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Archive for the 'Health' Category

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Read an Excerpt from our Book of the Week: Jonathan Kahn’s Race in a Bottle

This week, we’ve brought you an interview and author post from Jonathan Kahn, Hamline Law Professor and expert on BiDil, the first race-specified drug approved by the FDA (click here for the story of BiDil). To wrap up our feature of this Book of the Week, we’re letting Kahn’s work speak for itself with an excerpt from his new book, Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a Post-Genomic Age.

Read the introduction, “Race and Medicine: Framing [Is] the Problem” (to view in full screen, click on icon in bottom right-hand corner)

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Henry J. Aaron on Health Care Reform

The Economists' Voice 2.0In the following excerpt from Henry J. Aaron’s “Systemic Reform of Health Care Delivery and Payment,” which appears in The Economists’ Voice 2.0: The Financial Crisis, Health Care Reform, and More, Aaron examines some of the challenges confronting the implementation of The Affordable Care Act. He concludes by arguing “As things now stand, the future of the ACA is highly uncertain. Yet its success is of critical national importance.”

THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT (ACA) became law on March 23, 2010, but little of it is yet actively in effect. Not until January 1, 2014, will the Medicaid extensions, the individual mandate to buy insurance, the state-managed health exchanges, and the subsidies to make in­surance affordable take effect. The tax on high- premium plans will not be imposed until 2018. Tight restrictions on the operations of the Independent Medicare Advisory Board will remain until 2018.

Before those dates, the law will have to clear four hurdles. The odds that it will emerge unscathed are small. It is important to under­stand those obstacles and to consider how they may change the reform or even prevent it from taking effect. The first hurdle is judicial. Several states are challenging the consti­tutionality of the individual mandate—the requirement that everyone (with a few exceptions) who is not insured at work or covered by a public program must personally buy health insurance. Scholars are divided on whether the Constitution empowers the federal govern­ment to impose such a requirement. The courts will decide….

Should the mandate requiring individuals to carry health insur­ance be declared unconstitutional, much of the rest of the bill would become unsustainable, unless some alternative mechanism to create a sustainable risk pool were to be found. Various alternatives could work. Paul Starr has suggested that people who refuse each year to buy insurance should be barred for an extended period—say, four years—from buying insurance in the regulated market and from qualifying for income-related subsidies. The German health system uses such an arrangement and achieves near-universality. The an­swer to the question whether such a penalty could be adopted in the United States is not obvious. Nor is it clear how well such a penalty would work in the United States. Uninsured Americans would be able, as now, to show up at emergency room doors if they are seri­ously ill, because federal law requires that hospitals provide them ser­vices. The subsidies in the ACA might well tip the balance for most in favor of buying insurance. Such a provision would not have to work perfectly, just well enough to prevent the collapse of the health insurance pool.

Were the individual mandate to be declared unconstitutional, enacting some replacement would doubtless open up the whole bill to amendment. Approval of a time-limited exclusion from subsidized coverage or any other mechanism to maintain a risk pool would re­quire sixty votes in a badly fractured Senate and approval by a major­ity in a House of Representatives now controlled by a party that has pledged to repeal the law. Opponents of the law would be disinclined to agree to provisions that sustain it; at a minimum, their price for accepting such amendments would be high.


Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Geoffrey Kabat Breaks the Bad News About the Good News About Chocolate

Geoffrey Kabat, Hyping Health RisksA recent report that got widely disseminated claimed that “that subjects who ate chocolate more frequently had lower body mass index compared to those who consumed it less often, and this was not affected by taking calorie intake or level of physical activity into account.” The notion of chocolate as a new weight-loss strategy obviously has it appeal but what about the science behind this study and the methods applied?

Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology, questions the basis of the study in a recent op-ed in Forbes, The Bad News About the Good News About Chocolate .

In the piece, Kabat questions and faults the way in which the study was conducted:

This is a cross-sectional study, meaning that the information analyzed was collected at one point in time. Thus, it tells us nothing about weight gain or weight loss or factors contributing to these changes.

Furthermore, the researchers obtained information about the usual consumption of over a hundred foods by means of a “food-frequency questionnaire.” The authors do not tell us how many other food items and other behaviors were correlated, either positively or inversely, with body mass. What about nuts, broccoli, jello, coffee, beer, veal? What about the frequency of other behaviors – going to the movies, sexual intercourse, ice-skating?


Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Interview with Nicoli Nattrass, author of “The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back”

Nicoli Nattrass, The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights BackThe following is an interview with Nicoli Nattrass, author of The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back

Question: What is AIDS conspiracy theory?

Nicoli Nattrass: The central AIDS conspiracy theory is that HIV was created in a laboratory (perhaps with the help of the CIA) to inflict harm. Ironically, the idea that U.S. scientists invented HIV was initially promoted by the Russian KGB and the East German Stasi in a genuine conspiracy to spread misinformation. There are now many local variants of AIDS conspiracy beliefs–for example, in South Africa a common story is that HIV was created by the apartheid government’s chemical warfare program, with assistance from the United States.

Q: Why does AIDS conspiracy theory matter?

NN: AIDS conspiracy beliefs matter because they reflect and reinforce broader suspicions toward medical science. AIDS conspiracy believers in the United States and South Africa are less likely to use condoms, less likely to test for HIV, and less likely to take antiretroviral treatment. Why did you write the book? I was concerned about the way that AIDS conspiracy theories had been promoted at the highest levels in South Africa, and continue to resonate today. The book is the product of my exploration of how these ideas travel and take root, why they resonate socially, and what can be done to fight them. (more…)

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Nicoli Nattrass on the AIDS Conspiracy

Nicoli Nattrass, The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back

In the opening to her book The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, Nicoli Nattrass discusses how she became interested in AIDS conspiracy theories.

The Conspiratorial Move Against HIV Science and Its Consequences

Most people do not believe conspiracy theories about the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). But suspicions that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may have been created in a laboratory, and that the pharmaceutical industry invented AIDS as a means of selling toxic drugs, persist on both sides of the Atlantic. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Barack Obama had to deal with politically embarrassing revelations that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, believed the government had created HIV to harm blacks. Four years earlier, the Nobel Prize–winning Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai stunned the world with her casual observation that HIV had been “created by a scientist for biological warfare.” Most tragically, conspiracy theories about HIV were promoted in the early 2000s by then South African president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang—with devastating consequences for AIDS policy.


Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Nicoli Nattrass on The Specter of Denialism

Nattrass, The AIDS Conspiracy

In a recent op-ed for The Scientist, Nicoli Nattrass, author of The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back , describes the harm that has been done by AIDS denialists in South Africa and elsewhere.

Nattrass argues that a small group of AIDS denialists have kept alive the myth that antiretroviral treatment (ART) is harmful and that HIV science has been corrupted by commercial interests. Even though these claims have been disproved by science, they have hindered the battle to stop and treat AIDS. South African President Thabo Mbeki, debated the issue of the effectiveness of ART, holding up treatment and leading to the unnecessary death of 330,000 South Africans.

Nattrass also discusses the contested work of University of California virologist Peter Duesberg, another Denialists as well as activist Christine Maggiore, seen as a key icon for the Denialist movement: “Maggiore campaigned against the use of ART to prevent mothers passing HIV to their babies, Despite her 3-year-old daughter’s succumbing to AIDS, Maggiore remained staunchly opposed to HIV science and ART. She opted for alternative therapies and died at the age of 52, from AIDS-related infections.”


Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Nicoli Nattrass discusses AIDS Denialism and AIDS in South Africa

In the following interview, Nicoli Nattrass, author of The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, discusses the issue of AIDS denialism as well as her work on AIDS in South Africa:

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Book Giveaway!: The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, by Nicoli Nattrass

This week our featured book is The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, by Nicoli Nattrass. (To browse the book.)

Throughout the week we will highlight aspects of the book and we are also offering a FREE copy of the book to one winner.

To enter our book giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and address (U.S. and Canadian mailing addresses only, unfortunately). We will randomly select one winner on Friday at 1:00 pm. Good luck and spread the word!

Praise for The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back:

“Nicoli Nattrass does a wonderful job uncovering the dangerous consequences of following fringe ideas in health and medicine. Her new book puts medical myths and misinformation square in front of us, and she tells the story with such passion, we dare not look away.” — Seth C. Kalichman, Ph.D., University of Connecticut, author of Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Geoffrey Kabat on Cell Phones and Climate Change

Geoffrey Kabat“We … need to rely on scientists and health agencies to use logic, analytic rigor, and clear language to assess what things are worth worrying about.”—Geoffrey Kabat

Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology, recently published Behind The World Health Organization’s “Cancerous” Pronouncement On Cell Phones in Forbes.

