Junkfood Science: Getting our goat

December 20, 2006

Getting our goat

When overriding fears and unsound beliefs prevent us from benefiting from what the very best, most careful, proven science can offer us and our children, the results can be tragic.

Fears and bogus information spread by soundbytes much faster than the truth. It is so easy to drop fear bombs and in an instant scare people by suggestions, “what-ifs” and frightening anecdotes. But it takes considerably more effort to explain, teach and help people understand the complexities of a science or health issue, and use the scientific method to carefully examine the evidence to uncover its limitations and true efficacy.

Those who speak out against unsound fears and beliefs — be it the “epidemics” of “obesity” or diabetes, the dangers in our foods, the poisons of our world, alternative modalities, or the anti-immunization movement — are the real scientists and health professionals. They use objective, critical, thoughtful and careful analyses simply for the greater good to help people. And they often do so at great cost because they’re sure to receive vicious attacks from believers or those profiting off the beliefs

Two such professionals appeared on the web this week. Wallace Sampson, M.D., professor of Medicine at Stanford University and editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, wrote an informed, well-argued, thoughtful and respectful series of replies to the inflammatory mail he’d received about his recent article on Medscape. In that article, he had discussed the sources of error behind many of the beliefs Westerners hold of the effectiveness in traditional Chinese medicine. His exemplary and tireless replies were published on Medscape and make for fascinating reading on how fears and mistaken beliefs influence us.

The second medical professional is Dr. Flea, a pediatrician who has begun a laudable online series on vaccinations. As Orac noted, as expected, “the antivax hordes have descended on his blog.”

Immunization scares are some of the most disheartening and frightening for doctors and nurses working with babies and children. I am old enough to remember the polio tragedies of half a century ago and went to school with kids who were paralyzed from polio or whose brothers and sisters had died from it. We almost never hear about polio anymore because of immunizations. As an old neonatal and pediatric nurse, I remember that in the 1970s, a germ called haemophilus used to kill about 1 in 20 children with meningitis and left 1 in 5 permanently disabled. Now, thanks to immunizations, most pediatricians and nurses haven’t even seen this disease, and parents don’t have to worry about it. But if we fail to understand history and appreciate the good that science and modern life has brought, we are apt to move backwards.

Vaccinations have reduced deaths and disabilities from infectious diseases by as much as 97%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and serious complications are very rare. Sure the road to the development of safe and effective immunizations has had some bumps along the way and there are rare problems still today, and it may not always be prudent to jump on every new development that comes along before it’s been proven. But fears can lead us to not hear the full story and fail to carefully balance those risks with the risks of not immunizing our children.

One of the most commonly-believed scares are that vaccines can cause autism, developmental problems or sudden infant death syndrome. The age at which infants and children are typically diagnosed with SIDS, developmental problems, and autism is also around the time they receive various immunizations, which leads to concerns of a possible connection. But carefully performed scientific studies have shown no relationship between routine childhood vaccines and autism, developmental problems or SIDS.

Another belief we often hear is that additives in vaccines, such as mercury-containing thimerosal, are dangerous. While the vaccines recommended for routine childhood immunizations have not contained thimerosal since 1999 (or insignificant trace amounts) simply to try and allay those popularized concerns, it is important for parents to realize that the form of mercury believed to be associated with neurological problems in toxic doses is not even the same form of mercury used in vaccines!

It might be easy to think we’re safe and don’t need vaccines anymore, but we forget that in other parts of the world outbreaks of polio, diphtheria, measles and whooping cough are still occurring. With more people traveling, it’s increasingly easy to import them along with our frequent-flyer miles. Dozens of measles cases are imported to the U.S. from abroad each year, threatening the health of unvaccinated children and others for whom the vaccine was not effective. Recently, we’ve had unvaccinated children in New Mexico come down with measles after visiting the Ukraine and a child die from whooping cough.

Lance Chilton, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and an Albuquerque pediatrician for 31 years said, “each time immunization rates have dropped in developed countries, such as England, Sweden, Japan and the U.S., they’ve had a rapid and dramatic increase in disease and deaths.”

“Measles is highly contagious and kills 1 or 2 of every 1,000 American children who get the disease—and a much higher proportion in developing nations— and puts others at risk for pneumonia, meningitis, deafness, and liver cancer,” he said.

“Parents are asked to make many important and difficult decisions for their children’s health,” said Dr. Chilton. “But nothing we do is absolutely safe, and when parents ask me for proof about vaccine safety, I say, ‘Vaccines are among the most tested drugs we have. Yes, there are rare problems with vaccines, but you took a higher risk to drive here to the clinic today.’”

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