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An Influenza Primer

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently submitted its report to the president in which they stated that this influenza season might kill 30-90,000 people in the US.  This forecast of the upcoming season caught the media’s attention and appears to have stoked the public interest in influenza.  We have had many requests for more information about influenza here at SBM, and so in this post I am going to discuss the basics of influenza and try to put the current pandemic and upcoming season in perspective.

I find it is best to start at the beginning.

What Is Influenza?

Within the public sphere, “The flu” has become shorthand for “I feel like crap.”  I suspect that this is part of the reason why some people think the influenza vaccine doesn’t work.  Medically speaking, however, influenza is a very specific family of viruses that cause a reasonably narrow set of problems for humans.

The influenza season in the Northern hemisphere usually runs from October through May, with a peak mid-February.  Every season in the US between 5-20% of the US population is infected by influenza, and while the majority of people recover well from an influenza infection, not everyone will.  Annually 200,000 people are hospitalized, and on average 36,000 will die either from influenza or its complications.

The classic influenza infection incubates for 1-4 days after exposure.  Its onset is rapid, with most people experiencing high fever, headache, muscle aches, dry cough, sore throat, and nasal congestion.  Gastro-intestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are less common.  Symptoms last from several days to almost two weeks, and a person is contagious from one day before symptoms begin to more than a week after symptom onset.

There are many strains of influenza. The current seasonal influenza is made up of three different influenza subtypes: A(H3N2), A(H1N1), and B.  Don’t confuse the seasonal A(H1N1) strain with the current pandemic 2009 A(H1N1); they are distinct.  I will refer to them as A(H1N1) for the seasonal strain, and 2009 (H1N1) for the pandemic “swine flu” strain.  Influenza B is less common, less virulent, has a slower mutation rate, and is thus a lesser risk; the rest of this discussion is focused on Influenza A. (more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Sectarian Insertions

I will write occasional posts instead of being on a regular schedule.  The reasons: There are more contributors than positions. Newer people to the field have more ambition and belly fire.  I have a number of projects and papers to finish in increasingly limited time and decreasing efficiency.  So have at it. Meanwhile, some non-random thoughts.

I am as concerned with social and political expression of pseudoscience as with its errors.  Health care reformers can be just as pseudoscientific as sectarians who want to restructure the scientific edifice.  Political ideologues want to centralize the medical system without solid evidence that their substitute would work, let alone work better.  Sectarians already see a national government system as an opportunity for expansionism. Mark Hyman, the Functional Medicine promoter, met with the White House staff, displaying his vision of medicine under a federal plan. Word is out that other sects have also had input. Many hold  suspicions that the proposals front for more ambitious formulations. I am suspicious of their confidence – that they can fix a complex, fluxing system using epidemiology, mathematical models, treatment paradigms, and top-down control.  I might accept some proposals if it were not that all constructed systems are intrinsically inefficient, political, and corruptible. The closer the agents of control are to the controlled, the more control the controlled have over the controllers – if you can follow that.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, History, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist

Preamble

I’ll never forget the day when I argued for protecting parents against misleading and false information about the treatment of autism. I was working at a large consumer health organization whose mission was to “empower patients with accurate information” so that they could take control of their health. My opposition was himself a physician who requested that our organization publish an article that advised parents of children with autism to seek out DAN! practitioners and chelation therapy.

I prepared my remarks with the utmost care and delivered them to a committee of our lay executives. I cited examples of children who had died during chelation treatments, explained exactly why there was no evidence that chelation therapy could improve the symptoms of autism and in fact was based on the false premise that “heavy metals” in vaccines were implicated in the etiology of the disease. I concluded that it would be irresponsible for the company to publish such misleading advice/information for parents, and would in fact be counter to our entire mission.

My physician opponent suggested that it was our company’s duty to inform parents of all their options, that we should not be judgmental about treatments, and that I was part of a paternalistic medical establishment that tried to silence creative thinking.

The committee ended up siding with my opponent. I was flabbergasted and asked one of the committee members what on earth they were thinking. She simply shrugged and said that my opponent was more likable than I was.

