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Success in the fight against childhood diarrhea

Rotavirus is the world’s most common cause of severe childhood diarrhea.  In the U.S. alone, rotavirus disease leads to around 70,000 hospitalizations, 3/4 million ER visits, and nearly half-a-million doctor office visits yearly.  But it rarely causes death.

The same is not true for the developing world.  Rotavirus disease is estimated to kill around a half-million children a year world wide.   Finding a way to mitigate this is an active public health concern, with the World Health Organization specifically recommending rotavirus vaccinations in areas where the virus has a significant public health impact.

Rotavirus causes a severe diarrheal illness. It is passed via a fecal-oral route, meaning that contaminated food, surfaces, and water can all be sources.   In developed countries like the US, rotavirus disease is unpleasant and inconvenient.  Since rotavirus spreads more readily in areas without access to clean water and medical care, it takes a greater toll in these areas, and children afflicted are at risk of death due to dehydration.  The US has seen a decline in rotavirus disease in the last few years, an effect that appears to be due to increased vaccination and a herd immunity effect.

Given the large number of pediatric rotavirus deaths in developing countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has made vaccination a priority. Two articles in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine report on the progress of the fight against rotavirus.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The General Medical Council to Andrew Wakefield: “The panel is satisfied that your conduct was irresponsible and dishonest”

BACKGROUND

In my not-so-humble opinion, the very kindest thing that can be said about Andrew Wakefield is that he is utterly incompetent as a scientist. After all, it’s been proven time and time again that his unethical and scientifically incompetent “study” that was published in The Lancet in 1999 claiming to find a correlation between vaccination with MMR and autistic regression in autistic children with bowel symptoms was at best dubious science and at worst fraudulent. For one thing, as investigative journalist Brian Deer found, Wakefield was in the pocket of trial lawyers, who were interested in suing vaccine manufacturers, to the tune of £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses beginning even before his infamous “study” started accruing patients. Even though the study itself used the typical careful and relatively neutral language that we all expect from scientists, Wakefield himself was not nearly so circumspect. In a press conference announcing the Lancet study, he said:

He told journalists it was a “moral issue” and he could no longer support the continued use of the three-in-one jab for measles, mumps and rubella.

“Urgent further research is needed to determine whether MMR may give rise to this complication in a small number of people,” Dr Wakefield said at the time.

And so began one of the most contentious health stories of this generation.

Wakefield’s Lancet paper, even interpreted as sympathetically as possible, concluded nothing that justified such language. Yet his rhetoric, along with sensationalistic and credulous British journalists, ignited a firestorm of fear over the MMR that has not yet subsided now, over a decade later. Vaccination rates plummeted in the UK, and measles, a disease once thought to be under control, has surged back and become endemic again. It is a feat that Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey appear to be trying to replicate right here in the U.S. with their wonderfully Orwellian-named Green Our Vaccines activism and ceaseless promotion of anti-vaccine messages.

More recently, at the Autism Omnibus hearings, we learned from a world expert in the polymerase chain reaction, Dr Stephen Bustin, that the techniques used in the laboratory running PCR on the clinical specimens from Wakefield’s clinical trial were so shoddy, so devoid of routine controls necessary in any PCR experiment, that the measles sequences reported as amplified in Wakefield’s followup to his Lancet study were false positives derived from plasmids with measles sequences in them contaminating the laboratory. Then, in late 2008, Mady Hornig and colleagues at Columbia University published an attempted replication of Wakefield’s study. They failed. There was no association between vaccination with MMR and autistic regression, nor could Hornig find any evidence that measles in the gut was any more common in the autistic children studied than in the neurotypical controls. This study was particularly devastating to Wakefield because it was carried out by a researcher who had previously been sympathetic to the myth that vaccines cause autism, as evidenced by her infamous “rain mouse” study and, even more close to home, using the same laboratory that had performed Wakefield’s PCR, which had apparently cleaned up its act in the years following its work on Wakefield’s specimens.

When it comes to the science, there is no doubt. No reputable scientist has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings, and there is a remarkable convergence and agreement of findings of major studies looking for a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism: There ain’t one. Indeed, closing out 2009 was the publication of yet another study that failed to find any correlation between MMR and autism, or, as I put it at the time, yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Andrew Wakefield’s repeated claims that the MMR can cause or “trigger” autism in some children is deader than dead as a scientific hypothesis and without a basis in scientific or clinical evidence. True, Wakefield tried to counter with a horribly unethical and badly designed primate study that seemed custom-designed to be used in court rather than in the court of scientific inquiry. It didn’t help and only made Wakefield’s Thoughtful House, Wakefield’s Fortress of Solitude in Texas to which he retreated in the wake of the revelations about his conduct, look even worse. Even a credulously “balanced” TV story by NBC news and Matt Lauer couldn’t hide the dubiousness nature of what goes on there.