In the article Kabat critiques a recent report on cell phone use and radiofrequency radiation (RF) from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization. Kabat challenges their finding that RF from cell phones is “possibly carcinogenic, which does not square with his reading of the scientific data.

Kabat also discusses the controversial composition of the working group, and the process behind the report. Kabat writes:

By any set of criteria for evaluating evidence, the conclusion should have been that – although we have not monitored the effects of cell phone use for long enough – the substantial evidence currently available provides no suggestion that cell phone use contributes to the risk of brain tumors. The ambiguous label “possible carcinogen” is unfortunate because it means one thing to scientists working for IARC and something quite different to the general public when trumpeted in the headlines.

In classifying RF as a “possible carcinogen,” IARC has aligned itself with the “precautionary principle,” which sounds perfectly reasonable, except that it is often used to conjure up the existence of a possible hazard in the face of extensive and solid evidence suggesting the non-existence of a hazard. Of course, we need to spell out the limits of current knowledge, but we also need to rely on scientists and health agencies to use logic, analytic rigor, and clear language to assess what things are worth worrying about.


Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Brent Stockwell on the Future of Medicine

“Over the last 15 years, the annual number of approved new drugs has been declining dramatically. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry, as well as academic and government researchers, have dramatically increased the amount of money spent on drug discovery and development. Why is the large increase in funding not translating into new medicines?”—Brent Stockwell

In an essay for Rorotoko, Brent Stockwell, author of The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines, examines the challenges confronting scientists and pharmaceutical companies. Stockwell explains, “Drugs function by interacting with, i.e. attaching to, specific proteins within the body, which are called ‘drug targets.’ However, only 2% of the proteins found in humans have been targeted with drugs.” He continues, “The majority of proteins are considered undruggable. These proteins control nearly every disease process, from many types of cancer to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s, to many other diseases.”

In an effort to spur the development of new medicines the Obama administration has created a new center within the National Institutes of Health. While this is encouraging and will help bridge the gap between expensive research and commercial use, Stockwell warns that there are challenges:

But there is a more significant challenge to discovering new medicines than simply bringing basic discoveries to market. So if the new NIH center were to focus on a simple catalyst role, it would represent a lost opportunity.

The more fundamental challenge to discovering new drugs involves the basic science issue of protein druggability. It is this that could have a far more significant impact on the number and type of future medicines.

It is possible that new technologies and approaches could solve the challenging problem of protein druggability. However, if we abandon the undruggable proteins, we abandon the hope for truly transformative medicines. We must be able to translate the vastly detailed molecular networks emerging from basic science studies into therapeutics.

Currently, many of the root causes of diseases are considered undruggable and cannot be addressed directly with medicines. If we could solve the mystery of protein druggability, we could open up a vast number of possibilities for new medicines, and ultimately end the drug discovery crisis.

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Geoffrey Kabat on Cancer and Cellphones

Geoffrey KabatThe following post by Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology discusses the recent World Health Organization’s report on cellphone use and its possible link to cancer. Kabat questions some of the conclusions made in the report and the problem of labeling something a “possible carcinogen.”

Thirty years ago, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health published a study in a prestigious medical journal purporting to show that drinking coffee increased a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer. When asked how his results had influenced his own habits, he responded that he had stopped drinking coffee. The following day a professor of biostatistics set up a Mr. Coffee in the departmental offices, indicating what he thought of his colleague’s study.

I mention this because last week a committee of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, announced that it would classify cellphone use as a “possible carcinogen,” putting it in a category with 240 other exposures, including coffee and the pesticide DDT. Despite decades of research, neither of these exposures has turned out to be a carcinogen in humans.

Although the report from the committee has not yet been published, we know that the WHO based its conclusion largely on the 13-country Interphone study, which provoked a large degree of confusion when published a year ago.

Read the rest of the op-ed on The Daily.

