Paul Offit – Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

August 18, 2014

Point of Inquiry’s hosts are off this week, so we’re running Lindsay Beyerstein’s excellent interview from late last year with Dr. Paul Offit. Dr. Offit will be the Center for Inquiry’s special guest on September 6th in Amherst, NY, as he is awarded the Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking.

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Paul A. Offit, MD is best known as a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and a staunch, public supporter of vaccination and opponent of pseudoscientific alternative medicine.

His most recent book, Do you Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine points a critical eye at the alt-med industry, one than takes in 34 billion dollars a year with little to no regulation. Are patients being harmed, and is it any worse or better than so-called “Big Pharma”?

Dr. Offit talks with our host, Lindsay Beyerstein, about all of this and much more on this week’s Point of Inquiry.

Dr. Offit has published over 130 scholarly articles on the rotavirus vaccine and vaccine safety and efficacy in general. He has also authored or co-authored many books on pediatric medicine, childhood vaccination and opposing pseudoscience in Medicine.

He is also the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as well as a member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Offit is also a Founding Board Member of the Autism Science Foundation (ASF).

This is point of inquiry for Monday, November 25th, 2013. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Lindsay Beyerstein, and our guest today is Dr. Paul Offit. It appeared on Puli in 2010 to talk about his book, Autism’s False Prophets, and we are delighted to have him back on the show. Offit is the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor at the Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Also, the co inventor of the rotavirus vaccine wrote Attack. Offit is the author of several books, the latest of which is Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. A scathing exposé of the alternative medicine industry published by HarperCollins. Despite its self-proclaimed outsider status, met a 34 billion dollar a year business in the United States, and half of Americans use some form of alternative medicine annually. In 2012, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer bought one of the country’s largest manufacturers of megavitamins. The ultimate industry is politically powerful, too. It describes how they have skillfully used lobbyists, trade associations and celebrity spokespeople to sway public policy and public opinion. 

Do you believe in magic addresses such diverse topics as ject vitamins, cancer, quackery, chronic Lyme disease and aging nostrums and dubious chelation therapy? Welcome to the show. 

Thank you anyway. Happy to be here. 

You open the book with a story of Joey Hofbauer, a seven year old boy who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes in 1977. Joey’s diagnosis touched off a political fight that pitted the John Birch Society against the FDA and set the tone for subsequent regulatory battles. Overall. Tell us about this case. 

Well, actually, I was a intern at pediatrics at the time, so I remember this story well. 

It sort of was circulating among the pediatric community. Here was a little boy, a seven year old who had cancer, which is awful, but he actually had a treatable form of cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma at that time, even in the late 70s, treated with chemotherapy or radiation or both had an excellent chance of survival. He had an 85 to 90 percent chance of survival, but his parents didn’t like words like radiation and chemotherapy. To them, that meant hair loss and weight loss and a child who would be ill due to the therapy. 

So they chose. What did their mind was a more natural, safer way to treat him with things like fruit juices and paramount and free coffee enemas and a variety of other alternative therapies that were done by a psychiatrist in New York named Michael Schachter and ultimately led to his death. 

I mean, what that taught me at the time and I hadn’t even conceived of this, was that that what a parent could make a choice for a child that ultimately resulted in the death of their child and that the state, which had many chances to step in and save this boy’s life, frankly, didn’t do it. And it was it was just a frightening tale of, I think, how we failed this little boy. 

Why did the state declined to step in? 