Of course, while the science refuting Wakefield’s pseudoscience and evidence showing Wakefield to be incompetent and unethical continued to roll in, a little less than a year ago, it got even worse for him. Brian Deer reported that Wakefield very well may have engaged in scientific fraud in the “research” (and I do use the term loosely) that led to the publication of his Lancet paper in 1999. Through it all, the General Medical Council began an inquiry into whether Andrew Wakefield behaved unethically in the “research” that resulted in his 1999 Lancet report. It should be pointed out that the investigation of the GMC began before Deer’s latest revelation of potential fraud; rather it was far more concerned with how Wakefield ran his study and recruited patients. Nonetheless, the revelations nearly a year ago about Wakefield’s playing fast and loose with research methodology could not help but contribute to the sense that the Good Ship Wakefield had been torpedoed below the water line and was taking on water fast.

As the investigation and hearings wound on seemingly endlessly for two and a half years, Wakefield’s supporters intermittently waged an increasingly histrionic and ridiculous propaganda offensive to try to preemptively discredit the GMC’s findings. As it became clear that finally after all this time the GMC was on the verge of announcing its ruling, I noticed that the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism was ramping up an increasingly bizarre and unhinged last minute propaganda campaign, complete with reposting a hilariously inapt post by Mark Blaxill comparing Wakefield to Galileo and the GMC to the Inquisition, complete with references to Stalin and Mao (I suppose I should be relieved that Blaxill refrained from playing the Hitler card); a defense of “that paper” by Wakefield himself; claims that parent witnesses had been “silenced” at the GMC hearings; and a whole series of posts by John Stone trying to discredit the GMC.

And then on Thursday, the GMC ruled.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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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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Reflexive doubt

Those of us who study, practice and write about medicine cherish the hope that explaining the science behind medicine (or the lack of science behind “alternative” treatments) will promote a better understanding of medicine. Certainly, I would not bother to write about medical topics if I did not believe that promoting science based medicine would lead to increased understanding of medical recommendations and decreased gullibility in regard to “alternative” remedies. Nonetheless, lack of scientific knowledge is not the only reason for the current popularity of “alternative health. Indeed, many advocates and purveyors of “alternative” health are impervious to the scientific evidence. What else might be going on?

Belief in “alternative” medicine is a complex social phenomenon. Like any complex social phenomenon, the explanation cannot be reduced to a simple answer. But I would argue that there is an important philosophical component, developed by and promoted by advocates of “alternative” health. That philosophical component is the rise of reflexive doubt. Simply put, among a significant segment of society, it has become a badge of honor to question authority.

As an obstetrician, I am most familiar with its expression among childbirth activists. They recognize that many people hold the common sense belief that modern obstetrical practice has made birth safer, and have worked ceaseless at undermining this common sense view. Craig Thompson, a professor of marketing, has examines this tactic in his paper What Happens to Health Risk Perceptions When Consumers Really Do Question Authority?:
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Evolution in Medicine

A recent series of article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) discusses the role of evolutionary biology in modern medicine. The authors collectively make a forceful point – medicine is an applied science. It is based upon a number of basic sciences, and one of those basic sciences is evolution.

The most obvious example is bacterial antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics place a selective pressure on a bacterial population, often resulting in the emergence of resistant strains. Understanding this “evolutionary arms race” between bacteria and antibiotics allows us to develop strategies for minimizing resistance.

But there are less obvious ways in which evolutionary principles apply to infectious diseases. It has been known for a long time that sickle-cell trait provides resistance to malaria (the blood cells are less hospitable to the P. falciparum protozoan parasite that is one cause of malaria). This explains the persistence of sickle cell disease in populations where malaria is endemic.

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Posted in: Evolution, Science and Medicine

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Faith Healing

Faith healing is based on belief and is about as far as you can get from science-based medicine, but it is not exempt from science. If it really worked, science would be able to document its cures and would be the only reliable way to validate its effectiveness. Miraculous cures continue to be reported on a regular basis: what are we to make of them? In the Healing Rooms Ministry of Bethel Church in Redding, California, people regularly claim to be healed of cancer, broken bones, multiple sclerosis and many other ailments. Page after page of testimonials of cures are listed on their website. Are these cures real? If not, what is going on?