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Brent Stockwell: The National Institutes of Health and the Drug Discovery Crisis

Brent Stockwell, Quest for the CureBrent R. Stockwell is the author of The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines, and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biological Sciences at Columbia University, and an Early Career Scientist of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to discover new drugs. Over the last 15 years, the number of new drug approvals has declined substantially, even in the face of a huge increase in funding for drug discovery research. Put simply, it is becoming increasingly expensive and challenging to create new medicines. It is not overstating the point to say that we are facing a drug discovery crisis, which has stimulated recent mega-mergers and acquisitions within the pharmaceutical industry. Drug pipelines are drying up, and many are asking, what can be done?

The Obama administration has proposed a new initiative to help address this drug shortage. Concerned with the paucity of new medicines, the administration has proposed to create a controversial new center within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that is focused on aiding the discovery and development of new medicines. This new center, called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, is meant to catalyze the transfer of discoveries from basic science laboratories to clinical studies that involve patients, and eventually into commercial products. The NIH website indicates that the new center will be synthesized from existing programs within NIH, so that the center is an administrative reorganization rather than a dramatic shift in policy. The stated hope of NIH officials is that this new center will make it easier to bring discoveries from basic science into the clinical arena.

What can this new NIH center do that will help address the drug discovery crisis? On a practical level, the center can help to move discoveries down the drug discovery path to the point that they become attractive for commercial entities to adopt and invest in. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and venture capitalists have become increasingly conservative in their investment strategies, especially since the economic disruptions in 2008. This conservatism has resulted in a lack of investment in early-stage technologies and drug candidates, making it difficult to translate these discoveries into a commercial and clinical setting. In short, the well-known “valley of death” that separates basic sciences from commercial and clinical translation has grown larger and more ominous. Therefore, by assisting the development of selected technologies and compounds through the early stages of drug discovery and development, the new NIH center could help to bridge this valley and bring the most promising technologies to market.


Friday, April 29th, 2011

Mobilizing the Community for Better Health: Columbia University and Northern Manhattan

Mobilizing the Community for Better healthA recent article in The Record recounts how community groups led by Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine, Alianza Dominicana, Inc. and Harlem Hospital Center helped 30,000 residents of Washington Heights, Inwood and Harlem get health insurance, immunized 8,000 children, trained 1,500 health workers and raised the area’s vaccination rate from 63 percent to 97 percent.

The story of this collaboration, both its successes and failures, is recounted in Mobilizing the Community for Better Health: What the Rest of America Can Learn from Northern Manhattan, which is edited by Allan Formicola and Lourdes Hernandez-Cordero. The book discusses how the health partnerships grappled with the high rates of asthma, drug use, teen pregnancy, and violence in Washington Heights and Harlem.

Despite some continuing tensions, the program has improved relationships between Columbia and its surrounding neighborhoods. From The Record:

When Formicola began community work as a dean at Columbia, the University’s ties to the surrounding neighborhoods were rocky. Columbia’s relationship with the community “has since come a long, long way,” Formicola said. “I’m a big believer in building solid community relations for universities. That’s what universities should be doing. We should be taking on some of these real and practical problems that people suffer with.”

Formicola’s hope is that more academic medical centers in the United States consider this community-based approach. “We would certainly make a big dent into the health problems we have in the United States,” he said.

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Interview with Sera Young on “Good Food”

Recently Sera Young was on KCRW’s Good Food to discuss her new book Craving Earth: Understanding Pica—the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk. In the interview she discusses among other the definition of pica (eating non-food items), the preponderance of pica cravings among women, its existence in the United States, and the different types of earth that people desire.

She also discusses the main reasons why people eat pica, including hunger, nutrition, and medicinal reasons. She also discusses the fanaticism that has evolved around a certain type of ice.

After the interview, the show’s host tasted clay samples from Tanzania, Haiti and the U.S. sent by Sera Young. Here’s the video:

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Start Worrying – Details to Follow: A Post by Geoffrey Kabat

Geoffrey KabatGeoffrey Kabat is a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Over the past thirty years we have been bombarded with a steady succession of putative health risks, including electromagnetic fields (EMF) from power lines and electric appliances, radon seeping into homes, and pesticides in our food and water, to name just a few. Today, radiation from cell phones and exposure to minute amounts of BPA (a chemical used in some plastics) are major concerns that are grabbing headlines.