I think it’s a they had their chances. There were three times that this went to court. I think they it was sort of a respect for physicians ad absurdum. They had a number of hearings where you would have these alternative medicine types testifying in court saying that this was going to be, you know, the next best thing that this was. They were on the verge of making know major breakthroughs with these alternative therapies. And then you had a variety of cancer experts who were, you know, who were expert through experts. I mean, they published papers in reputable journals. They had taken care of oncology patients their whole life. They had admitting privileges at the hospital, which is something that none of these other people had. And they were just all sort of weighed equally. And the judge, who had, frankly, little understanding of science or medicine, chose not to get involved and said, OK, this is this sounds good to me. And it was it was just it’s just awful. I mean, I it’s not like it doesn’t happen. You still have these cases today, in effect, almost identical to the HOFBAUER case. I don’t know if you filed the story in Akron, Ohio, but there’s a little girl named Sarah Hershberger who also has a treatable form of lymphoma. The parents have chosen a more natural route. They don’t want to do that. And so it went to court. GHUNEIM John Law was the name of the judge and he ruled in favor of the parents. It went to an appeals court, the hospital appeal, that he lost the appeal. Butchers say John Loane lost that appeal, which is to say that that appeal court ruled in favor of the little girl getting the treatment that could save her life. But again, but back to the lower court. The lower court still didn’t overturn its verdict. It was weird. But this little girl, Sarah Hershberger in Ohio now, as you know, has parents have chosen the natural for a treatable disease? It just doesn’t make sense. And there’s nothing, frankly, natural about doing some of these alternative therapies. In many ways, they’re very much an unnatural act because they don’t help the child. 

A lot of people assume that if a medication is labeled as alternative, it must be either beneficial or harmless. What’s wrong with that assumption? 

What was wrong with it? It’s it’s dead wrong. I think, you know, what happens is it’s certainly the pharmaceutical industry has its problems. Don’t get me wrong. But at least. At least they have to submit their products for licensure, which means that there have to be a reasonable amount. Safety and efficacy data before they would ever get licensed and all of those safety and efficacy data are in the label. So at least the consumer knows what they’re getting into. The doctor when they prescribe these drugs can weigh the risks and benefits. This industry is essentially not regulated, so they aren’t licensed by the Food Drug Administration. So often there’s no efficacy or safety data before these products are put on the shelves. And worse than that, because although in 2007, the Food Drug Administration, at least by law, can hold these companies to a manufacturing standard. A good manufacturing practices are GMP conditions and can hold them to a labeling standard, which is to say that what’s on the labels, what’s actually in the bottle, they don’t have the manpower to do it and so they don’t do it. So this industry basically slides, slides below radar. And often I would say that there’s been 42 separate instances. 2013 alone, where these products have to be pulled off the shelf because they’re contaminated with things like other pharmaceutical products or heavy metals or worse. It’s just it’s a problem. 

So these are drugs. These are these are things that are sold as supplements. You might find them health food store. But there have been incidences recently where they turned out to actually be plain old drugs. 

Yeah, we take take I mean, first of all, no, if you followed the purity first, the ironically named purity first health product story out of Connecticut. But this was a company that made several products that made vitamin C, they made a multi D complex preparation and they made a multi mineral preparation. And what happened was there was a physician in Connecticut who noticed that there were women who were, for unknown reasons, starting to develop masculinized symptoms. They were a developed here citizen, which is to say here where you don’t want to hear to be. They were developing a loss of menstruation. They were they were developing deepening voices. And he traced it all of these puberty first products and what what they what the FDA found and this is always, in retrospect, never proactively. But what they found was that these products were contaminated with two powerful anabolic steroids. I mean, imagine that. Imagine. How exactly do you do contaminate vitamin C with anabolic steroids? And imagine if that were true of a massive silin or penicillin or vaccine. So we found that there were anabolic steroids in a vaccine preparation or earmarks. Then we would you know, we would hit the roof as we should. But here it just seems to all get a free pass. 

The of about med like to paint a picture of themselves as the Plecki supplement makers versus big mean pharma. Is that an accurate way of characterizing the situation? 

