Tag Archives: science

Quack Ban?

There’s been a bunch of articles about an upcoming series of seminars planned for a number of venues in Australia. These seminars feature well known anti-vaccination osteopath Sherri Tenpenny, author of Saying No to Vaccines. You can read some highlights from her here on Reasonable Hank’s blog. She’s the headline act, along with Norma Erikson, president of anti-vaccine group SaneVax. The seminars appear to be being run by Stephanie Messenger, who authored a (pretty terrible) book called Melanie’s Marvellous Measles.

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Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee

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You can lead a horse to water…

…But you should be clear with him about what’s in it if you want him to drink it, right?

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Obligatory not-quite-relevant-but-still-funny image

My friend was in a pharmacy recently and overheard an exchange between a customer and the pharmacy assistant. The customer was attempting to buy a bottle of Infacol drops for wind relief for their child and was instead talked into purchasing a bottle of a homeopathic colic remedy often available in chemists these days.

(Side note: It should be noted that in some places, Infacol- active ingredient Simethicone– is marketed as a colic treatment. This is a result of the belief that colic is caused by wind. While it’s true that sometimes parents might mistake wind pain for colic, the two aren’t necessarily the same thing and studies have since shown that Infacol is not a suitable treatment for colic as it is generally also no longer thought that colic is just caused by wind. Infacol is, however, shown to be an effective remedy for wind- it basically helps small gas bubbles in the stomach form into bigger bubbles that are easier to belch out. But I digress…)

What bothers me about this story is that homeopathy has never been proven to work any better than a placebo.

Homeopathy is a system of complementary or alternative medicine in which ailments are treated by minute doses of natural substances heavily diluted in water and then shaken or tapped. These are substances that, in larger amounts, would produce the symptoms of the ailment. They are diluted to the point that the “active” ingredient is no longer detectable.Then there is the idea that the water’s “memory” of the substance is what will treat the ailment based on a “like treats like” theory. There is a large body of evidence showing homeopathy to be ineffective and studies giving any impression otherwise have thus far been shown to have problems such as flawed methodology or inadequate controls. In short, it’s considered a pseudoscience

While there can be merit in the placebo effect, it hasn’t really been demonstrated to work in babies . Some might say they felt there was an improvement in symptoms for things like colic, teething or a cold after using homeopathic remedies- the trouble there being that an observation made by a caregiver isn’t conclusive and doesn’t take into account that things like the examples I just gave are self-limiting and of course, observations are subjective.

I don’t know the reason behind this sales person’s recommendation. Perhaps she tried it once, perhaps the profit margin is higher on that product or perhaps she was just impressed by the claims on the bottle. What I do know is that parents, especially new parents, seem to be a vulnerable target group for pseudo-scientific products (don’t even start me on amber necklaces!). We all want the best for our kids and we all want to relieve any discomfort they might be in. So when you see a product that emphasises that it is a natural product, safe to use from birth, free from additives and has natural sounding “active” ingredients, it’s not unreasonable to think it might be the better option. This also comes under a currently very popular logical fallacy called ‘appeal to nature’ reasoning; the idea that if something is natural, it must be good and vice versa. My other issue here is that I have personally known more than one person to buy one of these remedies from a pharmacy on the advice of the sales assistant and been offered these products and not one of these people had it explained to them what a homeopathic remedy was. They were only told it was a “safe, natural remedy” and yes, water is both safe and natural. However, they were paying $10-$15 for a bottle of water that was supposed to remember having once contained some chamomile etc after a good shaking- and no one mentioned that to these customers.

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The Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods does not require many homeopathic remedies to be registered with them as the dilution is so extensive that they are considered extremely safe- even when the listed ingredient, such as belladonna, is known to be poisonous. This is because they acknowledge that it is so dilute that it is no longer a risk.