When one looks back at many of the alleged health hazards that have received enormous attention (from scientists, regulators, the media, and the public), a striking pattern is discernible. Early studies seeming to indicate the existence of a novel threat received enormous publicity. But these studies tended to have small sample sizes and crude methodology. In some cases, their weaknesses were pointed out by commentators at the time, but, nevertheless, the results were given more credibility than they should have been. As larger and more methodologically rigorous studies were carried out, the elevated “relative risks” either diminished considerably, or evaporated completely. Interestingly, in a recent article in the New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer has pointed out a similar phenomenon in a number of areas of science, including psychology and clinical medicine (“The Truth Wears Off,” December 13, 2010).

How are we to explain this phenomenon? Undoubtedly, a variety of factors contribute to the manufacture of a hazard. First, as we have come to recognize (most famously in the case of hormone therapy), the findings from observational studies can be misleading, and we need to be extremely cautious in attributing causality to a correlation between an exposure, often measured at one point in time, and the development of disease many years later. Second, scientists are motivated to discover new causes of diseases and, understandably, want their results to be meaningful. It is a basic, if rarely acknowledged, fact of life that interesting findings are crucial currency in getting scientific papers published, obtaining funding, and advancing professionally. Third, the media, regulatory agencies, and the public are all hungry for novel information that might explain why people develop terrible diseases. Finally, positive results, even when they come from a study with many flaws and limitations, tend to get more attention than results showing no effect.


Monday, June 21st, 2010

Laura Katz Olson — Can the Expansion of Medicaid Coverage Fulfill the Promise of Health Care Reform?

Laura Katz Olson, The Politics of MedicaidOne of the key components in the recent health care reform bill was the extension of medicaid to cover low-income individuals. But is this the best way to provide health care? This is the question Laura Katz Olson, author of The Politics of Medicaid, examines in a recent op-ed she wrote for Doctor Pundit.

Olson is skeptical given that the states’ control of medicaid has historically led to an “inequitable, haphazard distribution of health care.” She suggests that “building on Medicaid—adding roughly 16 million low-income people to its rolls—will only intensify current problems and inequities. Newly insured people will still face the same second-class medical care, access impediments, and other wide-ranging failings of the current Medicaid program.”

Olson concludes by pointing out some of the other issues that will continue to negatively affect health care despite the reform bill just passed:

Just as problematic, in order to enact health care reform, President Obama and congressional leaders had to placate key provider groups, making deals with them that precluded any genuine cost controls. Thus, insurance premiums will continue to rise, drug companies will charge their usual exorbitant fees and other suppliers of services will cash in, rendering overall costs far greater than projected. We may get far greater health insurance coverage, a laudable achievement, but will we be getting our money’s worth?

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Geoffrey Kabat on Hyping Health Risks in Brazil

Geoffrey KabatColumbia University Press titles are read and translated throughout the world. The following post is from Geoffrey Kabat, who describes the reception of his book in Brazil:

About five months ago a large Brazilian publishing house put out a Portuguese translation of my book Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology (Riscos ambientais à saúde: mitos e verdades, Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara-Koogan, 2010). Soon afterward I heard from a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro inviting me to visit Brazil for ten days at the expense of the publisher to publicize the book.

Together with my host, Professor Renato Veras, I crisscrossed the country from south to north and from east to west, with talks and book-signing events hosted by four very special institutions with somewhat different audiences. In Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the far south, I spoke at the Escola Superiora da Magistratura to judges and lawyers, including, I was told, five justices of the supreme court of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. In São Paulo, the venue was an organization devoted to health promotion among the elderly called AGE PLUS. In Rio I spoke at a foundation called Casa do Saber, which hosts lectures, movies, and other cultural programs. Finally, in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, the Academy of Medicine of Amazonas State hosted my talk, which was introduced by the president of the academy, Dr. Claudio Chaves.

Each of the talks was followed by lively questions and discussion. Questions ranged from how public discourse about climate change is distorted to how one can counter the inflating of health risks, to what allows lung cancer to develop in people who never smoked, to the pervasive influence of the pharmaceutical industry in shaping messages about health.


Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Interview with Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks

Geoffrey KabatThe following are excerpts from a recent interview with Geoffrey Kabat, author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology that appeared in the Epidemiology Monitor. The November issue was devoted to Kabat’s work and the issues raised in his book.