No, it’s as you said in your introduction, the it’s a 34 billion dollar a year industry roughly. Big Pharma certainly involved in this industry. Pfizer bought ALISDAIR, which is one of the major mega Vitaphone makers in the U.S.. Hoffman La Roche has been the supplement by business since the 1930s. This is Big Pharma. I think people have this notion and I give the industry credit for being able to create this notion, this sort of little guy notion. That’s David versus Goliath. You know, where you here you have these big, you know, mean spirited, you know, big pharma companies which are only in it for the money, but they are just you know, they’re just a bunch of old hippies and ls making, you know, these products on flowering meadows. It’s not true. It’s it’s an industry like any other industry. The only difference between this industry and the pharmaceutical industry is at least the pharmaceutical industry is regulated so that when you buy a tablet of amoxicillin and it says 250 milligrams on the label, you can be assured that it is 250 milligrams of Maxton and nothing else. And that’s not something you can say for this. This industry, the shadow industry, which also has has big pharmaceutical companies making those products as well. It’s it’s unconscionable that at some point I’d like to believe the consumers will step up and say, you know, we’re getting screwed here. We we need to know that what we’re buying is actually what’s there. I don’t know if you saw this recent study in something called BMC Medicine, where they the researchers this was out of Ontario, Canada, did something called DNA barcoding, where they went and looked at North American botanicals like St. John’s Wort or ginkgo biloba work in Asia to see what was in there. And what they found was that many times there wasn’t any botanical in there at all. It was just like a rice powder or wheat powder. And it was sometimes the. Both the botanical that was on the label wasn’t the botanical that was in the bottle that this hope wasn’t a couple of below. But there wasn’t that in Asia or one of the St. John’s Wort. It was something else. And that’s something else. Could have been something that was potentially dangerous. 

Are there good statistics on how many people die, either of allergic reactions or other complications from these mislabeled supplements? 

The estimate, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that there’s about 50000 serious adverse events caused by these supplements every year. No one could reasonably say, yeah, sure. But look at look at pharmaceutical products. They, too, can cause serious and occasionally fatal reactions. Absolutely. True, but at least you have a sense of that. At least you know that going in. I mean, you know that oncology drugs, for example, the drugs that we give to children in this hospital are when they come in with cancer, that those drugs can cause severe bone marrow depression, which could cause children to have bleeding, which can be fatal or could can cause them to have infections, which can be fatal. We know that because we know that those drugs can do that because it said that on label. It says that in the packages or, you know, exactly what the what the problems are. You know, but here it’s it’s it’s you know, you often don’t know. Do you see this Oxy Aleve pro, which is a supplement that was just taken off the market in Hawaii because it caused severe hepatitis, including requiring several people to have liver transplants, were it causing at least one deaths so far. And, you know, you don’t know. You just don’t know. We had a patient come into this hospital whose parents had brought in a bag of dietary supplements and this child had severe pancreatitis. You know, was frankly almost died, but it didn’t. But there’s no doubt in my mind that was caused by this high concentration of of so-called dietary supplements. It’s some it’s not an ethical act to take these things. And yet somehow the industry is being able. Is has been able to sell it as such. 

Super physiological vitamin supplements have become so ubiquitous in our society that it’s easy to forget that this kind of supplementation is a relatively recent phenomenon. Vitamin pills become household objects. 

Well, first of all, I mean, taking a step back, one doesn’t even need vitamins to live. You know, vitamins, convert food into energy, a process that occurs in the mitochondria. And without vitamins, you you know, you suffer certain deficiency states like palabra or beriberi or rickets or scurvy. And so there is a sort of a recommended daily quantity. So called RDA, your recommended daily allowance, the one should get to make sure that you don’t suffer those deficiency states. And that can be obtained in foods and specifically in fruits and vegetables. And it’s certainly true that people who eat on larger proportions of their diet containing fruits and vegetables tend to have lesser rates of heart disease and then lesser lower rates of cancer. That’s why I think people thought, well, if that’s true, then if sun is good, why can’t we be better? In other words, that can’t possibly be too much of a good thing. And the industry started to take off really in the 1970s associated with a promotion by Linus Pauling on the notion initially that vitamin C could prevent colds, could treat colds, and then eventually he sort of extended that to can treat cancer and can treat a variety of diseases. Then, you know, here’s a guy who won two Nobel Prizes, the only person ever went to unshared Nobel Prize. So his weight behind that statement was meaningful, even though the data didn’t support those statements. More recently, in the 1990s, there was this this this cover of TIME magazine that was called The Power of Vitamins. And that was a very influential article, again, claiming that it turn back the clock, you know, to decrease your rate at which you waged prevented cancers that are all wrong, all not supported by the data, in fact. Now, we know that people who take large quantities of vitamins, vastly in excess of the recommended daily life, actually have an increased risk of cancer and the increased risk of heart disease, the opposite of what people would hope for. But you don’t know that. Most people don’t know that because, as I said, this is not a regulated industry. 

Linus Pauling was obviously an incredibly brilliant man. What does his misadventure with vitamins tell us about how smart people go wrong? 