Homeopathic preparations are not inherently harmful in themselves, but reliance on such treatments over conventional medical treatment can be. Some people choose not to immunise their children but instead rely on “homeopathic vaccination” also called homeoprophylaxis. I’ve not seen these for sale in pharmacies (thank goodness) but they seem easy enough to order online and can be purchased from some homeopathy practitioners. The danger here is the complete lack of evidence to support homeopathic treatments as vaccines- it is not even recommended by homeopathic associations

There have been cases of homeopathic-only treatment leading to the death of the patient, such as the tragic case of Penelope Dingle or the horrifyingly sad story of Baby Gloria. Many other cases are summarised here.  To be clear, I don’t think a bottle of colic water will kill anyone. I guess the reason I’m including this paragraph is because I think complementary therapies have their place- but the word complementary is key. I’m no doctor but common sense says to me that if you’re unwell and undergoing medical treatment and a complementary therapy (that won’t cause problems or have negative interactions with your conventional therapy- some herbal treatments might do this, for example) also makes you feel better, then it’s doing it’s job- it’s being complementary.

I do feel its outrageous that people are sold what is essentially water (or sometimes sucrose pills) in the guise of medicine without their knowledge. I think most people who walk into a pharmacy looking for something to treat a symptom expect to see and be advised on a pharmaceutical treatment- with active ingredients. I’m not saying the choice should be removed– I do, however, believe it should be informed. If you know what homeopathy is and know what the science says, but still want to spend your money on it and it makes you feel good- then that’s great. We might well disagree on why it makes you feel good/better- but hey, you don’t need me to agree. These products are labelled as homeopathic but it surely would be more ethical to have information about what homeopathy actually is readily available to consumers to help them make an informed choice? 

Linking up with The Multitasking Mummy

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The Great Vaccine Debate.

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I have started, stopped, rewritten, deleted, restarted and pondered over writing something slightly more substantial on this topic. I’m going around in circles. You see, I don’t think the majority of parents who choose not vaccinate are bad parents. Not at all. I think they are no different to any other parent who wants to do the best they can for their kids. I don’t think anyone is crazy for doing research before deciding to vaccinate or not. But I am in favour of vaccination after lots of reading and discussion and I make no apologies for that. For every bit of “evidence” I have seen (and, as this is a topic I’m really interested in, I’ve seen quite a lot) that claims to show vaccines as dangerous/poisonous/deadly/autism-inducing/etc I have been able to easily find multiple scientific studies that refute these claims. These studies and their results are generally widely available online, so parents that aren’t vaccinating have access to the exact same information that I do- how is it that we are coming to such different conclusions?

Anti-vaccine proponents seem to use a convincing mixture of emotive imagery (think giant syringes super-imposed over images of crying, isolated babies- see below), anecdotes and half-truths put together convincingly, often citing outdated or flawed studies or quoting doctors- but failing to mention certain salient facts- case in point is widely quoted anti-vaccination (among other things) proponent Dr Viera Screibner who is indeed a retired doctor- in the field of micro-paleontology , which, to my mind, should make her medical advice suspect at best-and I’m thankfully not alone in my thinking there.

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Images taken from anti-vaccine websites

The half truths are horrifying and alarmist if taken at face value- “vaccines contain cells from aborted babies”, “vaccines contain toxic substances like mercury and aluminium” to name a couple of the more prevalent examples. Both these statements appear to be designed to instill fear and horror in the reader, but fail to elaborate with explanations of cell lines or the amount of certain chemicals used in vaccines versus the exposure we have to them in our daily life– it is, as I understand it, the dose that makes the poison, after all.

Science has shown us that the risk from vaccines is less than the risk posed by vaccine preventable illnesses. So why are people making claims that these illnesses are either not harmful or actually beneficial? These are more often than not people with no medical training and non-scientific backgrounds, who are making public unfounded and incorrect statements that often target new parents seeking information regarding their babies- it’s despicable.

