Field of Science

At the movies: popcorn and anti-vaccine fearmongering

The anti-vaccinationists have launched a new campaign this holiday season to spread cheer – oops, I mean fear – to moviegoers everywhere. Yes, the folks at SafeMinds and Age of Autism have produced an advertisement that they are trying to place in AMC theaters across the country. In fact, they almost succeeded, but quick action by skeptical science bloggers at SkepChick, Respectful Insolence, and their readerships convinced AMC to cancel the ad – for now.

The ad that SafeMinds is trying to run is intended to scare people away from getting their flu vaccine, just as flu season is beginning. The vaccine this year will protect you against both the new “swine” flu, called H1N1, and the previous flu strain, H3N2. Early data from the CDC makes it clear that both strains are still around, with H3N2 showing up somewhat more frequently so far this fall. The vaccine not only protects you, but also your family, your colleagues, and the many other people you might come into contact with each day while at work, shopping, or elsewhere.

Why try to scare people? Well, the people behind SafeMinds and Age of Autism believe that the preservative thimerosal, which is used in some but not all flu vaccines, causes autism. This theory has been thoroughly investigated over the past 10 years, and just as thoroughly discredited. In fact, it never had any positive evidence to support it in the first place, but it has been promoted aggressively by a journalist, David Kirby, who made his fortune off a book based on the thimerosal-autism hypothesis. (I’m not providing a link – Kirby has already made far too much money off this bogus claim, and I don’t want to give him the web traffic.)

Thimerosal was introduced into vaccines in the 1930s, and it is a very effective means to prevent the growth of bacteria without affecting the potency of the vaccine itself. In over 60 years and hundreds of millions of doses, it has proven to be quite benign. Nonetheless, it contains a form of mercury called ethylmercury, which anti-vaccinationists claim causes autism and other neurological disorders.

The claim that thimerosal causes autism was the central question of a large, multi-year Autism Omnibus trial, which ruled definitively last year that thimerosal does not cause autism. I wrote about that ruling at some length back in March, and I won’t repeat it here, except to quote again from the Special Master’s decision:
“The numerous medical studies concerning the issue of whether thimerosal causes autism, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I find that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to the causation of autism.”
The anti-vax crowd will not give up, unfortunately. Rather than spending their time and effort trying to find the true causes of autism, they continue to repeat claims that have already been shown false. For example, the SafeMinds website lists 5 “key points” that are just flat-out wrong. Here are the first two:
  1. “The autism epidemic that began in the late 1980’s is likely due primarily to toxins adversely affecting fetus and infants during development.” Wrong, in at least two ways. First, there is no autism “epidemic.” The best evidence today indicates that the rising rates of autism are due to a combination of factors, primarily (a) rising rates of diagnosis due to increased awareness among physicians and patients and (b) a dramatically broader medical definition of autism that was introduced in the early 1990s.
  2. “Mercury is likely a major contributor to this toxin-induced autism, whether the source of the mercury is from vaccines or environmental mercury exposure.” Wrong again. This is the claim that was so thoroughly refuted in the lengthy Autism Omnibus trial, with hundreds of pages of testimony from dozens of experts, and epidemiological data from literally hundreds of thousands of people.

But data doesn’t seem to have any effect on the anti-vax zealots at Age of Autism and SafeMinds.

Because AMC refused to run their ad, Age of Autism is telling its readers to stay away from AMC theaters this holiday season. I hope they do! Why? Because these unvaccinated individuals are a genuine threat to public health. Movie theaters, and the malls in which they are located, are an ideal place for infectious diseases to spread. Without vaccines, countless thousands of people would fall ill every holiday season after mingling with other shoppers, and some would likely die. My message to the unvaccinated crowd at SafeMinds is: stay away from the rest of us.

And I encourage everyone else to get your flu shot, get your kids vaccinated, and then go see a movie at an AMC theater. Meanwhile, you can also tell them at this link that you appreciate their taking a stand against misinformation and for the benefit of public health.

Oscillo – what? Homeopathic flu “cures” and dead ducks

Oscillococcinum sounds like medicine. And if you saw this package in a store next to all the other cold and flu remedies, you might be tempted to give it a try. It looks just like a box of anthistamines or other real medicines. With flu season coming soon, you might want to look at this box more closely before you buy it.

You can buy oscillococinum at Walgreen’s, Target, Amazon.com, and many other places. At Walgreen’s, one of the largest pharmacy chains in the U.S., it’s listed under “Cough and Cold” where it sells for $9.99 (a savings of $4.50!) for 6 doses.

It sounds like medicine, but it’s not. The front of the box says (in small print) that it’s “homeopathic medicine,” which isn’t medicine at all. In fact, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill, which is why the product can advertise that it has “no side effects” and “no drug interactions.”

But in much larger print, the package says “Flu-like Symptoms”, followed by a list of symptoms: “Feeling run-down, hadaches, body aches, chills, fever.” Anyone might be fooled into thinking this product is supposed to treat these conditions. If you go to the manufacturer’s (Boiron) website, they make the explicit claim that it “Temporarily relieves flu-like symptoms such as feeling run down, headache, body aches, chills and fever.” The Walgreen’s website says the same thing.

What’s in Oscillococcinum, and how can its producer get away with these claims?

Oscillo contains “Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum 200CK.” Don’t be fooled by the Latin – it just means extract from the heart and liver of a duck. Yes, they kill ducks to make this stuff. The manufacturer then dilutes it to 200C, which in homeopath-speak means that 1 gram of extract is diluted to one part in 10400. Yes, that’s 10 raised to the power 400. Wow! The entire known universe has far fewer than 10400 molecules. If you filled the entire solar system with water, and mixed in one molecule of duck liver, it would be much more concentrated than this stuff. Oscillo is so diluted that there is essentially zero chance that even a single molecule of the original extract is in the product. The package does say that sugar is added to the pills, and that’s all they are: sugar pills.

The idea that infinitely diluted substances can cure disease is a type of magical thinking, and it’s at the heart of homeopathy, whose proponents believe that the more dilute something is, the more powerful its effects. This bit of nonsense goes against basic principles of chemistry and physics, but no matter: homeopaths continue to insist on it.

And I shouldn’t forget to mention that there’s not a whit of evidence that extracts made from the heart and liver of a duck can cure the flu. Nope, not a chance.

The French-based manufacturer, Boiron, and the U.S. stores selling Oscillo can get away with this because it’s not a drug at all – it’s a supplement. Supplements are basically unregulated in the U.S., thanks to laws passed decades ago, some of them specifically designed to protect homeopaths. As long as you don’t claim that your product can treat a specific illness, you can sell it.

The box itself doesn’t say that Oscillococcinum cures the flu, but the product’s manufacturers have been making this claim on their website. Some of them have stepped over the line: the FDA sent a warning letter to one homeopathic marketer this past summer telling them that Oscillo “has not been approved or otherwise authorized by FDA for use in the diagnosis, mitigation, prevention, treatment , or cure of the H1N1 Flu Virus” and requesting that they “immediately cease marketing unapproved or unauthorized products for the diagnosis, mitigation, prevention, treatment, or cure of the H1N1 Flu Virus.”

Unfortunately, the FDA only steps in when the claims get particularly outrageous, or when (as here) they involve a high-profile disease such as avian flu. The purveyors of Oscillo can simply modify their packaging (and websites) slightly and go right ahead misleading the public.

So if you want to waste $10 on 6 sugar pills, go ahead. But at least try find a product that doesn’t require dead ducks.

Further reading: see Orac’s recent post on this same topic here.