Saturday, February 18, 2006

Diluting a Disease?...or Deluding Yourself?

Dear Editors of Print Magazines to which I subscribe,

I really, really appreciate your coverage of liberal issues that speak to the core of my being and the values I am trying to instill in my young daughter: equality and tolerance, the fight against racism and poverty, the mysteries of love and the power of music and the written word.

However, when writing about science and medicine, I implore you to be more responsible. Equip your staff and interns with some training in how to evaluate medical topics, alternative medical approaches, and evidence-based medicine, with emphasis on the word "evidence." I am open to considering anything new that challenges existing dogma, but I won't risk my health without some evidence.

With love and admiration otherwise,
Abel PharmBoy


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Regular readers may recall my objection a few weeks ago to Ode Magazine's article on the potential of homeopathic remedies to combat the human H5N1 form of avian flu, citing cure rates from the homeopathic literature following the horrific 1918 influenza epidemic.

While fighting off a migraine from reviewing research grant applications, I ventured out on this snowy/rainy Saturday to our snail-mailbox and was happy to see my usual issues of Mother Jones and Utne that invariably arrive on the same day. As a white-collar professional removed only one generation from the Northeastern, blue-collar factory culture, I still resonate with the fight against worker exploitation and the real-life Mother Jones' fight for rights among unionized labor, especially coal miners in the East and in Colorado ("Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."). Ah, Utne has a nice article on Billy Bragg and his "songs of passionate anger at injustice." Cool.

But on the cover of this March/April issue of Utne is an article on how homeopathy could stop the avian flu. Okay, okay, I'm willing to forgive Utne for republishing the article from Ode - after all, much of Utne is derived from the culling the best of the alternative media and the Ode homeopathy article was quite widely-publicized and demonized, both in the blogosphere and in their own 'Letters to the Editor" section.

But, no, the Utne article is an original: "Diluting a Disease: Could Homeopathy Stop the Avian Flu?" This brand-new article, covering much of the same ground as the earlier Ode article, is authored by Morgon Mae Schultz, an Utne intern who, best as I can tell from Google, had been a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and editor of their student publication, The Wake.

Given the admirable stature of Minnesota higher education and my personal respect for Prof PZ Myers (although he is at the far western campus of Morris and can't be held responsible for what happens in the Twin Cities), I was sure that Schultz would be rigorous and fact-based in cautioning Utne readers about relying on homeopathy for much of anything. In fact, even herbal medicine trade groups have declared quite wisely and responsibly that no dietary supplement company should even claim remotely that their products would be useful in an avian flu pandemic.

Unfortunately, the aspiring U of M journalist fell prey to the same claims of 1920s homeopathic literature claiming a 99% survival rate among 1918 flu-stricken patients, as opposed to 70% for conventional medical care. Schultz even interviews a homeopath and describes the ritual of dilution and succussion (vigorous shaking) to produce a "remedy." "No one knows exactly why this works, but homeopaths posit that water retains the energy of the substance and delivers a message to the body."

Yes, and that message is to keep both hands on your wallet.

But what struck me was the journalist's assumption that "this works" while also blowing off the mystery of the mechanism. Moreover, the article claims that "homeopaths...already have the ability to study the disease in patients without worrying about which strain of the virus is the culprit...Best of all, homeopathy is about strengthening the body instead of targeting the bug, so patients don't become unwitting vessels for a mutated virus."

Well, call off the CDC - no more worries about tracking and genotyping Asian flu viruses each year to know what strains to use in vaccine generation. As for strengthening the body, one needn't worry about getting proper balanced nutrition, plenty of sleep, and exercising general handwashing hygiene during the flu season. One needs to just rely on a homeopathic remedy.

But nowhere in the article is mention of what specific homeopathic remedies would be used against avian flu. Why wouldn't one make a 30C dilution of the H5N1 bug if that were how homeopathy really worked?

In fact, why not just drink regular tap water as your homeopathic remedy??? Think about it: the molecules of water we drink today could have been the urine of Alexander the Great or the industrial effluent of Monsanto. Today's water has had diluted in it over thousands and millions of years almost every infectious organism, toxic metal or organic substance (natural or synthetic). Hence, it should be a remedy for every illness created by every solute ever dissolved amongst its molecules.

Let's say that I am willing to admit that homeopathy might work, albeit through some unknown physical mechanism that I cannot explain. What would follow is that drinking tap water should have every potential remedy in it that I could ever want, to cure everything from multiple chemical sensitivities and mercury-induced autism all the way to the diseases I might incur from eating anything from gold mine tailings to my own feces.

Oh, I forgot..drinking tap water would not create revenue for homeopathic practitioners.

As so eloquently stated by the late Gilda Radner's character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, "Never mind."

5 Comments:

At Tue Feb 21, 12:42:00 AM EST, Blogger Yakima_Gulag said...

Man I just get really annoyed when I have to hear, or read all the homeopathy hooey!

Herbal remedies are a totally different matter, they are often researched. I use them myself, since I'm one of the many uninsured living in America.

I do however have enough sense to go see an allopathic doctor if it looks like I broke a bone, or might need surgery, or if an herabal remedy isn't working in a reasonable length of time, or if it looks serious.

Most of the 'new age' type publications do not have people trained to evaluate information of a medical nature. It takes training, at very least an introduction to pharmacology class, where they learn how to research drugs, because researching herbs is not that different really.