Right. Happened in his mid 60s. And as I approached my mid 60s, I probably shouldn’t be too, you know, to to decorate this too much because I guess it could happen to any of us. But he although he won two Nobel Prize, which is two more than I’ve won. But in any case. Well, yeah. Here’s a guy who who was brilliant. I mean, he he figured out that proteins not only had the primary structure, meaning a string of amino acids, but had a secondary structure like an alpha helix structure. He he for which he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry was 30. He also really, in many ways, was the founder of evolutionary biology by looking at how hemoglobin diversity among species could you really could be used to date when it was that we separated from from from lower mammals. He also, I think in many ways founded molecular biology with his work with sickle cell disease. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And then in the idea and the associated with the Vietnam War, he became an anti Vietnam War activist for which he later won the Nobel Peace Prize. A brilliant, brilliant man that dated Drebin. Really. And then something happened to him in his mid 60s where he just came to believe that that vitamin C could treat everything. And, you know, it’s interesting because science is really not a belief system. It’s an evidence based system. But somehow he just had glommed on to this belief and there was no shaking from it, no matter how much data showed him that he was wrong. 

I don’t know why that happens. It’s certainly not the only one that that’s happened to. There are a number of. Brilliant researchers who sort of have descended into into darkness. I like Luke Martin. Here is one. Here’s a Nobel Prize winner who made the association between HIV virus, human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS and now believes that, you know, if you take the blood of people with Parkinson’s disease or with with autism and deluded out to the point that it’s not there’s nothing there anymore, that you can detect radio waves that he can send over the Internet. That shows that there’s evidence for bacterial DNA and that you can treat these diseases with antibiotics. That’s just absolutely nuts. 

But sounds like word salad. Oh, sorry. Yeah, his his descriptions, descriptions sound sort of like word salad between radiowaves and bionics. And that’s a little scary, isn’t it? Does he call this homoeopathy? 

Well, that’s what it is. Actually, it is. It is. I mean, was imagine this Nobel Prize winner essentially defending know me. 

Chronic Lyme disease has been in the news a lot lately. What is chronic Lyme and how does it differ from plain old Lyme disease? 

It’s also Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria, Borrelia, Bergdorf Rye, which is injected into the into the bloodstream. B, the bite, a tick in areas where this particular these these particular ticks and this particular bacteria are endemic, meaning common. I live in one of those areas in Philadelphia. And it can cause a variety of symptoms. The later manifestations of Lyme can be things like arthritis, meaning inflammation of the joints. And sometimes that a little earlier than arthritis, you can get sort of chronic the central nervous system symptoms, that sort of meningitis or I mean when you go on satellite. So that’s that’s what what Lyme disease really is. There are some people who believe that it went it went after they recover from Lyme disease or when they after they’ve been treated for Lyme disease, that they have a variety of other symptoms which are sort of the so-called chronic Lyme disease, you know, just chronic fatigue syndrome. Just general feeling for Borlase, et cetera. And that’s I think that’s just not real. There’s just no evidence to support its reality. But yet there’s a whole sort of alternative medicine industry that’s grown up around this notion that people who are appropriately treated for real Lyme disease go on to have chronic sense. And, you know, and so the alternative medicine industry steps in and recommends a variety of products, the same things they recommend for difficult to treat cancers, the same thing they recommend for autism. It’s just the usual vitamin supplements, bowel cleansings, you know, lots fruits, vegetable juices and high concentration, key lation, you know, all the sort of nutty things that often alternative therapies offer for those disorders that for which medicine hasn’t caught up. And, you know, it’s sort of the usual mantra. You know, it’s what your doctor doesn’t want you to know. It’s what the pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know. It’s what the government doesn’t want, you know. But I have this treatment. I have this treatment for autism where I have this treatment for this these chronic symptoms that your doctor doesn’t seem to be able to figure out. 

And in the book, you a really great discussion of why we know that a lot of chronic Lyme is not chronic land having to do with things like antibodies. Can you elaborate a bit on that for this? 

