Field of Science

Making money by making people sick

I’m a long-time fan of Quackwatch.org, an award-winning website built by Stephen Barrett, M.D. that covers a wide variety of questionable medical practices. I just discovered that Dr. Barrett has a sort of “Hall of Shame” page, listing some of the most egregious promoters of bad medicine and bad science. Everyone on this page has been involved with the promotion of questionable practices and products, some of them so outrageous that they’ve been the target of government enforcement actions. (Whatever conspiracy theoriest might say, the government doesn’t have the resources to go after most quacks.) Barrett helpfully tags each person with one asterisk for each enforcement action.

This is an excellent resource for anyone who might question a product that is being sold over the Internet. It’s also a good place to go if you’re skeptical about the advice offered by a self-proclaimed expert on any medical topic. Each name on Barrett’s list is linked to a more detailed page of useful facts about the person. Let’s look at what it says about Joseph Mercola, D.O., who operates a startlingly popular website dedicated to – well, let’s see.

Mercola is a major promoter of anti-vaccination myths, as I’ve written before, here and here and here. His latest anti-vax screed is an attack on Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, but I won’t discuss that today – Joseph Albietz dismantled it a few weeks ago over at Science-Based Medicine.

Mercola originally came to my attention because of his anti-vaccine activism. He maintains a special page devoted to this topic, which he states contains “vaccine news.” It should really be called “anti-vaccine news”, because that’s what it contains; it’s a font of misinformation. Essentially he claims that every vaccine is bad for you, and that vaccines are little more than a huge government-industrial conspiracy to make money for Big Pharma. Instead of getting vaccinated, he argues, you should try his all-natural treatments instead. Great idea! If everyone followed his advice, who knows how many people would die of preventable infectious diseases? I wonder if Mercola really believes his own anti-science propaganda, or if he knows it is bogus and just doesn’t care.

Regardless of whether he is sincere or not, what Mercola does really well is to promote his own products. A 2006 Business Week article pointed out that Mercola “is a master promoter, using every trick of traditional and Internet direct marketing to grow his business,” and comparing him to “the old-time snake oil salesmen of the 1800s.” That’s exactly what he is, but he uses the modern tools of internet advertising to turn his particular brand of snake oil into a very successful business.

He sells hundreds of “natural” products and makes countless claims for them, most of which are either unproven, medically vague, or irrelevant. He still sells the very same products that the FDA warned him about: he merely changed the way he advertises them. The FDA doesn’t really have any power to regulate supplements – all it can do is prevent specific claims about curing disease. Clever snake-oil salesmen like Mercola can easily circumvent the FDA with a few simple edits to their websites.

For example, Mercola was warned about a product called Chorella in both the 2005 FDA warning letter and the 2006 warning letter, but he’s still selling Chorella on his site. He claims that it will “boost your immune system”, “purify your blood and clean away toxins,” promote tissue repair, and countless other unsupported claims. All of these claims are marked with an asterisk (*), and if you scroll down you’ll find that he qualifies his claims with this:
“*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
This disclaimer appears below the instructions on how to buy the product, of course.

Mercola knows how to diversify his product line, too: he even has his own brand of cookware, which he claims will help you avoid the nasty toxins that are getting into your food during cooking. What, you didn’t know? Mercola says we should throw out all of our stainless steel, aluminum, and Teflon cookware because these materials will make you sick – unlike his cookware, which he says is “made from the earth's natural minerals and water” among its many other virtues. What, and aluminum isn’t a natural mineral? This stuff is almost hilarious, but unfortunately some people believe Mercola’s wacky claims. His cookware site claims that aluminum causes Alzheimer’s disease (wrong), that Teflon causes multiple types of cancer (wrong again), that stainless steel causes narrowing of the blood vessels (wrong again), and on and on.

Oh, I see it’s dinner time. Better fry up some synthetic fish sticks in my Teflon skillet and then eat them with my stainless steel fork. Yum.

Meet the new flu, same as the old flu*

Next year we’ll be back to one flu vaccine, thank goodness. The flu vaccine protects you against three different strains of the influenza virus, but for the past year, we had a separate vaccine for the new pandemic (“swine”) flu. It’s always hard to get people to take their shots (or “jabs,” as they say in England – why can’t we come up with a less painful-sounding word?), and asking everyone to go out and get two shots was never ideal.

For the next flu season, the vaccine will include these 3 strains:
  1. The 2009 “swine flu” strain, H1N1
  2. The previous seasonal flu, H3N2
  3. Influenza B, a milder flu that has been around for decades.
What happened? Well, the WHO, the CDC, and the FDA have decided to replace one of the three strains in the flu vaccine with the new H1N1. The strain they replaced was also called H1N1, which is rather confusing. Let’s look at the history of these strains, which is an interesting picture of virus evolution.

In 1918, the Spanish flu (which originated in the U.S., despite its name) spread throughout the world and killed an estimated 30-40 million people, in the worst flu epidemic in recorded history. This was the original H1N1 flu. It soon evolved into a milder flu, which was around until...

In 1957, a new pandemic strain appeared, H2N2 or "Asian flu." This completely replaced H1N1 in the human population, although H1N1 continued to fluorish in pigs (more on that below). H2N2 dominated until...

In 1968, the Hong Kong flu pandemic, H3N2, swept the world and replaced H2N2.

Then, very suspicously, in 1977 the H1N1 strain reappeared in Russia. It is widely believed that this was an accidental escape from the Soviet Union’s biowarfare program. This H1N1 strain didn’t replace H3N2, but both strains have co-circulated ever since, with H3N2 generally causing more serious illness.

All along, the milder influenza B strain has been around as well. That’s why the vaccine contains 3 strains: H3N2 (from 1968), H1N1 (from 1918 via Russia in 1977), and flu B.

That brings us to late 2008. Several strains of Spanish flu (H1N1) had been circulating in pigs for decades. Two of those strains combined to create the new pandemic flu, which jumped from pigs to humans. Oddly enough, we don’t have any reports of a pandemic among pigs, which is why “swine flu” is a misnomer. Here are the latest statistics for human infections in the U.S., for the last week of March 2010:
  • 3.7% of people tested turned out to have influenza. (In other words, the season is over, as I predicted in mid-January.)
  • 98% of positive influenza specimens were pandemic H1N1.
  • 2% of positive specimens were influenza B.
So it seems that the swine flu has replaced the Russian flu. At least it has in the vaccine. It might even be safe to get rid of H3N2 in the vaccine, but there’s little harm in keeping it in the vaccine for one more season, just in case H3N2 stays with us a bit longer. So next fall we’ll be back to one shot, and “pandemic flu” will be just plain old “seasonal flu” once again.

The CDC's advisory panel also (rather quietly) expanded their recommendation on who should get vaccinated “to include all people aged 6 months and older.” That’s right, everyone, even the elderly. Wait until the anti-vaccination movement gets hold of this – they’ll have a field day. Actually I’m surprised they haven’t already. Maybe they don’t know about the nanobots we’ll be putting in vaccines in the very near future.

*with apologies to The Who.