Federal government to anti-vacc parents: No childcare payments

In a proposal supported by the incumbent and opposition governments in Australia, parents who opt out of vaccinating their children will no longer receive federal payments for childcare and family tax.

“Parents who vaccinate their children should have confidence that they can take their children to childcare without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others,” Mr Abbott said. […]

The change will need to be approved by Parliament.

There is, fortunately, bipartisan agreement with the facts in this issue.

Under the policy which the coalition took to the last election, and which is supported by Labor, “conscientious objection” would no longer be allowed for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children but still want to receive child care payments and family tax benefit supplements.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was a sensible step.

“We believe fundamentally in the science of vaccinations and we fundamentally believe that policy should be made by the best evidence and the best science,” he said.

“And we would say to the Liberal Government, we’re pleased that you’re agreeing with our position and yes we will cooperate to make sure that the safety of our children is what is paramount in public policy.”

As skeptics we should highly applaud the proposal. Parents who through ignorance, whether innocent or wilful, endanger the health of their children and those around them, should not receive public child support funding until they acknowledge the scientific facts of how disease works.

Deliberately spreading unreasonable expectations can kill

An Australian woman, the self-styled “Wellness Warrior” who campaigned against medical treatment for cancer, has died tragically from a particularly nasty form of cancer.

Jessica Ainscough was struck by a sarcoma which is particularly difficult to treat, attacking the soft tissues. Having undergone chemotherapy without success – the sarcoma returned – her only effective option available was amputation of the arm and continued chemotherapy.

She instead chose to abandon medicine, letting the cancer continue to spread through her body.

It’s not for me to say whether her choice to decline a drastic and debilitating treatment, in favour of letting the cancer continue to ravage her body, was right or wrong. That is for her to decide with those whom she was close with.

What can be criticised, though, is that after this decision, she actively and diligently spread harmful misinformation about medicine and cancer, to those most at risk.

In a magazine targeting young women, in 2012 she published an an article without reference to scientific fact, recommending an alternative to medicine instead. The treatment she opted for requires her to “detoxify”, consuming large quantities of fruit and frequent coffee enemas:

I began looking at the different ways I may have contributed to the manifestation of my disease and then stopped doing them. […]

This research led me to Gerson Therapy which ensures you have a perfectly balanced diet for optimum health, assisting your body to flush out nasties whilst feeding it with all the goodness it needs to flourish.

The therapy involves drinking 13 fresh organic veggie juices per day (yes that’s one an hour, every hour of my waking day), five coffee enemas per day and a basic organic whole food plant-based diet with additional supplements.

I am ecstatic to report that it has worked for me. I have had no cancer spread, no more lumps pop up (they were popping up rapidly before) and I can actually see some of my tumours coming out through my skin and disappearing.

This attitude, her vocal dismissal of science-based medicine and her active promotion of unscientific treatments for cancer, earned her the title “Wellness Warrior”.

At 30 years old, she has now sadly died of the same untreated cancer. Regardless how the treatment made her feel and how optimistic she was, it continued to spread unchecked without regard for her beliefs.

The cited treatment, Gerson Therapy, is dangerous anti-scientific quackery.

The Gerson Institute not only enlist sick people to spread their false promises, they also enlist well-meaning non-medical stooges to be their practicioners. One can gain qualification to practice the treatment on more people with serious chronic illness:

The purpose of our Gerson Practitioner Training program is to train qualified medical professionals in how to clinically guide and manage people who choose to use the Gerson Therapy, as developed by Dr. Max Gerson, to address chronic degenerative disease and cancer.

The Practitioner Training program consists of two modules. Both modules must be completed before a practitioner can use the Gerson name and become a certified Gerson practicioner.

The two modules are:

  1. Attend a course, costing US$3600 and lasting five (5) days, at a California resort.
  2. Treat a required minimum number of patients for the next couple of years, at your own cost and using your existing practice.

What an amazingly rapid route to certification! Only five days and you can start giving enemas and fruit smoothies to chronically ill cancer-ridden people on your own town, under the watchful eye of the Gerson Institute.

They won’t give it to just anyone, though — you have to already be a certain standard of practitioner:


You must hold one of the following credentials:

– Medical Doctor (MD)
– Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
– Naturopathic Doctor (*ND)
– Nurse Practitioner (*NP)
– Physician Assistant (PA)
– Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
– Licensed Acupuncturist/ Oriental Medicine Doctor (*Li.Ac./OMD)
– Registered Nurse (*RN)
– Certified Clinical Nutritionist (*CCN)

This reminds me very much of “universities” where one can learn various dogmas unsupported by evidence, but only if one signs a formal “Statement of Faith” up front.

