Sunday, March 04, 2007


Consider vaccines. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says the mercury in them has "poisoned an entire generation! It's causing IQ loss, mental retardation, speech delay, language delay, ADD, hyperactivity!"

The news media love this kind of story. They repeatedly invite Barbara Loe Fisher, who heads the Vaccine "Information" Center, to tell parents about vaccine risks. She warns of "seizures, brain inflammation, collapse shock, and of course the most serious effect is death."

Causing autism is the biggest accusation. "Before kids received so many vaccines," says Fisher, "you didn't see autistic children. ... We can't build the special-education classrooms fast enough now to accommodate all these sick and disabled children."

Do vaccines cause autism? Almost certainly not. Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia told me, "It's perfectly reasonable to be skeptical about anything you put into your body, including vaccines. And vaccines do have side effects. But vaccines don't cause autism." He speaks with confidence because the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed the research and concluded that 19 major studies tracking thousands of kids show no link between vaccines and autism. "The question has been raised; it's been answered!" Dr. Offit says.

Then why are so many kids diagnosed as autistic today? Because kids we once said had other conditions now are being called autistic. As March of Dimes researchers put it, "Changes in diagnosis account for the observed increase in autism." Sure enough, California data show the rise in autism diagnoses almost exactly matches a decline in cases of retardation. "People that we once called quirky or geeky or nerdy are now called autistic," Dr. Offit said, "because when you give that label of, say, autistic spectrum disorder, you allow that child then to qualify for services." Imagine that. A trendy diagnosis being driven by government-paid services.

Vaccine opponents are unconvinced. After my recent TV program "Scared Stiff," they have filled my mailbox with comments like, "how long will you keep sucking pharmaceutical ----?!" Calmer correspondents tell me they "know" that vaccines caused their child's autism. "Nothing else could have done it." My heart goes out to parents struggling to help their autistic children, but I fear they have been misled by another anti-drug industry scare campaign.

I know something about those from personal experience. Twenty years ago, "20/20" interviewed Allen McDowell, a lawyer who said the whooping-cough vaccine was defective. After our alarming report, many parents told their kids' pediatricians they didn't want the vaccine. Some doctors became vaccine shy. When my daughter got a fever after one of the vaccines, her doctor decided not to give her the final shot. He said my being a "20/20" correspondent made him even more anxious about giving her the vaccine.

And a short time afterward, my daughter got whooping cough. Luckily, she recovered. But after media reports like "20/20's" and well-publicized lawsuits, many people refuse to vaccinate their children. And America now sees more cases of whooping cough, mumps, and measles.

Says Dr. Offit. "Watch a child come into the hospital and die of measles, knowing that it can be safely and easily prevented by vaccines. It's very hard to live with that."

But Barbara Fisher of the Vaccine Information Center is unmoved. When I asked if vaccines have done more good than harm, she said the matter is "complex."

Lawyer McDowell claims his lawsuits made the vaccine safer. "I'm doing a service for the public," he says. Nonsense, says Dr. Offit. Lawyers didn't make the vaccines better: "There was always an interest in trying to make that vaccine safer, but the science had to catch up to that." He added, "There's a certain profiteering that comes with fear."

Lawyers, the media, and interest groups do profit from spreading fear. I call it the Fear Industrial Complex. McDowell is now debating whether to file new lawsuits claiming that vaccines cause autism. I said to him, "You scare people and make money off it!" After a pause, he replied, "True."



After billions of usages? With such a huge base of usage, some adverse events among users are to be expected on a purely random basis. I suspect that a desire for self-dramatization among some doctors is behind this stir -- or maybe a self-interested push to get more things onto the "prescription only" list

Drug licensing authorities in the United States have begun a review of the safety of cough and cold remedies in young children after three children died when they were given over-the-counter medicine. The move from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came as a study showed that, as well as the three deaths, more than 1,500 children under two had suffered serious health problems after taking the remedies. In all three deaths, the ingredient held responsible was pseudoephedrine, a decongestant commonly used in cold and cough remedies and present in more than 100 such products on sale in Britain.

The Medicines and Health-care products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said that there was no evidence of similar problems arising in Britain and that it had no plans to start a similar inquiry here, but it would do so “should an issue arise”, a spokeswoman said.