Right. So statistically, it in all infectious diseases, the the symptoms are based on the immune response. So if you have symptoms of appendicitis, for example, it’s because the bacteria have reproduce themselves in your intestine. But that’s not what causes them to really what causes symptoms is your immune response. Those bacteria, the white blood cells that you send to that area. That’s what causes symptoms. People have been said to have chronic Lyme disease. They don’t have any immune response to that bacteria, which just doesn’t make sense because if they’re having symptoms to not have an immune response, that’s just this nonsensical. So I think that that’s part of what tells us that it’s not that that’s not correct, that their symptoms really have nothing to do with this bacteria. 

Borrelia, Bergdorf. Right. But had something to do with something else. And maybe it’s just it’s a psychiatric issue, but it’s not because bacteria are replicating somewhere and we just can’t find them. 

So they couldn’t be hiding inside the blood brain barrier or anything like that. That doesn’t make biological sense. 

No. It with if they’ve crossed the blood brain barrier and they’re reproducing themselves enough to cause symptoms that always to some extent there is some disruption of blood, but blood brain barrier and you see an immune response, which is to say white blood cells in your spinal fluid where there shouldn’t be any white blood cells there. So it just it’s all based on sort of nonbiological notions. And I think people have have unfortunately suffered this. Certainly, it’s made a lot of wealth, the alternative therapists who have claimed to be able to treat this. But it’s just not it’s not real. That’s what’s amazing. I mean, typically, alternative therapies will treat things that are difficult to treat or impossible to treat. 

I mean, autism, for example, or certain brain tumors like brain stem gliomas or real blastoma, multi forming. I mean that for which medicine has little author here. Frankly, they’ve basically made up a disease that doesn’t exist, which is a testament to their their resourcefulness. 

And many of them are peddling Lyme disease cures in areas with the Lyme disease. Spreading tick is not endemic. Right. 

Right. Pretty amazing, huh, that you have Lyme disease in an area where neither the tick of the bacteria actually exist. 

It’s interesting, another aspect of that chapter was how politicized the treatment guidelines for Lyme disease became. Can you tell us a bit about how that how that unfolded? 

Sure. I think Richard Blumenthal, when he was the in in Connecticut, the attorney general sort of took us on now is the state senator. But but he he took this on as a cause. And he he believed that that experts who were who were saying that chronic Lyme doesn’t exist just weren’t right. And so he basically threatened to sue the Infectious Disease Society of America, which came up with those guidelines. And the effects Society of America is a is a modest professional group that certainly didn’t have the resources to fight him. And then so they worked out a deal where they would just have another panel of experts come on and make, you know, look at the data again and see if they could come up with different guidelines. But because they were looking at the same data, not surprising that they came up with the same guidelines based on evidence. And it’s just an example of politicizing science, which I think is politicians at their worst. They really should let the scientists do the science and they should stick to whatever the hell it is politicians do. 

That’s good for us in Durham, Griffin’s review of your book in The New Republic. He expressed some shock and confusion that Blumenthal would side with the Lyme disease people. Do you have any sense as to why he became so attached to this cause or why he pursued it in the way that he did? 

I don’t. I say it’s the number of people in Connecticut who were affiliated with this, his actions, why he had chosen so many of the they conjecture that there probably is somebody in his family who who he believes is suffering from this and therefore took it on. Or maybe it’s just that he. Because Connecticut is a an area that is rife with true Lyme disease and therefore rife with through people who believe that they are suffering from something else that he’s just saw. This is a politically wise move. I don’t know. I can’t speak to him. You’d have to ask him. But it was certainly an unfortunate event that Richard Blumenthal has generally been very good about the many things. But this wasn’t one of them. 

Has he taken up this or any other med related crusade during his time in Washington? Do you know why he’s out? 

I think he’s done what he was going to do. And now he’s he’s sort of was defeated in trying to overturn using politics to overturn recommendations based on data. And so he’s just doesn’t seem to be doing this anymore, which is good. 

Nice to take some victories somewhere. 

Right. Pertussis or whooping cough went from being a major killer of babies and children to a disease largely suppressed by vaccines. Yet it’s resurgent. This month, Texas is averaging nearly 50 new cases of pertussis a day and epidemics are raging in other states. What’s going on? 

