Field of Science

Showing posts with label Mercola. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mercola. Show all posts

Whatever happened to swine flu?

What happened to the flu pandemic?  In 2009, a new flu strain swept across the world. The new strain, called H1N1, emerged from pigs and jumped over to humans sometime in late 2008, and then swept through the human population starting in the spring of 2009.  Panic ensued.  Egypt responded by slaughtering all of its pigs, about 300,000.

Was the panic justified?  If so, where are all the victims?

I first wrote about this soon after the outbreak began, and we now know that hundreds of millions of people were infected, somewhere in the range 11% to 21% of the population.  That's an awful lot of sick people.  However, H1N1 turned out to be a very mild flu: many people experienced little more than a few days of sniffles, much like a common cold.  This surprising mildness of swine flu led to great confusion.  Conspiracy theorists claimed that the threat had been overblown, hyped by vaccine manufacturers and their government co-conspirators.  A wacky German lawmaker, Wolfgang Wodarg, even claimed that the swine flu vaccine caused cancer, a claim that was picked up and amplified by famed internet snake oil salesman, Joseph Mercola.

The swine flu now seems routine, just another human flu circulating among the population. As I wrote back in 2010, the seasonal flu vaccine now includes the H1N1 pandemic strain, so if you get your flu shot, you're protected.  But as this figure from the CDC shows, the current season has been dominated by H3N2. 
See the little tiny brown bits at the top of each bar?  Those are swine flu cases.  The swine flu has nearly vanished.

This is a big surprise, because in all three of the previous pandemics: 1918 ("Spanish" flu), 1957, and 1968, the new pandemic strain completely replaced the older strain.  That hasn't happened this time, and it looks like the old strain, H3N2, is winning.  That's rather unfortunate, because H3N2 is a much nastier flu than the swine flu.  And this year we had a big spike in deaths due to flu, all because of H3N2.

So no, the panic back in 2009 wasn't justified, but the warnings beforehand, about the possibilities of a pandemic, were legitimate.  All we knew in early 2009 was that a new pandemic strain had jumped from pigs to humans, and we didn't know for several months how bad (or mild) it would be.  The human species got lucky this time.

Can anyone say when the next pandemic will arrive?  Well, no.  Look at the past century: 4 pandemics, separated by 39 years, 11 years, and 41 years.  From that record it seems we should be safe for a while.  But until 2009, the pandemics had always pushed out the previous flu.  We're still living with the 1968 flu strain, and no one knows when a new flu will truly replace it.

Meanwhile, get your flu shot, because the flu mutates so fast that we need a new vaccine every year to keep ahead of it.  Work continues to try to develop a permanent flu vaccine - one that we will only have to take once in a lifetime.  If you like that idea, then keep supporting NIH, which is the biggest source of funding for flu research.

Oh right: we just cut NIH across the board because Congress couldn't get its act together.  I guess we may have to wait a bit longer for a better flu vaccine.

Measles invades U.S.: anti-vaccine movement scores again

How can we keep unvaccinated people from bringing infectious diseases into the U.S.? These diseases are a real threat to public health, and while we're spending billions on national security, almost all that money goes towards "security theater," such as full-body scanning equipment at airports, which does almost nothing to protect the public. We'd be much better off spending those scarce funds on detecting infections at the border.

In the most recent invasion, the measles virus has snuck in thanks to a single unvaccinated student from Utah, who picked up the disease in Poland. The junior high student traveled to Poland with his family to pick up his sister, who was there as a Mormon missionary. As reported by the Associated Press, up to 1000 people have already been exposed, and the circle could easily spread beyond that.

Measles is a dangerous and incredibly infectious virus, transmitting easily between people. According to the CDC:
"About one out of 10 children with measles also gets an ear infection, and up to one out of 20 gets pneumonia. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die."
This is not a disease to take lightly. Fortunately, the vaccine is highly effective, which means the real challenge is getting people to take it.

Utah requires measles vaccinations for public schools, but (as in many other states) parents can refuse vaccines for personal or religious reasons. California now has about 2% of parents refusing vaccines for their children for personal beliefs. This gaping hole in our public health system needs to be closed: if parents refuse to vaccinate their children, they are putting the rest of us at risk, and these children need to be kept out of public schools.

Most of the parents refusing vaccines for the children are doing so out of fear that vaccines cause harm. Despite countless studies showing that vaccines are safe (and in particular, that vaccines do not cause autism), these rumors persist, amplified greatly by the anti-vaccine movement, which seems impervious to evidence or reason.

Meanwhile, anti-vaccine groups such as Age of Autism are fighting to keep or even expand these exemptions. Other sites such as and Internet quacks Joseph Mercola and Sherri Tenpenny advise parents to refuse vaccination and use whatever loopholes they can to enroll their kids in school. Parents who follow this advice rely on the immunization of others to protect their own children, but they appear unconcerned about the risk they forcing on the rest of us. They also neglect to consider that vaccines are never 100% effective, so even those of us who vaccinate our kids are still bearing a greater risk by allowing the unvaccinated to attend school.