The children who died in America were very young, all less than six months old, and in two cases had been given two different medicines, leading to an overdose. US paediatricians who had asked the FDA to carry out the review said that overdoses were common, sometimes because parents gave children different brands, unaware that they actually contained the same ingredients.

The products have been in use for decades without apparent harm, but few have ever been adequately tested in children, Dr Charles Ganley of the FDA said. “We have no data on these agents of what’s a safe and effective dose for children” he told the New York Times. The FDA’s action was triggered by a petition by a group of paediatricians and public health specialists. One of the petition’s authors, Dr Joshua Sharfstein, who is Health Commissioner of Baltimore, Maryland, said there was now enough evidence for the FDA to act. “So many people use these products even though they have no effect on colds, and there’s a real risk of a problem,” he said.

Sunayana Shah, of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represent pharmacists, said that regulations for sale differed in Britain and that parents seeking a cold remedy for a child could not simply take one off the shelf, as in the US, but would have to ask a pharmacist. The MHRA spokeswoman said: “Most over the counter children’s cough and cold remedies in the UK, particularly those that are available for self-selection are not licensed for use in children under two years old.”

She said it was up to the companies holding the licences to inform the agency of any new safety data, which would then be considered. The medicines available in the US often had higher levels of active ingredients than in Britain. An MHRA expert said that parents should read medicine labels with care and be wary of giving their children two different drugs, since they often contained the same active ingredients.



During a visit to the United Arab Emirates yesterday, Charles reportedly said to a nutritionist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi: `Have you got anywhere with McDonald's? Have you tried getting it banned? That's the key.' His comments have been splashed across the press, and he's been praised by health campaigners because apparently `it is important that high-profile figures make the connection between healthy eating and wellbeing'.... Charles' comments chime with the times. It is positively fashionable to be anti-McDonald's, and to blame the Golden Arches for everything from obesity to the warping of children's minds to the destruction of local communities.

Alongside Charles' concern about McDonald's, there is the radical campaign group McSpotlight, which agitates against the building of new McDonald's restaurants on the basis that they `result in noise and disturbances at all hours' and `the smell from the kitchens, from waste storage and from litter discarded by customers may become offensive and attract vermin'. Here McDonald's is depicted as dirty, a blight on towns and villages which apparently invites vermin (are they talking about rats or the people who eat at MaccyD's.?) There was Morgan Spurlock's big-bucks box office hit Super Size Me in 2004, in which Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's grub for an entire month and discovered - surprise, surprise - that it wasn't especially good for his health. Spurlock argued that McDonald's was `manipulating' children through advertising and claimed that junk food can make kids slothful and stunt their intellectual growth. There are books about the apparently nasty contents of McDonald's food, claims that McDonald's is turning out a new generation of fat, sick kids, and calls for its ads to be banned. In Britain, Ofcom has heeded these calls by enforcing a ban on all junk food advertising during children's TV programmes.

What's behind this posh/radical campaign against a fast-food chain - the meeting of a royal mind with leftish minds over the apparent `evil' of McDonald's? It's hardly as if one restaurant chain can be held responsible for ill-health. The terms in which McDonald's is discussed - `vermin', manipulative, destructive - suggests that this is about more than food and wellbeing. Indeed, as one newspaper points out, items in Charles' organic food line, Duchy Originals, contain more calories and fat than some McDonald's fare. Where an apparently wicked Big Mac has 229 calories, 11.12g of fat and 0.93g of salt, a Duchy Originals Cornish pasty has 264 calories, 13.6g of fat and 1.25g of salt. So if you're the kind of person who worries about things like fat and salt intake, you would be wiser to wolf down a Big Mac rather than one of Charles' expensive pies.

No, this is moralism - McMoralism, perhaps - dressed up as health concern. Behind today's McDonald's-bashing there lurks a prejudice against big corporations, against industrialisation itself, the `soulless' mass production of food; there is also more than a smattering of anti-Americanism. And there is a barely concealed disdain for the McMasses, the kind of people who eat in McDonald's. What is presented as pseudo-medical concern for people's health and wellbeing is often really a judgement on the lifestyle and behaviour of a certain class of people who are presumed to be lazy, feckless, easily swayed by garish adverts, unconcerned for the wellbeing of their children and not sufficiently clued-up about how to make fresh and healthy pasta dishes from scratch. Do Charles and his strange bedfellows hate junk food, or `junk people'?



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.