This experience marked the beginning of my journey towards fighting fire with fire – understanding that being right is not the same as being influential, and that “winning” an argument (where lives are on the line) requires a different skill set than I learned in my scientific training.

Book Review

And so it was with great interest that I picked up Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age Of Style. (more…)

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

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IVF and CAM Use

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to broader acceptance of the need for a consistent scientific basis for medical interventions is the attitude that worthless treatments are harmless. I often have the experience, after reviewing the evidence showing lack of efficacy for a specific intervention, of getting the head-tilt and shrug along with some variation of the dismissive attitude,  “Well, if people feel better, then what’s the harm?” In my opinion, ethics and intellectual honesty indicate that we have to do better than that.

The “what’s the harm” refrain is so tired and overused that it prompted a website by that name, documenting direct harm caused by unscientific treatment modalities. This is a helpful reminder that any intervention that actually does something (has biological activity) must also contain some risks. But this site also has significant limitations. First, it is anecdotal. But also it emphasizes direct harm, while the indirect harm of unscientific methods (for example by delaying definitive treatment) likely vastly outweighs the direct harm. However, indirect harm is extremely difficult to quantify.

Studies looking at the net clinical effects of using or relying upon unscientific methods is therefore desirable. Recently Danish researchers have published one such study:  Use of complementary and alternative medicines associated with a 30% lower ongoing pregnancy/live birth rate during 12 months of fertility treatment.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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“The Disappearing Male” – A Pinch of Science, a Pound of Speculation

A documentary film entitled “The Disappearing Male” was first shown on CBC in June, 2009. It can be viewed online here.

Some of its rhetoric is reminiscent of Chicken Little:

  • “Where have all the boys gone?”
  • “Millions of males are disappearing.”
  • “We’re on the Titanic and we see the iceberg but we just can’t turn the ship.”
  • “It may be a threat to the survival of the species.”

The claims behind the rhetoric are that male to female sex ratios at birth are decreasing, sperm quality and fertility are decreasing, and genitourinary birth defects like hypospadias are becoming more common. The film blames environmental chemicals, especially endocrine disruptors, and it claims they are causing “the most rapid period of evolution our species has ever seen” and that this may lead to our extinction. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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If you’re sick, even the ridiculous can seem sublime

Let’s say you have cancer. And let’s say you’re really, really sick of having cancer. And let’s say that you’re also pretty tired of scans, chemo, radiation, hair loss, nausea. And let’s say you’re not really sick and tired of living, but actually pretty happy to be alive.

Finally, let’s say someone says that they can get rid of your cancer, without all of those pesky side-effects. It’s a win-win, no?

No.

It’s easy to believe in promises that are congruent with our wishes. That’s what makes human beings so easy to deceive. A case in point is the VIBE Machine, a discredited quackery device. This thing was marketed until about a year ago. Not surprisingly, Orac has written about this thing in his Friday Dose of Woo. Stephen Barrett, the King of Quack-Busters, has also tracked the sordid history of this rip-off. The device was recalled back in 2008, so this shouldn’t even be a story anymore, except that word of the device still circulates among cancer patients and their friends. The company’s website is down, which is good, but this thing is still out there.

At least one website is still promoting it in detail. The website is, needless to say, a whole lot of words that make no sense: (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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“There must be a reason,” or how we support our own false beliefs

ResearchBlogging.orgFor a change of pace, I want to step back from medicine for this post, although, as you will see (I hope), the study I’m going to discuss has a great deal of relevance to the topics covered regularly on this blog. One of the most frustrating aspects of being a skeptic and championing science-based medicine is just how unyielding belief in pseudscience is. Whatever realm of science in which there is pseudoscience I wander into, I find beliefs that simply will not yield to science or reason. Whether it be creationism, quackery such as homeopathy, the anti-vaccine movement, the “9/11 Truth” movement, moon hoaxers, or any of a number of pseudoscientific movements and conspiracy theories, any skeptic who ventures into discussions of such a topic with believers will become very frustrated very fast. It takes a lot of tenacity to keep going back to the well to argue the same points over and over again and refute the same nonsense you’ve refuted over and over again. Many do not have sufficient stick-to-it-iveness, leading them to throw up their hands and withdraw from the fight.

