visceral hatred that is difficult to understand; that is, until you try to put yourself into your “enemy’s” shoes. Consider this post an exercise in doing just that, an exercise that will no doubt shock at least one of our readers.
As I write this post, a large outbreak of mumps is ongoing in Columbus, Ohio. The city, which on average sees a single case each year, has seen over 250 since February. To put things in further perspective, only about 440 cases are normally diagnosed in the entire United States annually. The outbreak began on the campus of Ohio State University, where about 150 cases have been identified, but no information about the index case has been reported thus far.
Although the current outbreak will likely smolder for months, the total number of cases thus far is considerably fewer than the worst of the past decade. A 2009-2010 outbreak in New York and New Jersey ended up affecting about 3,000 people. In 2006, about 6,500 college students throughout the Midwest were infected. It is unlikely we will see these kinds of numbers in Ohio, but even our worst in recent years pale in comparison to those that have occurred in England over the past decade, where there was a peak of about 56,000 documented cases in 2005.
The diagnosis of only a few hundred cases per year is a clear victory of the mumps vaccination program, which started in 1967. Prior to the widespread adoption of the vaccine, 186,000 cases were seen in the United States annually. That works out to a decrease in cases of over 99%. This reduction didn’t occur because of improved sanitation, cleaner water, or even sunspots. It occurred because of the hard work and dedication of vaccine researchers, medical professionals and the widespread public acceptance of a safe and effective vaccine.
Mumps doesn’t get the kind of press that measles outbreaks do. There are a number of reasons why this is true and reasonable. I will get into more detail, but essentially mumps, although it can result in significant morbidity, just isn’t as sexy and it isn’t a good candidate for anti-anti-vaccine poster child. Measles wins in that regard, and let’s hope it stays that way. I am terrified at the thought of HiB meningitis returning. But that doesn’t mean that mumps outbreaks can’t serve as fodder for educating the public on vaccines. First though, a primer on mumps.
We saw it coming. The re-emergence of vaccine-preventable disease should surprise no-one that’s been following the anti-vaccine movement.
Rebutting anti-vaccine rhetoric feels like a Sisyphean struggle. Steven Novella likened it to a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles are the same old tropes that keep popping up, no matter how often they are refuted with facts. Vaccines are a remarkable success of modern medicine: They are health interventions that are both demonstrably effective and remarkably cost-effective. Vaccination has likely prevented more deaths in the past 50 years than any other health intervention. Smallpox was a ruthless killer that took 300 million lives, just in the 20th century alone. Today it’s gone – eliminated forever. And now there are now over two dozen diseases that are vaccine-preventable. They should be an easy sell, and to most people, they are. But the control of vaccine-preventable disease relies in part on herd immunity – sufficient immunization to stop the spread of infection (no vaccine offers 100% protection) and protect those that cannot be immunized. Even a modest number of unvaccinated individuals can lead to reemergence of disease. None of this matters to antivaccinationists, to whom vaccines are bad. Viewing anti-vaccine websites for only five to ten minutes can increase the perception of risk of vaccination, and decrease the perceived risk of omitting vaccines. It also lowers vaccination intentions. By changing perceptions of safety, the willingness to vaccinate decreases. Now imagine that someone you believe to be a health professional openly questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines – would it reduce your willingness to vaccinate? The evidence says it does. And that’s why the modern practice of naturopathy or “naturopathic medicine” is so concerning. Naturopaths have opposed vaccinations since the invention of naturopathy – starting with smallpox: (more…)