Swine flu, altmed inanity, HuffPo, and other randomness

We have a lot to cover today, but first things first: the Big Question. If you'll cast your memory way back (thanks, Van) you'll remember that a good question to ask altmed followers is the one of abandonment: what would it take for them to abandon a modality? Well, the answers are in, and the one's who answered just didn't get it. For example:

[T]he question was: "Can you please give specific examples of alternative medicine theories and modalities that have been abandoned because they have been found to be ineffective?"

The short and honest answer to this is no-- I cant. But my reason is that the only area I focus in is natural herbal remedies... I dont concern myself with homeopathy, or acupuncture, etc. I have a science background and use it to research the pharmacology of these products and I handpick a few that can be of some value...

Yeah. OK. Right. So, what you're saying is, "well, the question doesn't apply to me because I only look at practices that work."

Science: you're doing it wrong.

You see, first you come up with a hypothesis, then you test it, then you look at the data to see if your hypothesis holds up. The other (incorrect) alternatives are: 1) look into something that's already settled, for example hypothesize that the earth revolves around the sun, and test it. Not very interesting; or 2) claim to be immune from that fancy science-y stuff. This commenter chose the former. If you want to see what a real scientist who studies pharmacognosy does, go over to TerraSig.

The fact is, many "natural" substances have been tested for clinical value---some have been found to be useful, many not. You cannot investigate "herbs" and find them ALL to work. No one is that good.

OK, moving on...

As my readers know, I hate the Huffington Post's "science and health" reporting. The main reason is that they approach health and science the same way they approach politics: ideologically. I have no problem with people holding particular political ideologies. My medical partners and I have very different political views, but we all practice the same science-base medicine, and that's what unites us (that, and our daily kumbaya sessions). But science in service of ideology is always problematic.

I'm not sure what HuffPo's underlying scientific ideology actually is but it appears to be a sort of post-modernist, "other ways of knowing" kind of thing. Be that as it may, delivering bad health information to the public does everyone a terrible disservice.

For example, their resident village idiot, Kim Evans, took a shot at swine flu today. I am not amused. This is a very serious public health issue, both because it is a potentially serious public health problem, and because crises often bring out the worst in people. In the case of a potential pandemic, people will tend to panic and do stupid things (and be encouraged in this by idiots with or without agendas) and people will try to sell you things you don't need.

I'm sure it will only be a matter of hours before horribly overpriced "flu kits" hit the market, offering masks, potions and what-not. So in times like this it's important to be vigilant against charlatans.

Now, the CDC has actually been doing a rather good job so far on this. They are being open, giving lots of information to the public and health care providers, and putting boots on the ground. But people who want your money and ideological loyalty will explain how the CDC, FDA, Pharma, etc. are somehow out to get you. They will say that this is all a big plot to vaccinate you, sell you Tamiflu, or whatever. But if you look just under the surface of these paranoid rants you will find two things: a sales pitch, and and absence of an alternative.

So back to the immoral rantings of Kim Evans. Immoral? What's that you say?

Yes, immoral. This is a time when the public needs good information, and HuffPo and Evans are failing spectacularly. She is ramping up the fear by recommending that people stay home and start wearing facemasks if forced to go out. This is not a current official recommendation because there is no indication that this would in any way be helpful. Current recommendations are to use masks in places like waiting rooms and ERs when people have suspicious symptoms. This kind of targeting makes sense. But after the burning, fear-mongering stupid, she turns the idiocy up to "11".

The above is all pretty basic stuff, I'm going to offer more as well. But before I do, you should know that I'm a huge proponent of body cleansing, or removing the accumulated waste that most people have stored in their bodies. I've been a fan for years and have seen cleansing work miracles in myself and others, but in circumstances like this, I believe deep cleansing could actually save your life.

Oh, Kim, oh Great Seller of Enemas, I hope you have a good explanation for this one.

