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Health care, Woo-Woo, and the Spread of Superstition

Did you read where whooping cough has been declared epidemic in California? It’s an entirely preventable disease that kills little children. There’s an easy way to keep your kids from getting miserably sick or even dying from this disease: vaccinate them.

Sadly, Americans have for some years been resisting calls to immunize their kids against diseases that were once common scourges. Somehow folks have absorbed the idea that immunization is dangerous to kids, and that magically nothing bad will happen to children if they are not vaccinated. Despite solid scientific evidence to the contrary, some parents persist in imagining that childhood vaccines cause autism. Despite the indisputable fact that because of vaccination we no longer need to fear smallpox and polio, or typhus, tetanus, typhoid, cholera, diphtheria—horrible diseases that devastated populations—people have allowed unfounded theories to frighten them to the point of putting their children at serious risk.

Vaccines do not kill children. Whooping cough kills children. While it is true that the older version of whooping cough vaccine had some side effects, occasionally severe ones, the “acellular” type now in use does not bear much risk; in either event, the disease itself has always posed a greater threat to children than has vaccination.

Vaccines do not cause autism. No one knows for certain what causes autism, but it pretty clearly has something to do with genetics; removing thimerosal, the vaccine preservative alleged to have caused a purported rise in cases, has done nothing to reduce the rate of autism diagnoses. One thing you can be sure of, though: viral and bacterial diseases do cause death, long-term physical harm, and mental disability.

Why have Americans become so superstitious? Where do people get ideas so misguided that they are led to put their children at risk, in a country where universal education is required? Shouldn’t an educated populace be wiser and more aware of the facts?


One reason is that we are being blitzed with propaganda for so-called “alternative medicine,” an approach that, more often than not, amounts to snake oil. A friend of mine, hearing of the continuing pain from my three-month-old shoulder injury, gave me a large bottle of pills that, while legally required to be called a “nutritional supplement,” were sold to her as an anti-inflammatory. She remarked, in handing the stuff over to me, that although her friends had assured her it’s highly effective, it hadn’t done anything for her.

This product costs around $100 for a bottle of 800 pills. One is supposed to take six tablets a day—that’s considered a “maintenance” dose.

When I looked up the product on the Web, not one skeptical word about it appeared in page after page of Google results. High on the lists of results were blissful songs of praise to the stuff. We learn, to our mounting joy, that the product is a cure-all. Not only does it ease your aches and pains, it reduces the occurrence of injury among athletes; lowers blood pressure; lowers cholesterol; prevents strokes and heart attacks; treats pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and hepatitis; eases the pain of rheumatoid arthritis; supports your joints (whatever that means); and aids digestion.

A miracle.

The research supporting these claims? Minimal to none. The buzz about the stuff is emanating from purveyors of vitamins and dietary supplements, the product’s manufacturer and distributors, naturopaths, and various other “holistic” practitioners.
Try to find solid clinical studies of this product, and you come up blank. Some “research” is quoted here and there, but when you examine the sources, you quickly see it’s bogus. The NIH and FDA have done nothing, as far as I can tell, to look into the product, whose sales in Germany are second only to aspirin. Adding tags like .edu to a Google search does nothing to bring up anything resembling actual science.

Adding “scam” and “snake oil” to the product’s brand name will bring up a few reports showing that the stuff does nothing for MS—but even with that search string, the results are full of sales pitches and ecstatic testimonials.

That notwithstanding, when the pain flared up a few days ago, I tried the pills. True to standard snake-oil claims, the product was said to cause few or no side effects, although its manufacturer notes it can cause an upset stomach and diarrhea.

Well, yes. It made me good and sick to my stomach but did nothing for the pain.

Lordie. We need to get out of Woo-Woo Land, both politically and intellectually. Part of the reason so many people subscribe to Woo-Woo is that our healthcare system is so poor. In quality of healthcare, the U.S. ranks at the bottom among developed nations. If you can’t get access to a doctor, you can’t get enough of her time to get diagnosed and treated effectively, or you can’t afford the treatment, you naturally seek alternatives. Unfortunately, many or most of these alternatives are unproven, ineffective, and sometimes downright unsafe.

Equally unfortunate, the products are aggressively marketed by profit-seeking entities (imagine the worth of a product that can sell like aspirin!) and touted by practitioners who may  sincerely, if naively, buy into the hype. They’re making a great deal of money from alternative products and treatments. And when you try to look into the facts, you’re run around in circles—probably because there are no facts, only unsubstantiated claims and anecdotal stories, all of them coming from folks who have already bought into the propaganda.