What it seems to boil down to is in whom you place your trust. I have seen anti-vaccination discussions online where the general consensus seems to be that many studies are done by drug companies are untrustworthy because they are done by the company standing to profit from the sale of the vaccines. On the surface that might seem reasonable, however, logic says that for a drug company to falsify data to show that their product is safe and effective when it is not is counter-productive as once the vaccine is in use, we will know soon enough if it safe and effective. There is also the issue of peer review- is everyone lying? I’ve seen governmental websites dismissed as reliable sources of information because the government either is fooled by “Big Pharma” or is somehow using vaccines to control, kill or maim us- searching the phrase “government vaccines kill” yields over 3 million results! My issue with these scenarios are fairly obvious- it is not in the best interests of governments to kill or otherwise injure the population. In Australia, we have free public health care that is government funded. It makes no logical sense for any government to spend money to cause injury or illness which it must then foot the bill for treating. As for governments around the world being either fooled by or in the pocket of the mysterious “Big Pharma” – there are numerous independent studies on vaccines and most governments, I would imagine, want to see a LOT of evidence before making enormous, long term financial commitments to pharmaceutical companies- I doubt very much that any government official would simply sign on the dotted line and take the word of the pharma company without careful consideration to all available research. The mind control theory is an interesting one- why would they want to control the minds of millions and billions of people? Presumably, this would mean they could make us do whatever they want, so surely the first elected governments to bring this in would still be in power, right? Because, what with the mind control and all, they’d just tell us who to vote for! (Yes, I’m being silly and facetious- but they started it!)

People that vaccinate are often ridiculed in these online anti-vaccine discussions. The Australian Vaccination Network (aka the AVN- pending name change) refers to pro-vaccinators as “septics” (apparently as a play on the word “sceptics”). I have seen the (made-up) word “sheeple” used quite a lot. There are more extreme and offensive examples I won’t repeat here. That’s not to say it doesn’t get heated on the pro-vaccination side. Both groups do get extremely frustrated with one another, I’m not denying it. But the difference seems to be that the pro-vaccination advocates are a moderate bunch. All they want is for vaccine scaremongering to end, to make sure as many people as possible are vaccinated and protected from disease and for the herd immunity this creates to offer as much protection as possible to those who, for medical reasons, cannot get vaccinated as well as those with compromised immune systems and those to young to receive vaccinations. I’ve yet to encounter an “extreme vaccinator” either in real life or online- someone who, I imagine, immunises at all costs, is vaccinated with every possible vaccine and who has many wild theories on why everyone should vaccinate. Pro-vaccine proponents seem to just be people who recognise the protection vaccines offer and take full advantage of them while encouraging others to do the same. In the anti-vaccination camp, there is a bit more variety. There are those that are happy to just not vaccinate as they believe it might be unsafe. Further along the spectrum are those that believe vaccines actively cause disorders and disease. Only a hop, skip and a jump away, you have those that believe vaccines are loaded with diseases, chips and who knows what else. The conspiracies run from the biblical to the alien or reptilian and the generally absurd. Both sides of the issue are screaming at the other to do their research.

The idea of compulsory vaccination makes me uncomfortable. Forcing people to make their children undergo a procedure doesn’t sit well with me, even when I firmly believe that procedure is the right thing to do. So how do we get around this problem? Policing the internet for false or misleading information is a herculean task, and one that would be open to abuse in the wrong hands. There is no easy solution. But I do support making sure anti-vaccine groups are held accountable for the misinformation they spread. While there are many such groups, there is one that springs immediately to mind- The aforementioned (misleadingly named, change pending) Australian Vaccination Network. This group claims to be presenting “the other side” of the debate. Taken from their website:

The Australian Vaccination Network, Inc. (AVN) has been operating since 1994 with a mandate to provide scientifically-sourced information on this complex and difficult issue. We believe that everyone has the right to access all available data on vaccinations, immunisations, immunizations, inoculations – whatever you choose to call them. The government and the medical community provide you with one side of the story – the AVN gives you the other side. Taken together, this data will allow you to make the best possible decision for the health of your child.”

And yet… Their whole website is full of misinformation and unfounded claims. Former president of the AVN, Meryl Dorey, has made claims that range from the ignorant to the ridiculous to the downright offensive. Some examples:

“When a doctor injects a vaccine into a child that’s rape with full penetration” (AVN Facebook page)

This statement is alarmist, misleading and offensive- I don’t think any more needs to be said about it.