...you should know that I'm a huge proponent of body cleansing, or removing the accumulated waste that most people have stored in their bodies. I've been a fan for years and have seen cleansing work miracles in myself and others, but in circumstances like this, I believe deep cleansing could actually save your life...

[...skipping bizarre analogy to save your neurons...]

...many people have found that disease disappears when this waste is gone, and that when the body is clean it's much more difficult for new problems, like viruses, to take hold in the first place. And it's my understanding that many people who took regular enemas instead of vaccines during the 1918 pandemic made it out on the other side as well.

She then goes on to explain why her colon cleanse is better than the competition. In other words, this immoral sack of shit is using the current health crisis to con you into buying something you don't need.

She should be deeply ashamed.

But of course, she has no shame.


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Well, the vaccine for the 1918 flu was ineffective. There was no flu vaccine at the time and non-existant vacines are usually ineffective.

What an ignorant maroon.

By Miltant Agnostic (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

My comment over there was censored. In it, I told her that her anecdotes were not data, and I requested hard data on her "cleansing" (preferably peer-reviewed journal articles) from her. Apparently she didn't like that, or perhaps it takes 24+ hours to approve a comment ...

On the other hand, she almost answered your great question: in her article she kind of rejects another type of cleanse... Becuase it encourages candidiasis!

The sad thing is that a friend of mine actually emailed me this article, taking it seriously.

This is irresponsible, when you have a large audience, you have an obligation to fact check. She clearly didn't even pretend to fact check.

Just so I don't bore everyone else, my further ramblings here.

Salon has a nice summary of the 1976 Swine Flu scare, I was 11 and found the whole circumstance a little frightening. I remember it passing into the realm of late night comedians pretty quickly.

From my perspective your best line (which should be a banner over every scientists' door) is the following;

I have no problem with people holding particular political ideologies. My medical partners and I have very different political views, but we all practice the same science-base medicine, and that's what unites us (that, and our daily kumbaya sessions). But science in service of ideology is always problematic.

Replace "medical partners" with physicists, biologists, engineers, etc. and replace "medicine" with the area of study and there exists a common philosophy. Clearly HuffPo and the "altmed" world choose to substitutie their ideology for science.

It is irresponsible, Whitecoat Tales; that's it in a nutshell-- and it's irresponsible of the Huffington Post to give her a forum in which to spread dangerous misinformation.

PalMD gets a Purple Heart, and Arianna Huffington gets a smack in the head with a coffee enema!

Not that I'm EVER an advocate of violence against caffeinated beverages.

Who knew that a simple enema was the cure for viral diseases we were looking for.

I don't know about the Salon piece, I thought it was pretty inflammatory. Here are a couple of quotes:

"The virus wasn't spreading. For some reason this information did not mollify the doctors..."

"...worldwide cases of all types of flu had diminished, and not one case of swine flu had been reported outside of Fort Dix. For some reason this news did not placate the doctors either..."

"But the U.S. government was unstoppable..."

"Congress caved in,...President Ford signed the National Influenza Immunization Program (NIIP). This...indemnified the drug companies and left vague the government's power to limit the drug companies' profit."

In my opinion, the article borders on conspiracy theory with its overblown rhetoric, and it is unclear who he is fingering for the conspiracy. Doctors? Jonas Salk? Congress? Drug companies?

I would have liked to read a less impassioned (hysterical?) review of that period.

Oops! My last comment was directed to Citizen Deux.

Preky @#7, that would be a used coffee enema wouldn't it?

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

"And it's my understanding that many people who took regular enemas instead of vaccines during the 1918 pandemic made it out on the other side as well."

well, that convinces me! it is her "understanding" that enemas works.

also, the herbal remedey person says "I have a science background." umm, can you be less specific? did you watch Nova once, or did you earn a phd at a university?

I am sure most people who didn't take regular enemas made it out the other also

Nice blog. I found it from a KOS link.

I usually just skim HuffPo, and I had no idea such lunacy was being promulgated there. But being from Florida, the Mecca of colon quackery, perhaps I just blocked it out.