Amanda Winters, a journalist doing a series of articles on Bethel Church, interviewed me for a scientific view of these faith healings. She asked me some very incisive questions and understood my answers. She wrote what I thought was a balanced article, quoting me fairly and at more length than reporters usually allow.

Her article features a patient who believed his flat feet would be healed (bones would crack and form an arch). Healers poked him, blew a shofar at his feet, and covered him with a blanket when he collapsed on the floor. When he got up, his feet were unchanged. But

his faith was not shaken, he said, because he felt so loved and maybe the physical healing was secondary to the spiritual experience he had. (more…)

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality

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On the “individualization” of treatments in “alternative medicine”

One of the claims most frequently made by “alternative medicine” advocates regarding why alt-med is supposedly superior (or at least equal) to “conventional” medicine and should not be dismissed, regardless of how scientifically improbable any individual alt-med modality may be, is that the treatments are, if you believe many of the practitioners touting them, highly “individualized.” In other words, the “entire patient” is taken into account with what is frequently referred to as a “holistic approach” that looks at “every aspect” of the patient, with the result that every patient requires a different treatment, sometimes even for the exact same disease of very close to the same severity. Indeed, as I have described before, a variant of this claim, often laden with meaningless pseudoscientific babble about “emergent systems,” is sometimes used to claim that the standard methods of science- and evidence-based medicine are not appropriate to studying the efficacy of alternative medicine. Of course, this is, in nearly all cases, simply an excuse to dismiss scientific studies that fail to find efficacy for various “alt-med” modalities, but, even so, it is a claim that irritates me to no end, because it is so clearly nonsense. As Harriet Hall pointed out, alt-med “practitioners” frequently ascribe One True Cause to All Disease, which is about as far from “individualization” as you can get, when you come right down to it. More on that later.

A couple of years ago, before I became involved with this blog, I was surprised to learn that even some advocates of alt-med have their doubts that “individualization” is such a great strength. I had never realized that this might be the case until I came across a post by naturopath Travis Elliott, who runs a pro-alt-med blog, Dr. Travis Elliott and the Two-Sided Coin, entitled The Single Most Frustrating Thing About (Most) Alternative Medicine. In this article, Elliott referred to a case written up by a fellow naturopath, who used an anecdote about the evaluation and treatment plan by a naturopath of a pregnant woman with nausea to show what is supposedly the “unique power of our medicine.” Unexpectedly (to me at least at the time), Elliott did not quite see it that way:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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You can’t hide in the herd

Can you hide in the herd?  Well, I suppose the title has given away the punch line.

Herd immunity is a fascinating effect, and one of the mainstays of a public vaccination effort.  The idea is that if enough people in the community are immune to a particular disease, then those who are susceptible will rarely come into contact with a person who is contagious, and the disease will be unable (or find it difficult) to spread.  This results in a greatly reduced risk of infection for the entire population regardless of their individual immunity.

This has lead to the belief that because of the protection of the herd’s immunity, individuals now have the option to avoid even the minimal cost and risk of vaccination while having the same reduced risk of infection as if they had vaccinated.

Let’s set aside the fact that that there are people who have no choice but to rely upon herd immunity as their sole line of protection against these infections.  Forget that there is a threshold below which herd immunity collapses, and that our current vaccination rates tend to be right on the cusp of that threshold.  Pay no attention to the fact that the personal decision to not vaccinate deprives others of their sole protection from these infections.  Finally, ignore the ethics and self-defeating nature of benefiting from the sacrifice of others while simultaneously eroding the efficacy of the herd immunity being exploited.  On a small enough scale, doesn’t the tactic of hiding in the herd provide the same protection as getting vaccinated without incurring the minimal risk of vaccination?

Not so much. (more…)

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Don’t Believe The Hype: Cholinesterase Inhibitors As A Treatment For Dementia