Well, the main reason actually is that we went to a vaccine that isn’t as good as the old. One of the old vaccine, which originally developed in the 1940s, was made by taking pertussis bacteria, growing it up in media, and then then basically inactivating not only the bacteria, but also these sort of toxins produced by the bacteria in the media. And then by inactivating, they they they then become toxoid. That hold the mesh. I mean, it was it was the bacterial cell itself, as well as the proteins made by the bacteria that were secreted by the bacteria. And that was you know, that was a pretty complex vaccine. You probably had about 3000 immunological components in it. And as a consequence, it had a fairly difficult safety profile. I mean, that vaccine could cause fever, including high fever, can cause seizures with fever. You know, if you cause persistent, inconsolable crying, it could cause a side effect called hypertonic hypo responsive syndrome, where the child sort of just drops out, becomes floppy for a little while. And that’s certainly frightening for any parent to watch. I mean, none of these problems had any permanent cause, any permanent arm, but certainly there was a difficult safety profile. And so using advances in protein chemistry and protein purification, we made a pure safer vaccine that was that became really the only vaccine that we use starting around 1997. So about 16 years into this this particular vaccine, the so-called a cellular vaccine, meaning it’s not made with the whole bacterial cell. And now instead of having 3000 immunological opponents, depending on the product that has between two and five, which is mean two in five period, not two and 5000. And so it’s a much, much purer vaccine. That’s what it’s a much safer vaccine that doesn’t cause those other side effects that we’re talking about. But it’s not as good. And I think what we’re learning now is just how how much the trade was of safety for efficacy that we made. We have safer back vaccine, but it’s not as good. And that’s probably the main reason. Now you’re seeing these through maturation of a population now that are 16 years old. That only got this so-called a cellular vaccine. And I think that more than any other reason is why this is a problem. But that said, I mean, if you look at that California outbreak in 2010, which was huge. I mean, it was it was involved 10000 people got pertussis. It just in one state. And there were 10 children that died of protests in that one state in that one year, which is phenomenal. That was the biggest outbreak in 50 years. Still, you were eightfold more likely to get pertussis if you didn’t get the vaccine, that if you did get the vaccine. And so it’s absolutely clear that that is part of it, that people are making a choice not to get the vaccine. But also this vaccine just isn’t as good as the older vaccine. 

Do you feel like what’s going to happen next in terms of the vaccine going forward? Is there going to be further reform in a better world? 

We would have a standalone pertussis vaccine that combines the best of two worlds, which is to say that you take the current vaccine, which contains few immunological components, and adjuvant it in a manner use attachment that that enhances the immune response and makes for a better immune response, but still retains the safety components of the current vaccine. I hope that companies take this one. I’m not sure they will much of this huge financial incentive for them to do it, but that that hopefully will happen. The path of licensure won’t be easy through the FDA for this particular product, because I suspect you’re going to have to efficacy studies, which won’t be easy to do, but hopefully, hopefully companies will take this on. But certainly a clinical need. 

What makes the efficacy studies difficult? 

Well, they have to be huge. They tend to be huge and hugely expensive because you’re not comparing it to placebo. Obviously, you can’t ethically do that. You’re comparing it to another vaccine. So it ends up being those end of being big studies. 

Do you feel that activism by ActiveX has had any role in pushing us to a less effective vaccine? I’ve read a lot of the fan tiebacks propaganda that was harping on the impurity. Did they have any role in bringing about that shift? 

Yes, I think they had a huge role in that. But again, nobody held a gun to our heads. You know, we made the shift. It’s I mean, I think we were in some ways, you know, we we were making a vaccine using a technology that was available in the 40s. There’s probably there was every reason to believe we could make a pure vaccine and a safer vaccine. I think everybody was surprised by how much less effective it was. It’s you know, we didn’t really have long term data on that. I would see till now. But now we know it’s it’s a trade. You know, I wonder if if we know if we knew then what we know now, whether we would have been willing to make that trade because there’s much more pertussis now than we’ve had than we had, say, 10 years ago. And it’s it’s because of that switch. And you know, and, you know, because the old vaccine, although certainly a difficult safety profile, never caused permanent harm. You know, certainly the disease does. And, you know, there’s that the disease could kill you. And, you know, that’s that’s a huge trade event. 

Is there any move afoot to simply go back to the status quo ante? 

That will never happen politically. 

