Archive for category Public Health

Mad Journalist Syndrome

On the 14th January, Simon Jenkins published an article online at the Guardian’s Comment is Free section entitled: “Swine Flu is as Elusive as WMD. The Real Threat is Mad Scientist Syndrome.”, in which he criticised both scientists and the government for what he saw as scare tactics and misinformation in the handling of the swine flu outbreak. The article annoyed me a little, but I had food in the oven, and as I’m a man who lives on his stomach (to paraphrase Dr. Bruce Banner, you wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry), I forgot about it and went about my merry way.

A week later, the article began to surface from the sea of my subconscious and I grew increasingly irked. I gradually came to realise that it was a much more frustrating article than I had initially given it credit for. Read the rest of this entry »

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Panic And Blame – The Daily Mail’s Bread And Butter

Alex Gibson,  friend of the MSS and board member of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, drops in to offer his thoughts on the ‘great big swine flu pandemic scandal conspiracy’ in  the Daily Mail.

Today’s headline: newspaper accuses pharmaceutical companies of manufacturing the panic about the swine flu pandemic to sell more drugs.

This, of course, is the same newspaper that did its best at the time to report the facts and not create panic with articles such as this, this, this and this. I can’t bring myself to look at the articles that the Daily Express was putting out at the time: if the Mail is the malicious kid at school who spread nasty rumours about people, the Express is the gullible, panicky person he talks to first.

The article, in its rush to expose how Big Pharma leaned on the World Health Organisation to get swine flu bumped up to pandemic status, ignores the fact that swine flu met the WHO’s very basic criteria for a pandemic. Like any good conspiracy theory, it starts to unravel when you actually look at the facts. If there was any pressure from some Tamiflu-selling corporate mastermind it was fairly pointless, since swine flu far and away fit the bill for a pandemic anyway. Avian flu didn’t, and neither did SARS – two glitzy media diseases that you’d think would be ripe for making money.

The real spleen-buster is the Mail complaining that in the UK there have been “just 251 deaths overall”. They sound terribly disappointed by this. Poor show, swine flu. There is, of course, no mention of the UK’s excellent free healthcare services and the fact that worldwide about 13,000 people have died, but that’s not even the important bit. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Doctor Says: There May Be Trouble Ahead

Dr Selva Rasaiah is a regular at Merseyside Skeptics in the Pub. Here, in response to my support for real medicine, he takes an inside look at the NHS, and doesn’t like what he sees…

The other day, I read Marsh’s latest post ‘Real Medicine: I Wonder’ with interest – as (hopefully!) one of the “good doctors” he wrote of, I would like to report all is well within the NHS. Unfortunately I can’t. Virtually all the comments on his piece were positive about the use of conventional medicine, but an important point was raised regarding the care of osteoarthritic hip pain. Currently the options for “wear and tear” arthritis are very limited, the options being:

  1. do nothing
  2. take painkillers
  3. hip replacement surgery.

The only definitive treatment is option 3, which for most patients is a life changing procedure. Unfortunately it has a limited lifespan, and in general is only offered to more severely affected patients. As this condition can start in the 50’s or younger, we have the difficult task of informing people that they will have to put up with the pain for many years before surgery will be considered. The problem with evidence based medicine (EBM) is that it leaves lots of gaps, which CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) is more than happy to fill.

On a daily basis, we have to inform patients that their self limiting viral illness/gastroenteritis etc. will not respond to antibiotics. It is so easy to skip the explanation and just dish out the pills, but with the advent of MRSA and other drug resistant nasties, the finger is pointing more and more at “irresponsible GP’s” and their over-prescribing of antibiotics as the cause of this new epidemic. How tempting it would therefore be to prescribe a harmless placebo that might make people feel better, psychologically if not physically. There is however, something inherently dishonest about this approach that would prevent me and most of my colleagues from doing so.

