Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Superstition and Snake Oil



PK writes to ask me about flu shots:

I wanted to know whether you are getting the flu shot this year or not. I'm reading so much conflicting information. CDC says everyone needs it while Dr. Mercola says it contains dangerous additives. I couldn't find anything in your Daily Dose so I decided to ask you directly.

Well to start, I should say I am not a doctor, but on the upside I am also not a quack who is being sent "desist" letters by the Food and Drug Administration either. More on that in a minute....

What I am is a demographer and population scientist who spends a lot of time now reading and writing about U.S. health care and white collar crime.

And so I wade in:

Get the flu shot.

Flu shots, like most vaccines are grown on chicken eggs, and the "dangerous additive" stuff is nonsense. In fact the additives are preservatives, and an egg sandwich is more dangerous (and yes, I am quite serious about that).

Most of this fear mongering is done by people who have no knowledge of statistics or epidemiology.

Here's the short story:    if 80 million people touch their nose at about the same time, you can expect 12 of them to have a heart attack within 10 minutes. This will happen EVERY TIME. And you know why? Because every year, in a population of 80 million people, at least a million people will have a heart attack. That means there are 2,739 heart attacks a day, or 114 an hour, or about 19 every 10 minutes. So 12 heart attacks within a few minutes of touching your nose? You missed a couple! But did touching your nose cause a heart attack? Nope. Not a chance.

This is the kind of stuff that happens with vaccine reactions, and it's this kind of confusion that is the basis of most superstition ("a black cat walked in front of me while I was on a ladder and fell, so black cats must cause ladders to fall.")

Joe Mercola is simply a general practice doctor who wrote two fad books that did well in the stores, and his niche is in "alternative medicine" which is a nice way of saying he sells "second- best results and unsubstantiated claims."

I am not knocking Mercola gratuitously, only saying that he borders on quackery to the point that he has been dinged in warning letters by the FDA twice. He sells his publications largely through hype and fear and the suggestion that there is "secret" information out there that only he has the inside skinny on. Mostly, it's hooey.

I loathe pharmacy companies, hate being ripped off, and I am a general skeptic. But are vaccine makers trying to poison us? No. Is pasteurized milk dangerous? Are you kidding? I grew up in countries where UN-pasteurized milk killed you!

As Business Week has noted, Mercola is simply a modern version of a snake-oil salesmen, and in this regard is no improvement over the very worst that Big Pharma and Big Medicine have to offer.

Caveat emptor

And get the flu shot.
.
.

12 comments:

The Dog House said...

Couldn't pay me enough to get a flu shot. Didn't do H1N1 either.

Patrick, do you know if there's any truth to the story going around about H1N1 vaccination recipients experiencing a high percentage of miscarriages?

Just curious.

Regardless, I've gotten the flu twice in my life. Both years I got the flu worse than ever before. The second year it was so bad I was hospitalized for two days. Since not taking the flu shot, I haven't had the flu in 15 years - or the shot.

Yes, I realize that flu shots have evolved greatly over the last 15 years, but there's just no way I'd ever put myself into that guinea pig situation.

http://chemistry.about.com/cs/howthingswork/a/aa011604a.htm

Even the CDC says that virus vaccines such as these don't prevent people from getting sick.

Don't use heartworm preventative for my dogs, we only vaccinate every seven years and only for Rabies, Parvo and Distemper. We've never used a Lyme or Bordatella vaccine.

Why? For all the reasons listed above and many you've listed yourself in previous posts.

No, I will not let them inject me with chicken parts and preservatives (got a list of those preservatives? Few do...) because it "might" prevent me from getting an illness that I will recover from.

PBurns said...

Two points:

1. The answer to over-vaccination is not no vaccination. I think we agree on that.

2. About.com is not a medical source, and the person who wrote the article is not an expert on the flu and is not even a medical doctor.

The good news is that we have real experts on the flu who are medical doctors and who produce good and easy-to-understand stuff. See >> http://www.cdc.gov/flu/

The bottom line is that the flu bug mutates, but it tends to mutate in a known direcion and speed, which enables us to more-or-less predict where it is going, and create a vaccine that results in fewer people catching the flu and weaker symptoms generally.

Every year, it's a new flu bug, and some years the vaccine works better than in other years, but it ALWAYS saves lives and we are talking THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of lives a year, in America alone.

Yes, the flu can kill.

In fact, it killed FAR more Americans during the duation of the Vietnam war than the Vietnam war did.

A flu vaccine is especially important for the elderly or those with comprimised immunity systems, those with diabeted and the pregnant. See the link >> http://www.cdc.gov/flu/ for details.

In particular, see >> http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/misconceptions.htm

P.

Jess said...

Preservatives and other things in vaccines:

http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/11/cries_the_antivaccinationist_why_are_we.php

Orac has a lot of posts about vaccines. Do a search.

The Dog House said...

We do agree that the answer is not vaccination free, that we do agree on 100%.

What I have an issue with is the fact that the efficacy of the flu vaccine and the preservatives used are both questionable.

When we get into discussing who needs it most, this is where we get into the muddy part because the elderly and the immuno-compromised are the LAST people who should be receiving vaccinations. I also do NOT believe in vaccination during pregnancy, having seen too many reactions and not yet knowing anyone who's died of the flu.

As for the source, the About.com article was written based on CDC information.