EpiMonitor: Can you say more about your personal and professional motivations for writing this book? Clearly, hazards are being manufactured all around us. You are presumably like all other epidemiologists in sharing a set of scientific values and standards, but others have not written such books.

Kabat: In the early 1990s I noticed that certain issues in epidemiology seemed to be distorted or exaggerated and that the public was being given the wrong idea. So, I tuned in to a number of these issues, some of which I was doing primary research on. I began to view these topics that got a lot of attention and stirred up a lot of concern from a dual perspective – that of a practicing epidemiologist and that of an outside observer – almost as if I were an anthropologist. I would contend that one can’t really understand what is going on with the hyping of health risks without considering the social context in which messages about health get disseminated. In addition, as a scientist, I tried to assess what the evidence actually indicated and where certain agency reports or partisan interpretations seemed to be overstating the evidence. I guess there were two emotions that motivated me to pursue what was a pretty demanding task – evaluating the evidence on my four topics and trying to sort out how it got refracted by different parties. One was fascination with some of the flagrant contradictions and incongruities; the other was frustration at some of the one-sided and unsupported claims. But above all, I felt that this was a very rich topic that had received little sustained attention.


Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

“People describe me as a vaccine advocate, I see myself as a science advocate.” — Paul Offit

Paul Offit

The following quote is from a lengthy feature in Wired magazine on Paul Offit, his battle against anti-vaccination advocates, the mistrust of science, and the dangerous implications of not vaccinating children. Offit, author of Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, has been fighting an often vicious battle with those who fear that vaccines cause autism despite the medical and scientific evidence that proves the safety of vaccinations. (Questions about Offit’s integrity and even death threats are frequently employed by his opponents.) The triumph of pseudo-science over science has led to the outbreak of measles and put many elementary school children at risk. From the article:

“I used to say that the tide would turn when children started to die. Well, children have started to die,” Offit says, frowning as he ticks off recent fatal cases of meningitis in unvaccinated children in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. “So now I’ve changed it to ‘when enough children start to die.’ Because obviously, we’re not there yet.”

The article also explores how the fear of vaccines has taken hold and looks at the distorted claims made by Offit’s opponents, including the suggestion that he is a shill of pharmaceutical companies. Information found on the Internet along with the anti-vaccine advocacy of celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and public figures such as Robert Kennedy, Jr. has served to confuse parents and increased the level of fear regarding vaccines. Offit sympathizes with those parents whose children have been diagnosed with autism and are searching for a cure but worries that McCarthy and others are providing false hope and explanations. The article quotes Offit’s response to one of his most vociferous opponents:

“Barbara Loe Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I’m in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids. Does she think Merck is paying me to speak about vaccines? Is that the logic?” he asks, exasperated. (Merck is doing no such thing). But when it comes to mandating vaccinations, Offit says, Fisher is right about him: He is an adamant supporter.

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

More from Paul Offit on the flu vaccine

Flu VaccineOn Monday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation interviewed Dr. Paul Offit, author of Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. about the swine flu vaccine.

Dr. Offit was a guest as result of his recent New York Times op-ed (see our post from Monday). The show took questions for Dr. Offit from listeners including this one:

And here’s an email from Lisa Ann(ph) in San Mateo. I’ve only had one flu shot in my life, and immediately afterwards, I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m an extremely healthy person. When I do catch cold symptoms, I’m able to fight them off with vitamins before I get really sick. Is it really necessary for me to get the shot? I have a feeling it’s going to make me sick.

Dr. OFFIT: Right. You know, and this is a story that you occasionally hear. It’s, you know, we give our flu vaccines in the winter. That’s when a lot of other viruses, including, you know, flu viruses are circulating. And the question is, you know, can the flu vaccine cause flu? The answer to that question is clearly no.

I mean, the vaccine is – it comes in two forms. One is as a shot, in which case the virus is completely inactivated with a chemical, so it can’t possibly reproduce itself and cause respiratory symptoms. The second vaccine is a so-called nasal spray vaccine, which is a highly weakened form of a natural virus which can’t possibly grow at body temperature, therefore it can’t possibly reproduce itself in the lungs and cause illness. So I think those things are coincidental, but obviously those anecdotes are very powerful and influential for many people.