Friday, June 27, 2014

Dangers of homeopathy

I've already written about homeopathy and outlined how ineffective it is. Now, I'll try to describe the dangers of homeopathy, which can also be applied to other forms of alternative medicine.

Homeopathic remedies have no physiological effects on humans or on any other living being. Their alleged effectiveness is just placebo effect. By themselves, homeopathic remedies pose no danger, they are pure water or other inert substance, unless they are contaminated. Alternative medicine can even be beneficial in some cases, such as for example pain relief. It is better to rely on placebo effect to suppress the pain than solely on pain medications.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Author: David Stanley; File Source: Flickr

The danger comes in cases of severe illness when patients may delay visiting real doctor and getting real treatments or even decide to rely on solely alternative medicine. This is real problem. Homeopathy and alternative medicine in general are getting increasing popularity worldwide. It is all to easy in today's world to put together a website and start advertising some fake products.

This is one example of those. They claim that poisonings by toxic metals can be cured with homeopathy. These poisonings can be very serious and potentially life threatening. Homeopathy can do nothing to help and if a patient decides to take homeopathic approach instead of going to a real doctor the consequences can be grave. Unfortunately there are thousands of websites like this and the most unscrupulous ones even claim that modern medicine is some sort of big conspiracy designed to make us sick.

Homeopathy actually kills people. has a list of more than 400 people who died because they used homeopathic treatment instead of real medicine. Most of those people are adults, but sadly, there are many children and babies on the list, all of whom died because their parents failed to use their brains.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Anti-vaxxers keep polio alive

Poliomyelitis or polio is a viral infectious disease which is spread from person to person usually via fecal-to-oral route. Most of the infections produce no symptoms, but in about 1% of the cases the virus causes flaccid paralysis. Muscles can become so weakened that an infected individual may be unable to breathe on their own and must be placed in an iron lung. 1% may not seem like much, but polio virus spreads easily and can infect large number of people.

Polio was very rare before industrialization because the absence of proper sanitation meant that children would be exposed to the virus from fecal matter in very young age and most of them developed the immunity. This was a kind of natural vaccination. Polio became widespread threat in the first half of 20th century. Fortunately in 1950s two kinds of vaccine were developed.

Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) contains dead virus which cannot lead to infection. It is given by injection into the muscle tissue. Vaccinated individual is cannot develop poliomyelitis, but can still carry polio virus in his/her gut flora and therefore can spread it. Oral polio vaccine (OPV) is designed to immunize recipients gut against polio virus and it stops the spread of the virus completely. It contains weakened form of virus, which unfortunately can lead to paralysis in 1:2 700 000 cases. So, the side effect is very rare and it is certainly better than the odds of 1:200 for developing paralysis in the case of real infection. The small risk of developing vaccine-associated polio paralysis (VAPP) can be circumvented if IPV is administered before OPV.

This kind of regimen eliminated polio from Israel in 1990s, but unfortunately, in 2005 the OPV vaccine was dropped and in 2013 polio virus was once again being detected in sewers all over Israel. Children of up to 9 years old were carriers of the virus. This meant that individuals with weakened or compromised immune systems were are risk of being infected. HIV patients, people with auto-immune diseases or transplanted organs, elderly and babies were all at risk.

The solution to this problem was quite straight forward - administer OPV to all the children born after 2005. There was no risk of VAPP since they all have received IPV. It would have been effective had it not been for the human ignorance. After the start of campaign anti-vaccine activist, mostly from US began their mission of spreading fear, lies and ignorance. Freedom of speech is one of our most sacred rights, but when a group of uneducated and not very smart people set their minds on something the results can be devastating.

In the end, after fierce online battles between anti-vaxxers and people who actually use their brains, 60% of children in Israel received OPV. The result if far from perfect, but it greatly reduced the number of carriers. You can read more about it here.

To me personally it is amazing how such stupid, unreasonable ideas get spread and how certain people can disregard science, logic and common sense and come up with ridiculous pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Einstein was right, human ignorance is really endless.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

No good evidence in support of flossing

Proper oral hygiene is important for oral health. Minutes after eating plaques start to form on our teeth and bacteria fueled by the carbohydrates from food begin to multiply. If left unchecked they will eventually start degrading tooth surface. Toothbrush is good for removing most of the plaque and bacteria, but it cannot reach the area between the teeth. Those tight spaces can only be reached by a thin thread of dental floss.

Therefore it has been assumed that flossing, along with brushing, is very important, but in fact, the serious scientific evidence in support of the flossing does not exist. There have been only 12 trial comparing flossing to just brushing. According to Cochrane Collaboration review there is a possible small reduction in plaque, but the evidence is weak. There isn't any single long-term study that shows reduction in tooth decay. Flossing does help with gingivitis, but only by 8%.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you should stop flossing, it only means that more studies are needed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Antibacterial soap

Antibacterial soaps are a perfect example how marketing experts can misuse science in order to promote a product that is ineffective and even harmful. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t use antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial products.