Although some of us here have blamed this phenomenon on “cultishness” and, make no mistake, I do think that there is an element of that in many of these movement, particularly the anti-vaccine movements, cultishness alone can’t explain why people hold on so hard to beliefs that are clearly not supported by science or evidence, such as the belief that vaccines are responsible for an “autism epidemic.” Then last week, what should pop up in the newsfeeds that I regularly monitor but a rather interesting article in Science Daily entitled How We Support Our False Beliefs. It was a press release about a study1 that appeared a few months ago in Sociological Inquiry, and the the study was described thusly:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Oriental Medicine or Medical Orientalism?

The following is the second adapted excerpt of an upcoming article called “The Untold Story of Acupuncture.” It is scheduled to be published in December 2009 in Focus in Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT), a review journal that presents the evidence on alternative medicine in an analytical and impartial manner. This section argues that the current flurry of interest in acupuncture and Oriental Medicine stems predominantly out of postmodern opposition to Enlightenment rationalism, and bears witness to Orientalism and consumerism in contemporary medicine.

In five years, from 1971 to 1975, l directly experienced Est [Erhard Seminars Training], gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy and More House — a smorgasbord course in New Consciousness.1

 Jerry Rubin (1938 – 1994)

Although acupuncture has been known in the US since the 19th Century, its therapeutic claims were dismissed or judged to be “much overrated” by the medical community.2,3 Nonetheless, the publication of a report in the New York Times by James Reston, a reporter in President Nixon’s press corps who had received acupuncture for postoperative cramps in Beijing in 1971 changed this perception, and triggered a flurry of interest amongst the American public and some in the medical community.4 Within the following months, journalists, scientists and physicians rushed to China to withness this peculiar phenomenon, which the popular press and a few scientific journals sensationalized by reporting that thousands of successful operations of all sorts were being carried out in PRC using acupuncture anesthesia; some elaborated on its widespread use for a myriad of conditions, to include paralysis and deafness!5

These unconfirmed claims in the heady social and intellectual climate of the 1970s–meaning the American Counterculture; the rejection of mainstream values, beliefs and ideals; the youth movement, nonconformism and the hippie subculture, the belief in a “New” and  “Cosmic” consciousness and the cult phenomenon; revolutionary ideas mixed with environmentalism; organic farming and the avoidance of pollution, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals; nonconformism and alternative lifestyles; a syncretistic mix of psychedelic drugs, Eastern religions and Native American spiritualities; the resurgence of the taste for mystic, occult, and magical phenomena;6,7 and the belief in the existence of a separate and non-ordinary reality, as upheld by one of the fathers of the New Age movement, Carlos Castaneda8–gave the justification to view acupuncture as a “heal all” therapy based on alternate perceptions of health and disease.  This amalgamation happened precisely when a whole generation of disenchanted Westerners were eager to find novel solutions for their existential predicaments; one that would be free from the constraints of the so-called “repressive rationality” of modern science in “overdeveloped” societies.9,10. Most Western publications on acupuncture therefore fostered the belief that Eastern healing arts have crucial characteristics directly and unequivocally opposite to the repressive rationalism of the West.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, History, Science and Medicine

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Neck Manipulation: Risk vs. Benefit

While manipulation of any kind has the potential to cause injury, stroke caused by neck manipulation is of greatest concern. Risk must always be weighed against benefit when upper neck manipulation is considered. Risk of stroke caused by neck manipulation is statistically low, but the risk is serious enough to outweigh benefit in all but a few rare, carefully selected cases.

When the RAND (Research and Development) organization published its review of the literature on cervical spine manipulation and mobilization in 1996, it concluded that only about 11.1% of reported indications for cervical spine manipulation were appropriate and that stroke and other serious complications occurred about 1.46 times per one million neck manipulations.1 In the same year, after examining 183 cases of vertebrobasilar stroke that occurred from 1934 through 1994 following neck manipulation, the National Chiropractic Mutual Insurance Company (NCMIC) concluded that “It has to be accepted that VBS [vertebrobasilar stroke] following SMT [spinal manipulative therapy] does occur.”2
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Posted in: Chiropractic

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