Straight from the CDC, here it is:

"However, in some years when vaccine and circulating strains were not well-matched, no vaccine effectiveness can be demonstrated in some studies, even in healthy adults (Bridges, JAMA 2000). It is not possible in advance of the influenza season to predict how well the vaccine and circulating strains will be matched, and how that match may affect the degree of vaccine effectiveness."

The Dog House said...

I would also offer that the majority of the people who are killed by the flu are killed because of their compromised immune systems or secondary infections.

They are people who have no immune system. People who are just waiting for the next virus or bacteria to come along. These are likely individuals who would have not lived much longer.

Lots of dogs die from kennel cough. Many more than are reported. Again, not the KC that kills them, but rather the secondary infection. Does that mean that every dog with kennel cough should be vaccinated with a vaccine that generally doesn't work, or automatically treated with antibiotics to prevent a potential infection?

I don't believe so, and again I'm pretty sure you agree with me on this in reference to dogs and bordatella.

I simply believe that the same facts and logic apply for the flu vaccine.

PBurns said...

So vaccine *might* have a bad impact on 12 people, and therefore it's OK for 41,000 to die (per year, see >> http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/163/2/181.full) because they were old or young or had HIV and "were going to die anyway" sometime in the future?

Heck, we're ALL going to die anyway sometime in the future.

Most of the people who die from flu are fine and walking around among us until a week before they get the flu. That's a fact.

If you can show me data on non-kenneled bordatella deaths, I am interested. They are very, very low, and almost all are puppies who had parvo or distemper first. Flu is very different.

P

The Dog House said...

You've still got a vaccine that's got questionable efficacy.

You've still got a population that is susceptible to any virus and is not likely survive ANY kind of infection.

You've also got inflated numbers coming from what I understand the CDC does not require flu deaths to be laboratory confirmed.

Trying to say that I suggested that 41,000 people die for any reason is a little underhanded, and I didn't suggest such a thing. But the vast majority of these were people who had pre-existing conditions that made them sensitive to ANY infection. I'm talking about looking at it realistically.

My great grandmother died at 92. She had colon cancer that she fought for several years and it eventually won. It was a long and miserable death, and she outlived the predictions by three years - they had originally given her a month. When she died, she was in the hospital and caught the flu. The additional strain on her body was too much and she died. Her cause of death was listed as a flu death.

But the flu didn't kill her, the cancer did. In her 70's she'd be sick and out in the barn at 5 am feeding the pigs. When she was healthy, the flu would never have killed her.

Interesting though, they gave her a flu shot about a month before. I fought against it - who gives an immunization to a person who's taking steroids, medication that essentially turns the immune system off?

The answer is simple. The pharmaceutical company makes more money the more they vaccinate.

So they take a vaccine that doesn't really work, and the government buys billions of dollars worth to ensure that we protect the very people who can't be protected by vaccination.

Add to that the fact that vaccinated individuals can carry and shed the virus from both their insides and outsides (they can still become "infected" and can also carry it on their person) and you have a false sense of security.

These people who are most at risk should be isolated from any possible contamination, particularly during flu season. And yet, during the time my grandmother was in the hospital, as long as you had been vaccinated you could walk right and rub your elevator hands and public transit jacket all over her.

I just don't believe that this vaccination is warranted. As I said, the only people who truly would benefit from an effective vaccine don't have the immune system response necessary to provide immunity.

They need a better way to specifically target those in danger of complications - but of course, that wouldn't be publicly funded or sell nearly as many doses.

The Dog House said...

Wow, that was annoying. I just wrote a fairly well composed rebuttal only to be told it was too large and now evaporated into cyberspace.

And now anything I wrote would be tainted with that annoyance, which is not what this is about.

The point is I still feel they have an ineffective vaccine that doesn't actually have any way to protect the people its truly needed for.

Vaccinated individuals can still carry the virus and immunocompromised individuals can't physically respond to the vaccine well enough to provide any type of immunity.

No flu shots in this house.

PBurns said...

Not trying to push flu shots on the healthy. Most people survive the flu, as we both agree.

Look at the data tables in the link I sent, however, and I think you will see that 1/2 the flu deaths had no other issues but flu.

P

The Dog House said...

Sorry Patrick, but what I got out of that link is that ALL influenza death numbers are nothing but educated guesses, and the only thing that's for sure is that no one agrees exactly how the toll should be properly counted given that reported deaths do NOT require a virology report.

PBurns said...

Not sure you should be math-based science then ;-) The study is talking about different methods of calculation, same as we do with census data. Your conclusion seems to be that because there is a 2.5 error rate in the census, there are no people! Not quite right. There are north of 40,000 flu deaths in the US and half those are JUST due to flu under any scenario.

P

Viatecio said...

Just adding in my two cents...I don't get a flu shot either, and haven't for the past few years. The last vaccinations I received were the H1N1, only because I work in an office frequented by pregnant patients, and the DTAP, because the school required it and my last booster was not within 8 years. Neither was a fun experience, although the H1N1 would have gone over better had the lady hit the muscle bed instead of bone. Ouch.

I can't say I've done as much thinking about it as Dog House, but call me a hypocrite: I don't discourage people from getting the shot, but my feeling is that I'm young and healthy. Those who are at risk should be aware that they are at risk, and as such, take realistic precautions to avoid picking up illnesses. I don't go around intentionally spreading anything, I practice good hygiene and sanitation (going back to my years as a medical office worker), and I'm not a Work Warrior who clocks in with a raging fever and bloody cough. As far as risk goes, sure I might pick up the bug and be a carrier, but I think there are far more pressing things to worry about than my choice to not get the shot.