However, a small – but noisy – bunch of GPs DO seem to have followed this route, and regularly post articles and comments in GP magazines. Read the rest of this entry »

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Why We Should Avoid Ubisoft Products

In 1994, my friend Russel called me raving about a new playable demo he’d got from the cover disc of a PC magazine.  The game was a reasonably early example of a real-time strategy game, in which the player was required to harvest resources, construct buildings and raise an army with which to crush the opposition; lest they do the same.  It was called Warcraft: Orcs and Humans; you may have heard of its descendants.  The playable demo came with four levels, which I devoured.  I quickly bought the full game shortly thereafter and its sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, the following year.  I had developed a taste for real-time strategy games and wanted more.

In 1995, another phone call from Russel introduced me to Westwood Studios new RTS game – Command & Conquer – which I came to love more than I loved Warcraft.  One of its distinguishing features, setting it apart from the Warcraft series was the inclusion of full-motion video sequences (with real actors!) introducing each mission.  After making free with Russel’s copy of C&C, I bought my own copy in early 1996, followed by its sequels as they were released, including the games from the C&C spin-off series Red Alert.

That was until 2008, and the publication of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3.  By then Westwood Studios had been bought up by gaming giants Electronic Arts, and with more money behind them (and much more money in the video game market than in 1995), EA were able to cast Hollywood stars for Red Alert 3‘s full motion video segments.  The cast included Tim Curry as Soviet Premier Antony Cherdenko;  J. K. Simmons as US President Howard T. Ackerman; Jonathan Pryce as Field Marshall Robert Bingham; George Takei as Japanese Emperor Yoshiro; and one Jenny McCarthy as Special Agent Tanya.

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Evidence Check Evidence Check (or; What The Papers Say)

Over the last couple of weeks, the Commons Committee on Science and Technology held a couple of their “evidence check” sessions, looking at homeopathy.  Sessions such as this are held to examine whether there is evidence to support government policy.

The oral hearings take the form of witnesses with relevant backgrounds being quizzed by committee members.  Witnesses for the first of these sessions included the legendary Ben Goldacre, Edzard Ernst from the University of Exeter, and Tracey Brown from the charity Sense About Science.  Speakers in favour of homeopathy included Paul Bennett from Boots, Peter Fisher from the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and Robert Wilson from the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers.

The big thing that came out of this hearing, from a rhetorical point of view, was the admission by Paul Bennett that Boots did not believe homeopathy to be effective – but they sell it anyway because of consumer demand.  This lead to us here at Merseyside Skeptics drafting An Open Letter to Alliance Boots, calling upon them to withdraw the product.  If you haven’t done so already, or even if you have, please check out the letter.  Digg it, tweet it, repost it, write about it.  Help up make some noise!

Ahem.

The pro-homeopathy witnesses, when challenged, mentioned a number of studies which they claimed supported the idea that homeopathy has strong effects beyond placebo.  So I thought I’d look up a few of the studies mentioned and see what those studies actually say.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Truth About Water?

Homeopathic_medicineI was thinking about homeopathy today. Again.

Am I the only one who becomes enraged about this topic? I loved the recent Crispian Jago video, “If Homeopathy Works, I’ll Drink My Own Piss”. It was really funny and pointed an excellent finger at the truth behind homeopathy.

There are a number of examples around that make the truth about homeopathy accessible. Crispian’s film, in which he takes some pure piss diluting, discussing and succussing it through to the very common 30c dilution. At which point he drinks it. Fabulous. He points out and explains the Avogadro point too.

Then there is the now classic Mitchell and Webb video imagining with great comic effect a “Homeopathy A&E”.

What makes these films funny for a Skeptic is that we do actually understand the process well enough to mock it and take delight in that mocking. I will, like Tim Minchin, carve a legend on my most sensitive member with a compass if real evidence emerges of homeopathy working beyond placebo. So taking the piss out of the claims is easy.

But I genuinely think that most people don’t have the faintest idea of what the actual manufacturing process is. I say this because on the three or four occasions when I have explained it to a friend, they are invariably “No. Come on. You’re not serious”. Read the rest of this entry »

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