Don’t Believe The Hype: Cholinesterase Inhibitors As A Treatment For Dementia
I distinctly remember the day I attended a “drug lunch” (as a PM&R resident in New York City) to learn about the value of donepezil (aricept) for the treatment of dementia. I was astonished by the drug’s lack of efficacy – the graph displayed in the PowerPoint show demonstrated a 2-point improvement on the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE), an effect that began after 6 months of donepezil use, and persisted for only 6 months after that. A 2-point difference on the MMSE has no clinical relevance of which I’m aware. The drug’s common side effects include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, tiredness, drowsiness, trouble sleeping, or muscle cramps. That day I vowed never to prescribe the drug to my elderly patients.
Nonetheless, I was dumbfounded by the number of patients who came to the hospital already on the medication. Over and over again I heard the same story: “mom is becoming forgetful so our doctor started her on this medication to help her memory.”
When I asked if the family if they thought the medicine helped, the response was equally predictable: a shrug and then “what else can we do?”
Here we have a classic example of a medical problem with no satisfactory treatment or cure – and a desperate desire on the part of patients and family members to do something – anything – about it. Many times people in these predicaments turn to alternative medicines, herbal supplements and faith –based remedies. And sometimes they turn to FDA-approved drugs.
The Cochrane Collaborative has reviewed the scientific literature on the use of cholinesterase inhibitors (like donepezil) in mild dementia, and has found:
There is no evidence to support the use of donepezil for patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The putative benefits are minor, short lived and associated with significant side effects. http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab006104.html
So how did this drug get approved? Well, there do seem to be some small improvements (of dubious clinical significance in my opinion) in measures of cognitive impairment in patients with Alzheimer’s dementia in particular. http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab005593.html
AHRQ states:
The evidence is mixed, however, about the effects of cholinesterase inhibitors on functional measures such as instrumental activities of daily living (i.e., ability to use the telephone, mode of transportation, responsibility for medication, and ability to handle finances). In general, the studies show little or no effect on functional decline after 6 months of treatment and a small but statistically significant difference from placebo after 12 months of treatment.
Research has found no clinically important differences between people taking cholinesterase inhibitors and those taking placebo in the development of behavioral and psychological symptoms… Studies rarely addressed other important health outcomes such as utilization of health care services, injuries, and caregiver burden.
http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/3rduspstf/dementia/dementsum.htm
Pfizer’s press release (when they received FDA approval to market Aricept in 1996) noted:
Alzheimer’s disease is a family tragedy. ARICEPT will benefit patients and families alike by improving or maintaining patient function, which in turn may help ease the burden for caregivers and help maintain personal dignity… “ARICEPT represents a significant step forward in addressing the therapeutic needs of the Alzheimer’s disease community…This therapy will help to change the approach to the management of Alzheimer’s disease.
http://www.pslgroup.com/dg/e2aa.htm
Global sales of Aricept were approximately $1.1 billion for 2008 alone.
Me-too cholinesterase inhibitors have seen similar global profits, with sales of namenda at about $1 billion as well in 2008. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_14/b3877629_mz073.htm All this while the AHRQ can find no clinically relevant difference between the drugs in this class, and the effects they have are small and short lived.
There are pharmaceutical innovations that have changed the course of history (imagine where we’d be without the polio or smallpox vaccines), while others leverage the tiniest statistically-significant effects to drive global drug empires driven by public feelings of helplessness in the face of currently incurable diseases.
It’s no wonder that the public has a mistrust of pharma – their marketing engines drive sales of drugs that have vastly different clinical value. That means it’s up to physicians and scientists to tease out the legitimate enthusiasm from the marketing hype. And judging from all the patients with mild dementia that I see on cholinesterase inhibitors, I give us a failing grade.

I distinctly remember the day I attended a “drug lunch” (as a PM&R resident in New York City) to learn about the value of donepezil (Aricept) for the treatment of dementia. I was surprised by the drug’s lack of efficacy – the graph displayed in the PowerPoint show demonstrated a 2-point improvement on the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE), an effect that began after 6 months of donepezil use, and persisted for only 6 months after that. A 2-point difference on the MMSE has no clinical relevance of which I’m aware. The drug’s common side effects include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, tiredness, drowsiness, trouble sleeping, or muscle cramps. That day I realized that the risk-benefit profile did not support its use.

Nonetheless, I was perplexed by the number of patients who came to the hospital already on the medication. Over and over again I heard the same story: “Mom is becoming forgetful so our doctor started her on this medication to help her memory.” (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals

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Big Placebo says Medicine never cures anything

Kudos to Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise for coining a new appellation “Big Placebo.” Big Placebo is the alternative health counterpart to Big Pharma. Both are special interest groups designed to promote their products, whether they are worthy of promotion or not. There is one big difference between them: Big Pharma makes products that usually work (though not always, and sometimes not safely). Big Placebo hawks books and products that never work.

Big Placebo is unsatisfied with the $40 billion it takes in every year on treatments that don’t even work. They’re aiming for a much larger piece of the healthcare pie and to do so they are criticizing modern medicine.

To hear Big Placebo tell it, virtually all illness can be prevented and anyone who gets sick deserves it because of poor lifestyle choices. If only that were so. Unfortunately, most illness and disease is caused by factors beyond people’s control, including infectious agents, genetic defects and inherited predispositions.
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