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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.