 
At Wed Feb 22, 11:26:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to be too serious or technical about a ridiculous notion; but, the tap-water notion fails because it was not succussed. And, unless you have been fully trained to succuss for success, you can't do it.

Other homeopathic escape mechanisms are the claims that homeopathic remedies all work as claimed. When they seem to fail, that either means the practitioner mis-diagnosed the remedy (the indications for tinsel weed are very similar to those for maidens tears), or you came too late to be cured.

Joe

 
At Wed Feb 22, 02:51:00 PM EST, Blogger Sastra said...

I once read a book on the 1918 flu which pointed out that, contrary to other flus, the young and healthy seemed to be more likely to die than the old and weak. The modern medical explanation for this was that this particular flu apparently attacked the body so virulently and swiftly that one's immune system went into overdrive: what killed wasn't so much the virus itself as an overabundance of mucus and other defenses in a strong immune system.

If so, the homeopath's claim that their solutions "boost the immune system" should be a good reason to avoid them even if they worked -- assuming the avian flu is similar to the 1918 killer. Strengthening the immune system is exactly what you would not want to do.

But I doubt that pointing this out would change anything. This is the same crowd which blithely endorses "boosting the immune system" for people with autoimmune disorders like m.s. It doesn't mean anything specific, it just sounds good.

 
At Fri Feb 24, 05:02:00 PM EST, Blogger Stephen said...

Funny you mention just drinking tap water for a cold. That's one of the things I do for a cold. The idea that this plays into homeopathy is pretty funny. I try to drink a gallon a day. To get through it, I wait for it to warm to room temperature. If it is too cold, then it is too hard to get down. It seems to be a preventative, but not for everything. I imagine it helps the kidneys, etc., but don't really know why it might work. It is cheap. Have there been clinical trials? What does the control group do?

Of course, I also try to get plenty of sleep. Sometimes, instead of Nyquil, I'll self medicate with a screwdriver. I know my limits, and a very small amount of vodka makes me sleepy, dries my sinuses, but does not actually make the world spin. It wears off pretty soon, but I stay asleep. I have less luck with Nyquil. I'm not sure if vodka and orange juice are cheaper, but it goes down smoother. It is just less rude.

A good hot shower helps me get to sleep, and stay asleep.

I keep my neck warm with a scarf - even wearing a hooded sweatshirt to bed. My idea here is that there are glands in the neck that are less effective when cold. This seems to be a preventative too.

Linus Pauling had that thing about vitamin C, but pills don't seem to work for me. A whole grapefruit does, sometimes. What is the Vitamin C dosage in a whole grapefruit? Is pink grapefruit better?

If there is a sore throat, I practice extra dental hygiene: floss, then gargle with salt water, then gargle with mouthwash, then gargle with aspirin, then gargle with something nasty like Chloroseptic, then brush the teeth. Often one of those gargles will have a noticeable effect on a sore throat.

My advice: feed a fever, feed a cold. That is, eat if you can. Oh yeah - balanced food. Try to keep something in each hand. When illness is coming on, I drop the diet. Yet I often have weight loss during disease.

Once when I had a nasty virus, my doctor said that there wasn't anything he could do, as antibiotics are not effective against viruses. I asked what I could eat. He asked me what I had attempted. When I described my diet, he suggested going to the junk food store, getting pop, Twinkies, whatever. It was better to get something down than nothing. It worked. As strength returned, I returned to usual.

When I'm not sick, I exercise. It gets dropped when something is coming on.

When sick, I avoid refined sugar. No idea why this seems to work.

Oh yeah. Hand washing. When everyone at the office is sneezing, it sure doesn't hurt.

When sick, I avoid TV, reading. Its better to sleep. Sleep isn't boring. I don't want to encourage myself to stay awake. When I had mono, I was too tired to watch TV for more than twenty minutes. But I was only in bed for six weeks. My doctor said that the good news for mono is that you can only get it once. I said, "Just like AIDS!"

Going to the doctor requires a bit of effort. I try to self diagnose, and go if I think it might be bacterial, and if I think it is rude enough that help is in order. I have to believe it will get me back to work sooner. Otherwise, my energy is best spent sleeping.

Placebo is good. I like double strength placebo.

 
At Fri Feb 24, 05:17:00 PM EST, Blogger Stephen said...

My experience with real quacks had its crescendo when my wife was looking for relief from chronic back pain. She bought books, a very bright light, various medicines, etc. I wasn't too critical, since my HMO was paying for most of it. Finally, she got a membership in a health club and tried every exercise they offered. This, unfortunately, was NOT paid for by the HMO. After six months, it turned out that twenty minutes on a treadmill gave her 'good back days'. All other days were 'bad back days'.

When the membership was about to expire, she complained that it was expensive, and it consumed the whole morning. Drive to the club. Wait for one of the treadmills to free up, run, shower, drive home. Feh. It made me tired to just hear it. I asked how much the membership was, and decided to check treadmill prices at Sears. Sears was the low bid. A new treadmill cost less than a six month membership. It has been over ten years, we wore out the belt (it was replaceable). Amazingly, I recently picked up a completely working exercise unit that a neighbor left in the trash.

We never had a doctor of any kind suggest exercise.

 

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