The fact that people don’t recognize when they’re looking at “research” whose sources have an ax to grind speaks to another cause of the widespread taste for credulity: the lack of real, solid science education in our school systems. People don’t understand what the scientific method is and why it is a more valid way of seeking verifiable facts than are anecdote and unsubstantiated theory because they don’t learn science in the public schools. To the contrary, the forces of superstition work against the teaching of real science—textbook publishing is dominated by parties who think science is a faith-based system of beliefs, no different in that respect from their own religion, which they believe should take precedence in educating everyone’s children.

The predictable result of weak science education is…well, exactly what we have. Ignorance leading to epidemics of preventable diseases that kill children, and a population of gullible consumers prone to wasting their money on highly profitable, untested nostrums.

5 thoughts on “Health care, Woo-Woo, and the Spread of Superstition”

  1. It’s sooooo nice to hear a voice of reason in the wilderness of New Age medical hype. I am absolutely stunned at high IQ people that I know who subscribe to ANY alternative medicine that comes down the pike. I honestly don’t think it’s a failure of our education system, some people just like clinging to the view that they know better than any experts. It wouldn’t matter how educated they are.

    I believe it to be a bit like conspiracy theorists. These people are in “the know” while the rest of us are just dupes. (Please note sarcastic smirk here.)

  2. @ BagelGirl: I don’t really think it’s a know-it-all kind of thing. There’s a lot of suspicion of Big Pharma, with good reason. Many government-sanctioned drugs and devices turn out to be…ahem…not so great for us. On the other hand, Big Pharma is the best game in town: at least the products have been through controlled studies, and at least their ingredients are tightly controlled.

    Also we have the problems that insurance companies now pay for some very questionable alternative treatments, lending credibility to them, and that getting access to a medical doctor is not easy.

    There’s also the issue that some medical doctors are pretty darned arrogant, on top of being generally short on time and feeling harassed. This very morning, Revanche over at A Gai Shan Life describes her dread at having to track down a new doctor in a new city, after the difficulty of finding an empathetic doc in her old city. Many alternative practitioners are kindly and take time to listen to you. They may indeed prescribe some quack nostrum, but sometimes just having someone listen to you and believe you can be therapeutic.

  3. I agree with most of this.

    BUT: The US actually has the best health care in the world. Folks who get treatment get the best treatment the world has to offer. We’ve got the best technology and the best training for medical professionals. The lack of time in doctors offices isn’t much different from most of the developed world though we probably could use more nurses to more efficiently deliver primary care. (This is all in any health econ text book, and summarized nicely by multiple articles by David Cutler in the journal Health Affairs.) The big problem is access… lack of insurance and lack of access. Folks who have insurance in the US do great by any standards, it’s the folks who don’t that are pulling the average down.

  4. @ Nicole: Yes, healthcare on the miraculous level exists in this country…if you can get it.

    You don’t have to be poor or uninsured, though, to run into access problems. The system is so overloaded that even people with plenty of money and so-called “Cadillac” insurance have trouble getting in to see a doctor when needed.

    Case in point: When I had appendicitis — I was fully insured with a policy that let me see any doctor I wanted and covered almost all reasonable costs, with a $20 copay — I sat in an emergency room for over four hours without ever even being triaged. No one — count them, NO one — saw me, except an intake clerk who looked really disgusted when I threw up into the bucket I’d brought with me. That evening I ended up sitting on a concrete bench outside next to the ER’s door, because there was no place to sit down and the floor was too filthy to sit on. It was December and very cold. I sat next to a young woman who was miscarrying. She had also been there four hours with no medical care whatsoever.

    My neighbor Sally fell and broke her ribs and an arm when her companion’s wheelchair got away from her in a theater and rolled off down an inclined aisle. She said she sat for six hours in an emergency room, in excruciating pain, with her wheelchair-bound friend next to her, again without any care at all. Sally also was fully insured.

    The fairness of blocking someone who can’t afford insurance from seeing doctors aside, the fact of the matter is that no one in this country has reliable access to medical care! It does not matter whether you’re insured. You are always at risk of finding yourself in a situation where you can’t see a doctor when you need one.

    That is not what I call the best treatment the world has to offer. There are countries in Africa that can do better.

  5. Thank you for a very good article. I would just like to add that the youngest babies (< 2 months) are mist vulnerable to whooping cough and really need other people to protect them through "herd immunity". If everyone else is vaccinated than the disease can't easily circulate. Parents and caregivers should make sure they are vaccinated because they can be asymptomatic carriers. It's easy for anyone to get vaccinated, just ask for Tdap the at the next tetanus shot. (that's tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis).

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