I tried to post a comment on that idiots screed at Huffpo but it was blocked. I even identified myself as an M.D. What a bunch of morons.

As a non-scientist, non-doctor who nonetheless is deeply interested in (well, passionate about, really) science, I often find myself trying to separate fact from fiction and present it in a readable, non-condescending but factual manner. This week offered many challenges to that effect as I plowed through dozens of "must-read articles!OMG!111!!!" about swine flu that filled my mailbox.

In the course of following the CDC and WHO's investigation, I've read a lot of the Mexican press and blogs, and while there's more information therein--particularly from boots-on-the-ground writers living in Veracruz--there is also
a similar quantity of speculation.

When there are plain-as-day probable causes--like the vast, hospitable environments for pathogen-breeding--present (as with the open-air lagoons of feces and pig carcasses at the US-owned hog farm near La Gloria), it's my understanding that scientists start with those--as they should--which is exactly what the WHO team is doing in Mexico right now. To my mind, it's incredibly irresponsible to start repeating conspiracy theories, biowarfare rumors, and stories about mad scientists with axes to grind and evil world leaders, possibly even ones with monocles and fluffy white cats. It's important--if not vital, in some cases--to always remember the aphorism we learned as kids when rumors would spread around the schoolyard: consider the source.

Anyway, in coming here for some reality-based stuff, I found and read this post and wanted to share this bit of funny with you, as it's a good example of the extent to which some people revere their woo.

A few years ago, I was visiting friends in Southern California; it was the weekend of my birthday. I remarked to my pal C that she was looking well and that her complexion was beautiful (it was). She launched into a long and rather gruesomely well-detailed description of her regular colon-cleansing practices, which is to say, her weekly visits to the "therapist" for high colonics. It sounded revolting to me--I was always taught that if one's digestive system seemed a bit slow, one needed to up one's intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and drink more water.

But that wasn't doing it for C, apparently. She believes that humans should produce, on a daily basis, a...um...let's say a length of excrement equal to his or her height. Otherwise, one's intestines were not "functioning properly", which would lead to horrors like bad skin, fatigue, and possibly road rage.

I guess I shouldn't have mentioned that my bodily functions fell short of that 5'8" goal, because on my birthday, I received a gift certificate for a high colonic with C's therapist. (No, I didn't redeem it. Yikes.)

Thank you for calling this Kim Evans out on the carpet. What she's doing is disgraceful. I see sales pitches everyday in my career and in this setting, her's is sickening. Using fear to sell products(and wars)is becoming the true epidemic in America these days.

I am shocked that folks did not expect the political insanity of Huffpo to breed scientific insanity.

Look, not only does Ariana actually believe that Deepak pablum, she's got here sources of funding to please as well.

By vanderleun (not verified) on 02 May 2009 #permalink

A bit off topic, but I have a question about something I read on the internet about how flu is contracted, and I wanted to know it it is accurate, or is nonsense. I've heard that much of flu virus is not contracted through the lungs, but through the ears, and that a way to help mitigate this is to flush the ears with H2O2, or at least saline. I ask this because I have son at college who gets colds and flus every quarter (he has one right now, not swine flu however). As a toddler, he used to get ear infections all the time, so I wonder if he is particularly prone to infections from without that move through the ear, and if that might be why he gets colds and flus so regularly (and not just because of some sort of weak immune system). So, if the swine flu lives up to the fears of a deadly pandemic, would it be wise to flush one's ears, or swab them, with either saline or H2O2? It's hard to tell when something is quackery or has a solid medical basis in fact. Anyone know about this subject?

conradg, many ear infections are bacterial, though several a viral. They are not influenza.

Think about it: what orifice in your body has greater air intake:

Your ear, which has an eardrum acting as a closed door..

... or ...

Your nose and mouth, which all the air you inhale and exhale must pass?