“It is a fact that we will only ever contract one disease at a time” (Informed Voice, Winter 2006, page 48)

It is actually NOT a fact- at all. Go and speak to a HIV patient suffering pneumonia, for one example. This statement clearly falls into the category of the ridiculous.

“Passing through a measles infection is sometimes required, for whatever reason, to strengthen some part of a person’s vital force” (Dorey, Meryl (Winter 2006). “Voodoo Children”. Informed Voice 4 (2): 48)

What?? Does this come under their “mandate to provide scientifically-sourced information”? I’d love to see their scientific source for this claim.
These are just three examples and there are many, many more. It should also be noted that Ms Dorey does not hold any medical qualifications. She has come under fire for suggesting people contact the family of a deceased child to ask their vaccination status, she has blamed vaccination for conditions such as the ebola virus and is a firm proponent of the (many times disproven) autism/vaccine “link”. I could go on with many more examples of things Ms Dorey has come out with. She is no longer president, but still active with the AVN. Her replacement, Greg Beattie, holds the same views, claiming vaccines are not effective, advising parents to go to “less mainstream” health workers and to read a book to become more educated than doctors on vaccines (perhaps one of his- he’s written two to espouse his beliefs).

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Humourous combination of some of Ms Dorey’s actual statements

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Meryl’s response to the above image.May or may not have said- which is it? Both sourced from meryldorey.org

In the case of this group, I believe full transparency should be enforced. All contributors to their websites and publications should list their names, their qualifications and their sources. If they reference a study, the full study should be made available, as well pertinent information about the study- such as- is it current or superseded? Their mission statement should be clear- their mission is not to present a balance of information- it is to convince you NOT to vaccinate. The gallery of what they call vaccine injured children on their website- frankly, I find this upsetting, but if they MUST have this on their sites, then I feel they MUST provide evidence- as it is, it is appealing to parents on an emotional, fear-based level. I’m not denying vaccine injuries are possible- but they are rare, and should not be exploited for the sake of the anti-vaccine agenda. They should show credible evidence and real data showing the incidence of these types of severe adverse events- in the interest of the balance they claim to represent. In response to the outrageous claims and actions of the AVN, since 2009, facebook based group Stop the AVN has campaigned to counter the claims made by the AVN as well as to hold the AVN to account for spreading dangerous misinformation.

The AVN endorse utilising homeopathy and chiropractic as well as other remedies in place of vaccines, and it should be noted that the governing body for chiropractors in Australia has ordered chiros to stop disseminating anti-vaccination advice and information and that even the British Homeopathic Association does not endorse homeopathic vaccine alternatives.

If you are reading this and wondering if you should vaccinate- don’t take my word for it. I’m not a doctor. But neither are those running the AVN and similar groups. My advice is to look long and hard at where you are getting your information from and what form it takes. Is there evidence to show efficacy and safety- or is it just anecdotes like “My neighbours cousin was vaccinated and he got autism”? Is it just correlation? Like “I ate a potato then started coughing and sneezing, therefore, the potato gave me a cold”. Is it backed by scientific study? Does it make logical sense? Is it coming from someone with relevant qualifications? Like a doctor or medical specialist or someone with a background in immunology, for example. Or is it coming from someone with no formal training who simply claims a brain is qualification enough?

Some links worth viewing:

http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/en/

http://www.ncirs.edu.au/immunisation/fact-sheets/index.php

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/index.html

http://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/immunization/vaccine_safety/science.htm

Disclaimer: I do not work for “Big Pharma” or any pharmaceutical company (though I worked for a year in a pharmacy as a retail assistant 12 years ago). I do not work in a medical or scientific field, not do I claim to hold any such qualifications. I am just a mother who has read lots and lots of information on vaccination who is scared by the decrease in vaccination rates, especially having a baby too young to be fully vaccinated yet.

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