There is just no way we would ever be able to successfully go back to that whole cell vaccine. Maybe we could call it something like, you know, pertussis, this vaccine classic or something. But I don’t see it happening. 

Could we say that it’s more natural because it has more immune components? 

Well, they’re all natural. I mean, they’re all made by natural products. I mean, they’re all part of the bacteria that votes Glorias more natural with more more products. But it’s I believe there is a way there to retain the safety of the current vaccine and just induce a better immune response with with an ad for the vaccine. And that that’s that’s doable. I’d like to think companies would take that up. 

What would you advise consumers do if you’re, you know, 16, 17 year old kid going off to college and your pertussis shot might be wearing off? Do you need a booster? 

Yes. I mean, you probably should get a booster. You know, really, I mean, the recommendation is to get it to get, you know, not to get a t that vaccine every 10 years, really, the T that is tetanus and then sort of little DHP, which is the theory and then the a part that’s vaccine. You’re actually just recommended to get that in adolescents who, you know, one time you’re not recommended to get repeat t the AP vaccines just repeated the vaccines. And in part, it’s because the immunity fades so quickly for pertussis. 

In the book, you discuss the case of Stanislav Basinski, a self-styled Texas cancer doctor who promises cures for untreatable malignancies. And this fall, the Texas Medical Board and the FDA began investigating revenue. Can you bring us up to date on what’s happened with Dr. Brzezinski since the book came out? 

Well, I mean, the FDA, you know, continues to try and put pressure on Stanislaw Burzynski for basically continuing to offer a product so called Antineoplaston that have never been shown to be of value. And in any kind of, you know, a study in which one would be able to tell whether it was a value. There certainly was a Mayo Clinic is proceeding study of it that, you know, compared that that sought to see whether or not that particular product. Anthony, have five cents to do what was claimed, which is to treat or cure difficult to treat cancers. And, you know, certainly that’s not what they found. Plus, this product, because it has such a high salt load, can cause so-called hyponatremia, which can cause seizures and and and irritability and any pretty severe side effects. And, you know, it’s amazing to me, actually, how weak in some ways the FDA is that they’ve been unable to shut this operation down, but they haven’t been able to do it. And I think, you know, heathy really it’s me that’s alternative medicine and it’s worse, which is to take to say that, you know, if you make a fortune off of people’s misfortune, you know, if you have a child who has an untreatable cancer, very difficult to treat cancer. And your doctor tells you this is about as far as we’re going to go, you’ll do anything, you’ll pay anything to try and get that child better. And I think that’s what’s that ASOL. Brezinski takes advantage of. And it’s I think it’s sad. 

And why is it that the FDA hasn’t been able to shut him down despite evidence of actual wrongdoing, like not reporting hypernatremia reactions? 

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t understand the FDA. It’s certainly within their purview to do that. They certainly have done that in other situations. Maybe it’s his political connections. I don’t know. I’m baffled. There was a great article, actually, by Liz Fabo in USA Today. It was like, you know, the two and a half page art. 

It was huge on Stanislaw Burzynski and his ability to elude the FDA. I know Peter Adamson from our hospital, actually, who’s a clinical oncologist, commented on that. And, you know, I think we’re all pretty baffled at their inability to shut down. I don’t get it. 

Do you think that there’s any room? I mean, I know the people are very organized in terms of petitioning people in power to get what they. What do you think there’s any room for citizen action around this or similar cases of malpractise in the name of alternative medicine? 

I think there live. I think you’re right. 

I think there has been if you look people like Fran Visco, who’s, you know, who’s from the Breast Cancer Coalition and grew up, I mean, she’s been very vocal in this. So I thought I think the advocacy groups for these cancers who are advocating for best treatments, advocating for best research, not this this sort of thing have stepped forward. But I don’t I don’t understand. I mean, it’s political that he has the kind of political connections that have defeated this. But as long as people like status will present fear around offering basically false hope, you know, maybe some people just consider it false hope to be better than no hope. And I think it’s unfortunate because generally the way it works in cancer therapies is that cancer therapies move up or down the list based on on their promise. 

I think we can safely say that that’s cell Brzezinski’s antineoplaston should be awfullest because they’ve been tested and they haven’t worked as claim. So let’s look at other more promising candidates. 