For more information go to http://www.fluwikie.com/pmwiki.php?n=Science.Science


Yes, I understand that logic, but that's not science, it's just you talking off the top of your head. The point is that if bacterial infections can find entry through the ear, so can viruses. My question is, is there valid science to suggest that infections via the ears is a signficant/major source when it comes to influenza? I know the logical thing is to assume that breathing through the nose and mouth is the predominant vector of infection. I already assumed that. I'm asking if it's possible that this is wrong in some types of contagions, such as flu. Again, does anyone know any actual scientific research about this kind of thing, not just telling me what I already assumed myself until this issue recently came to my attention?

Conrad, I don't have a lot of time at the moment, but the entire statement of yours is, in a medical sense, not even wrong. Just don't worry about the ear thing.


Yes, I understand that logic, but that's not science, it's just you talking off the top of your head.

The Flu Wiki is not science? (I made it clickable for you, since it obvious you did not cut and paste the link)


None of your links address the question I raised about contagions through the ear, that I could find. I appreciate your attempts to help, but I just wasted a lot of time searching through them, listening to podcasts, all for nothing really. If you know of something that specifically addresses this question, let me know, otherwise, yes, this is just irrelevant to the issue at hand. If wikiflue addresses this, give me the page link, otherwise what's the point of claiming it as a scientific source for this question?

Oh god, the stupid really does burn.

The most common ear infections are otitis externa and media. The former involves a (usually) superficial infection of the ear canal, the latter results from accumulation of fluid behind the eardrum usually due to a swollen eustacean tube. The fluid then festers.

Bacteria and viruses do not infect by magic. They usually attach to specific cell surface receptors on specific cell types. HIV, for example, attaches to certain types of immune cells---only. It does not attach and infect squamous cells.

Human physiology is rather complex.

Thanks, PalMD. I was wondering if for some reason airborne viruses might find it easier, in some cases, to penetrate through the ear into the body, rather than through the nose and mouth. It does seem counter-intuitive, but I was just wondering if there's any scientific research that's looked into that. I had heard this discussed on other forums, and wondered if there was any basis for it. Based on what you've said, is there any reason to think that influenza or common colds might find an easier pathway through the ear? I f you don't know, don't feel afraid to say. It might not even be an established fact one way or another.

One more time...

Your ear canal does not provide the correct milieu for common cold/flu viruses. Period. End of discussion.

Wait, one more example.

You know cholera? A GI disease caused by a bacterium? It is an illness of the gut, not somewhere else, say, the ear because the ear (for ex.) is the wrong environment. It doesn't have the cells that care about vibrio. You can pour cholera infested water in your ear, and you prob. won't get cholera (unless you swallow it).


Influenza virus doesn't infect cells in the ear. In people it can (generally) only infect respiratory epithelial cells. These cells are not the cells in the lining of your ear, but in the lining of the respiratory tract.

Below is a reference explaining this, if you are further curious, read their references for the basic science explanation of this. It's complicated, and has to do with the fact that Influenza's HA has to be cleaved by a host cell protease, and in mammals, the appropriate protease is generally only found in respiratory tract epithelium.

Summary: No, influenza virus doesn't "enter through the ears". Yes there is science to say this. Don't swab with peroxide. Let us never speak of this again.

Zambon, M (November 1999). "Epidemiology and pathogenesis of influenza". J Antimicrob Chemother 44 Suppl B: 3â9. doi:10.1093/jac/44.suppl_2.3. PMID 10877456.

You should have listened to me Conrad!

Whitecoar Tales,

Thanks for clearing that up. It's amazing what you hear out there, put forward with such certainty.


I listen to people who can explain their answers with sufficient scientific understanding that it actually closes the issue. You didn't do that. Even PalMD's first response didn't do that. Whitecoat Tales did the best job of giving a convincing answer. The stupid really does burn when people fail to provide good answers, but think they have. It's part of the arrogance problem that seems to inflict this site. I can put up with it, but it's pretty annoying.