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:
Somehow, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore—except that we are, as you will soon see.
Because I’m the resident cancer specialist on this blog, it usually falls on me to discuss the various bits of science, pseudoscience, and quackery that come up around the vast collection of diseases known collectively as “cancer.” I don’t mind, any more than my esteemed colleague Dr. Crislip minds discussing infectious diseases and, of course, vaccines, the most effective tool there is to prevent said infectious diseases. In any case, there are certain things that can happen during a week leading up to my Monday posting slot on SBM that are the equivalent of the Bat Signal. Call them the Cancer Signal, if you will. One of these happened last week, thus displacing that post I’ve been meaning to write on a particular topic once again. At this rate, I might just have to find a way to write an extra bonus post. But not this week.
In any case, this week’s Cancer Signal consisted of a series of articles and news reports with titles like:
Vitamins are magic. Especially when they’re injected. Roll up the sleeve, find a vein, insert a needle and watch that colourful concoction flow directly into the bloodstream. It may sound somewhat illicit, but that person infusing it is wearing a white coat, and you’re sitting in a chic clinic. There must be something to it, right? Intravenous vitamin injections are popular with celebrities and have even been described by Dr. Oz as “cutting edge”. Advocates claim vitamin injections can benefit serious conditions like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, fibromyalgia, depression, and that modern-day obsession, “detoxification”. And vitamin infusions aren’t just for the ill. They’re also touted as helpful for preventing illness, too. A search for vitamin injections brings up millions of hits and dozens of advertisements. There is no question that vitamin injections are popular. But despite all the hype and all the endorsements, there is no credible evidence to suggest that routine vitamin infusions are necessary or offer any meaningful health benefit. Vitamin infusions are a marketing creation, giving the illusion you’re doing something for your health, but lacking any demonstrable efficacy. What’s more concerning, providers of vitamin therapies target their marketing at those fighting life-threatening illnesses like cancer, selling unproven treatments in the absence of good scientific evidence that they are beneficial.
The intravenous vitamin industry is a sideshow to science-based health care. Yes, there is an established medical role for injectable vitamins, though it’s no energy-boosting cure-all – they’re used to replace what we should obtain in our diet. As a hospital-based pharmacist I used to prepare sterile bags of total parenteral nutrition (TPN), a mixture of vitamins, carbohydrate, protein and fat that completely replaced the requirement to eat. TPN is effective, but not without risks, and far less preferable than getting your nutrients the old fashioned way – by eating them. There’s also the routine use of injectable vitamins like B12, or iron, all of which can be science-based when used to address true deficiencies, or to manage specific drug toxicities. And there is the therapeutic use of high-dose minerals like intravenous magnesium for acute asthma attacks. But there is no medical justification to infuse vitamins into a vein when you can more appropriately obtain those nutrients in your diet.
Sometimes blogging topics arise from the strangest places. It’s true. For instance, although references to how tobacco causes cancer and the decades long denialist campaign by tobacco companies are not infrequently referenced in my blogging (particularly from supporters of highly dubious studies alleging a link between cell phone radiation and cancer and the ham-handed misuse of the analogy by antivaccinationists, who seem to think that vaccine companies engage in deceit on a scale similar to the deceptive practices of tobacco companies in “denying” that vaccines cause autism and all the other conditions, diseases, and horrors their fevered imaginations attribute to them), I’ve never really delved particularly deeply into one of the most useful repositories of documents on the topic that exists, namely the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. Actually, the reason I started poking around there is not due to tobacco science, but because a fellow blogger mentioned to me that there were some articles and documents about Stanislaw Burzynski there dating back to the late 1970s. My curiosity was piqued.
As I explored, however, I learned that the documents there were not so much about Stanislaw Burzynski per se. In fact, they were more about the state of the underground “alternative cancer cures” industry in the late 1970s, which interested me greatly. The reason is that, when it comes to having delved so deeply into cancer quackery, I’m a relative newbie. Compared to, for example, Wally Sampson, Stephen Barrett, Peter Moran, or even Kimball Atwood, I’m inexperienced, having only noticed this phenomenon in a big way in the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative back around 2001 or so, give or take a year. As a result, I don’t have the shared historical perspective that they do, mainly because I can only learn about that era from reading, studying, and talking to people who were active then. After all, in the late 1970s I was still in high school, and in the 1980s I was in college and medical school. There was no Internet (at least none that I had access to and that contained the wealth of easily accessible information to which we have become accustomed). In any case, in high school I had other interests, and throughout the 1980s I was too focused on getting an education and training to be a surgeon and researcher, a process that extended into the late 1990s. (Yes, it takes that long sometimes, particularly if you are masochistic enough to want to get a PhD, complete a general surgery residency, and do a fellowship in surgical oncology.)
Multivitamin supplementation has been getting a rough ride in the literature, as evidence emerges that routine supplementation for most is, at best, unnecessary. Some individual vitamins are earning their own unattractive risk/benefit profiles: Products like folic acid, calcium, and beta-carotene all seem inadvisable for routine supplementation in the absence of deficiency or medical indication. Vitamin E, already on the watch list, looks increasingly problematic, with data recently published confirming the suspected association of supplementation with an elevated risk of prostate cancer.
Reading through the vitamin posts here at SBM, one issue comes through repeatedly: The danger of assuming therapeutic benefits in the absence of confirmatory evidence. Vitamin supplement have the patina of safety and of health, a feature that’s reinforced when you purchase them: You don’t need a prescription, you don’t get counseled on their use, and there isn’t a long list of frightening potential side effects to accompany the product. You can pull a bottle off the shelf, and take any dose you want. After all, how harmful can vitamins be when you can buy 5 pounds of vitamin C at a time, or vitamin E capsules in a 1000-pack? But the research signals seem to be getting stronger, and most are pointing in the same direction: what we though we knew about antioxidants was based on simplistic hypotheses about nutrition and health. And while we thought we were doing ourselves good with antioxidant supplements, we may have been doing harm. (more…)