And instead of GRISBY at this particular stroke, one of the themes in your book is that people turn to alternative medicine because they’re not getting what they want or need, either practically or emotionally from mainstream medicine. What should mainstream medicine be doing to reach those people and bring them back into the fold? 

Yeah, I’m not sure it’s fixable. The I mean, I had the micro fact for surgery on my left knee a few years ago and, you know, and my soul, my orthopedic surgeon during recovery and I barely saw him after the surgery was done, he was gone. And my resident, who I was sort of in this post-operative haze, was explained to me that I had this particular surgery. I thought I was just getting a meniscus repair done. But in fact, that had a much more complicated surgery that required a much longer rehabilitation. And, you know, he was explaining this to me, but I never saw my surgeon until, you know, I guess a few weeks later when I had my first appointment and, you know, he spent five or 10 minutes with me, writes a prescription for pain medicine, and he’s gone. And I think we’re alternative medicine lives really in this notion of spending much more time, which is clearly a value, whether it’s, you know, it’s chiropractor or whoever, a homeopath, a natural pat to spend much more time. And you’re willing to, you know, to to to, I think, take advantage of the placebo response, which is to say give kind Royden sulfate and glucosamine. Not that that’s been shown to to be a value here. In fact, that’s been shown not to be evalu in this particular situation, meaning arthritis of the knees. But, you know, if you believe that it’s going to work, there’s something to be said for that. And you’re certainly spending time. It’s good. And it’s better than just, you know, writing a prescription for, you know, for a COX two inhibitors and saying good luck. So I do think doctors would be better served to do what they do in the past, which is spend much more time with the patient and make house calls, which doctors used to do so they could understand the failure of the patient. I just think that’s a bygone era. And now we have a, you know, medicine, my wife’s and private practice pediatric. She’ll see 40 patients a day. I mean, how can you possibly give any kind of anticipatory guidance when you’re seeing any patient? 

Do you feel like medicine could be making better use of nurses or nurse practitioners or midwives or other highly trained paraprofessionals who could be doing more of the emotional and social work that doctors are? It’s not cost effective to have doctors do it. 

Yeah. Yes. And that’s already happened. I mean, certainly in our house, we use we employ far more nurse practitioners and nurses than we did to to take up those roles, those exact roles that you mentioned. So, yes, I think that’s a that’s a great point. And I think that is the future. I think as nurse practitioner job is really, in many ways, the future of medicine. 

And beyond the dissatisfaction, there’s also the sort of issue of pervasive mistrust. What could be done to make medicine win back the trust of people, the sense of allegiance and goodwill that a. boxes have successfully poisoned in some ways? 

I’m not sure there’s anything that could be, I guess, killing all the lawyers would help it. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s just the cynical age. You know, we live in an age of distrust. Maybe the line got crossed that in the 70s with, you know, with the Watergate, with the Watergate fiasco. But I just think we were just a very cynical, litigious society. We see conspiracy everywhere. Certainly, you know, you can never say the term pharmaceutical industry without having that sound negative just on its face. You know, the term medical establishment is negative. The term government was negative. And I think, you know, those three things often go into, you know, the recommendations for a particular product in medicine, you know, so it’s very it’s a very cynical, litigious time. I’m not sure what turns it around. It’s it’s it’s very frustrating for me. I certainly know that. I mean, when I wrote the book, for example, Autism’s False Prophets. What struck me was not that parents would ask a question, you know, why? Why autism in my child? To me from some parents perspective. My child was fine. They got a vaccine. Now they’re not fine. And the consequence is autism. Could the vaccine have done it? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable question. And I think to the credit of the public health and academic community, we stepped up and answered that question. The frustrating part comes when after study after study after study shows that that, you know, that there is no association between vaccines and autism. It’s that next step when parents just refuse to believe it. And it’s either scientific literacy, which would be much easier to treat. 

But to address or worse, I think it’s scientific denialism, which is to say, I don’t care what you said. I know what I saw. And that’s that. And so there is no convincing them. That’s that’s the most frustrating part for me. 

Well, those are all my questions. Thank you so much for coming on. Point of inquiry. Stay with me. Thank you. That was fun. 


Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.