Europe has its own problems with vaccine coverage, and measles is spreading rapidly this year, having hit 24 countries so far. France had 3749 cases and one death in the first two months of this year. Many of the victims are children too young to be vaccinated, but the disease is often spread by people who simply refuse to get the vaccine.

The latest measles outbreak in Utah could have been avoided if the student involved had simply been vaccinated. Realistically, though, we will always have citizens traveling abroad and bringing infectious diseases back. If the U.S. really wants to use its security dollars wisely, we should implement greater screening at the border to keep these disesases out. We could start by telling people to get vaccinated before they leave the country. If they refuse, we could require them to be tested for infections when they return. We could implement this using funds we'd save when we stop telling everyone to take off their shoes at the airport.

Alzheimer’s treatments don’t work, but you can buy them on the Internet

A new NIH-sponsored review of the scientific literature on Alzheimer’s disease has some disappointing news: nothing works. The panel's chair, Martha Daviglus, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University, said "We wish we could tell people that taking a pill or doing a puzzle every day would prevent this terrible disease, but current evidence doesn't support this."

Despite the lack of evidence, plenty of internet quacks are happy to recommend all sorts of supplements to treat Alzheimer’s, as we’ll see in below. First, the NIH panel’s main conclusion:
“There is currently no evidence of even moderate scientific quality supporting the association of any modifiable factor—dietary supplement intake, use of prescription or non-prescription drugs, diet, exercise, and social engagement—with reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. The evidence surrounding risk reduction for cognitive decline is similarly limited.”
In other words, we can’t cure it, and we can’t even delay it.

Not surprisingly, our old friend “Dr.” Joseph Mercola (he’s an osteopath, not an M.D., and I promise to write more about that one day) has plenty of recommendations to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s. He even has a web page showing his “top 5 tips to beat Alzheimer’s.” Let’s look at what he has to offer.

1. “Eat Healthy.” Mercola claims here that “Omega-3 fats, such as those from animal-based sources like krill oil, have also been found to help ward off Alzheimer’s and diabetes.” Wait, does Mercola sell krill oil? You bet! He even has a special webpage for his krill oil products, and ads for it appear all over his site. In direct contradiction to Mercola, the NIH report says “In a single randomized trial of omega-3 fatty acids with only 26 weeks of follow-up, there appeared to be no effect on cognitive functioning.”

2. “Exercise.” Although Mercola is wrong to claim that exercise reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s – the NIH report says it doesn't – at least this is good general health advice.

3. “Avoid Mercury.” Uh oh, now we’re getting deep into the woo. There’s no evidence that mercury causes Alzheimer’s, and Mercola goes well beyond just saying “avoid mercury.” He advises you to “remove dental amalgam fillings, which are one of the major sources of mercury.” This bit of unscientific advice has been around for decades, but it’s little more than pseudoscience. I recommend the excellent Quackwatch site for a detailed debunking of this one. It's so widespread that several official reports have investigated it, and the American Dental Association reported back in 1998 that amalgam fillings are safe and effective.

Mercola has a second bit of very bad advice here: he suggests that you avoid thimerosal-containing vaccines. As I’ve written before, Mercola is a major anti-vaccination scaremonger, and here he goes again – suggesting, without any evidence (and no citations to any scientific studies) that vaccines may cause Alzheimer’s.

4. “Avoid Aluminum.” According to Mercola, “aluminum has long been associated with Alzheimer's disease.” The NIH report, in contradiction to this, says no such association has been found. So who should you believe, an independent panel of distinguished experts on Alzheimer’s, or an Internet osteopath selling supplements based on unproven claims? Oh, and Mercola gets in another anti-vaccination claim here: he says that “some vaccines also contain aluminum.”

And don’t forget to “avoid aluminum cookware”! And hey... does Mercola sell cookware? You betcha! He calls it “the safe alternative to toxic cookware.”

5. “Exercise Your Mind.” The NIH report says this one isn’t proven either, but at least it doesn’t do any harm.

What we really know is that the main risk factors for Alzheimer's are things we have no control over: age and genetics, particularly the APOE protein (which I wrote about recently). The NIH panel recommends much more research, which is desperately needed. If people would donate their money to Alzheimer’s research rather than wasting it on ineffective treatments, maybe we’d find a cure just a little bit sooner.

Making money by making people sick

I’m a long-time fan of, 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.

Mercola's bogus homeopathy treatments for the flu

I've just read Dr. Mercola's latest flu remedies, and I'm feeling scornful. I'm sorry, but Mercola is such an outrageous quack that he just leaves me astonished.
His latest "reliable and safe" treatments, posted just yesterday, are a set of homeopathic remedies for the flu. When I saw the headline, I couldn't wait to read on: one of my favorite quacks, endorsing the most laughable of all quack remedies - how delightful!

It's a short article, and almost every line is wrong. Given Mercola's recent scare-mongering about the flu vaccine, which I wrote about a few months ago, I'm not surprised that he continues to push his own "natural" cures - that's how he makes money, selling ineffective treatments after making bogus claims about them. Let's look at how he says we should treat our flu symptoms.