Most of the liquid antibacterial soaps and about a third of solid ones contain a broad spectrum antibiotic called triclosan. For a long time it has been assumed that triclosan in safe for humans, but new studies have shown that in larger doses it can cause sex hormone imbalance, worse allergies and other immune hypersensitivity disorders and even weaken cardiac and skeletal muscles. These studies used high doses, but it should be noted that being constantly exposed to this chemical may have cumulative effects.

The other problem with antibacterial soaps is that they lead to resistant bacteria. When you are washing your hands you can never kill all of the bacteria, no chemical can do that. Bacteria that have acquired resistance through some genetic mutations will pass on those genes to next generations. This is the problem with all antibiotics, not just triclosan and because of this antibiotics should only be used when necessary, not for everyday hand washing.

The third problem with is that antibacterial soaps are usually only mildly better than regular soaps when it comes to getting rid of bacteria from our hands. It is important to point out that soap is only one part of the equation. The manner of drying hands can significantly enhance or counteract the effects of washing. Moist towels are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and hot air dryers can accumulate dust and gunk that can also contain a lot of germs.

The conclusion is – don’t use antibacterial soaps, use clean towels (or clean your air dryer) and don’t worry too much about bacteria, that is, don't let TV commercials scare you.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflexology – just another quackery

Reflexology, a form of alternative medicine, is a practice of massaging – applying pressure on specific areas of body, usually feet and hands, by which practitioner can diagnose and cure all sorts of diseases and problems. Like any other form of alternative medicine it is not backed by science and it doesn’t actually work.

Reflexology, also called zone therapy, maps the whole body on the feet and hands, each organ has a corresponding zone on one foot/hand or both feet/hands.  Body is divided in ten longitudinal zones, 5 on each side. Anatomically speaking this is nonsense because no such zones/pathways exist in our bodies. Reflexologists claim that by feeling specific zones on feet/hands can diagnose diseases and that by massaging hands/feet they can increase the flow of energy, cleanse toxins, cure hair loss, etc. None of these claims have been backed by clinical trials and it is perfectly safe to assume that reflexology doesn’t work, along with other similar practices such as Vacuflex or Vita Flex.

Reflexology is not recognized by law in any country (correct me if I’m wrong) and the consequence of this is that there is no formal training. Therefore anyone can practice reflexology and anyone can call oneself a reflexologist.

All that there is to reflexology is placebo effect. Foot massages feel good and the most likely reason for that is the fact that area of the brain that controls the feet is adjacent to the area which controls genitals. There could even be some neuronal overlapping between these areas.

Image source - Wikipedia.

Things you should know about cooling down with a beer

It is now summer in northern hemisphere and many of us like getting a cold beer on hot days. Beer tastes good and having a cold beer really feels nice when it’s boiling hot outside. Furthermore, alcohol increases peripheral blood flow, which might help you cool down a bit, although it might make you feel warmer for a while. There is one thing though, all the alcoholic beverages dehydrate your body.

According to Dr Karl from ABC any given amount of beer will make you produce 60% more urine than the amount you just drank. For example 200 ml beer will produce 320 ml of urine output. This urine comes from the water already present in your body. The same is true for any other alcoholic beverage. This happens because the alcohol decreases the production of a hormone called anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) which has the effect of increasing the production of urine. Even if we would drink plenty of water together or after drinking alcohol we would still end up dehydrated.

I’m not trying to tell you to stop drinking beer, far from it. You should just keep in mind that alcohol makes you lose water and drinking large amounts of it during very hot days when your body needs plenty of sweat can lead to dangerous situations. Ideally, you should drink water during the day and save the beer for the evening.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Homeopathy works, but not really

Despite the lack of any credible scientific evidence that homeopathy has any real effects on human body, thousands, if not millions people swear by it. They all claim that homeopathy helped them with all sorts of problems. While there are certainly a lot of people who are simply lying in order to promote homeopathic treatments, there are ones who are genuinely and honestly convinced that homeopathy helped them.

So, how to explain this? The answer is simple – placebo. All the positive effects of homeopathy come from placebo effects – in short, if we believe that something will help us it does help (in a way). Placebo effect also explains alleged effectiveness of other forms of alternative medicine.

For a long time scientists were dismissing placebo effect as a figment of patient’s imaginations, however, in recent time it became evident that there is something more to the placebo. Our minds have great deal of influence on our physical well being and by tricking the mind into thinking that we are getting real treatment we are indeed making ourselves better. Science has proven that placebo drugs can act as pain killers, improve asthma, treat Osteoarthritis, etc.

There are two aspects of placebo effect of greater interest when it comes to homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine. According to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, effectiveness of placebo is greatly influenced by the cost of the treatment. Expensive treatments work better than cheaper ones. The other thing is that treatments which include elaborate rituals work better than simpler ones. This is all simple psychology really, if something is good it has to cost a lot of money and involve a lot of work.

Think about this – what is more logical: the fact that some centuries old shenanigans of infinitely diluting some weird substances really works, despite what all of our modern science says, or that all there is to it is just placebo effect?

Source -