The Gerson Institute should crumple in shame.

I have argued in the past that people who are ill, even with diseases that are difficult to treat (even, sometimes, difficult to diagnose), are right to expect good access to properly-trained practicioners of science-based medicine.

But armed with nonsense from places like the Gerson Institute, patients are often spending their valuable face-time with doctors by arguing that science is wrong and demanding respect for unscientific treatments. Ranjana Srivastava recounts that conversations like this are all too common with her patients:

“Should I have my intravenous vitamins on the day of chemo or after it?”

I don’t have a chance to answer before she continues: “Can you move my chemo appointment to fit in a colon cleanse? They are really busy, you know. Booked out weeks in advance.”

It almost comes across as boasting and I feel mildly irritated.

“And my friend is having magnet therapy,” she continues. “She is nearly cured though the traditional doctors gave up on her.”

I have to interrupt her: “Can we discuss this another time? I am afraid there are many patients waiting.”

She is unfazed. “I need to feel heard, you know. I want to know about juicing therapy. It sounds so next generation.”

She makes the salient point that science-based medicine is regulated, and as a result is constrained to what is demonstrated to work. Practicioners of alternatives to medicine have no such constraint, and thereby are freed to spout unfounded nonsense that lets patients “feel heard”, even if it squanders their money, time, and life.

Health literacy moves at a very slow pace. The alternative health industry, worth many billions of dollars, marches briskly. It will always attract unguarded patients who will cling to the faintest promise of recovery without associated harm. Whenever money changes hands and the premise sounds too good to be true, the motto remains: Caveat Emptor.

Patients indulge wishful thinking in medicine

We humans are a species of animal that tends to look for the hopeful side of anything, especially when addressing our health.

A new meta-study conducted at Bond University in Australia finds that most patients are unreasonably optimistic about the potential benefits and the risks of medical procedures.

“What struck us is that, in general, people thought that treatments were going to be much more beneficial to them [than the evidence suggested],” says researcher Professor Chris del Mar of Bond University.

“And that the harms would be much less,” says del Mar.

He says clinicians and patients need to make decisions based on more accurate information on the pros and cons of such interventions.

“This is one of the most important ways we can save the healthcare system from going bust.”

Del Mar and Associate Professor Tammy Hoffmann carried out a systematic review of 35 studies analysing patient expectations of tests and treatments.

The studies covered such interventions as mammography, prostate specific antigen (PSA) tests, angioplasty, stem cell transplants, statins, kidney transplants, bariatric surgery, inflammatory bowel disease drugs and resuscitation after a cardiac arrest.

This wishful thinking must be a factor in the general mistrust of medical science. Either the facts are poorly communicated by the medical profession, and/or patients are strongly prejudiced against factual assessment — biasing their understanding toward the overly optimistic.

Such mistrust in medical science is powerfully exploited by practicioners of alternatives to medicine, whether they are “Big Placebo”, “Big Herba”, or any other industry of quacks preying on the sick and vulnerable who hope for more.

The science-based medical profession is often rightly criticised for spending so little time with each patient that they treat symptoms, not people. This in turn is also exploited by charlatans promising “holistic” treatment, but providing nothing more than would be expected from paying closer attention to overall health with any non-expert.

The Bond University researchers argue that better consultation is needed in medicine, but find that this doesn’t need to occupy significantly more time.

Del Mar says some people argue that more talk will lead to longer consultations but he says studies show this is a “myth”.

“You can do it all in the same time frame. All you’re doing is exchanging one kind of discourse with another,” he says.

“It does require a change in mindset.”

In fact, evidence suggests more talk results in less intervention, says del Mar, citing the case of PSA testing.

“If you talk to people first before you do the screening, and explain all the downstream consequences of being screened, a lot of men say they don’t want it,” he says.

While unnecessary or unwanted treatment and tests add to the cost of healthcare, del Mar says “overtreatment” can also result in physical and emotional harms.

“I think [more talking] will save money but I don’t think that’s the main driver. The main driver is delivering better care,” he says.

Here’s hoping better science will lead to better health services.

Federal court penalizes Homeopathy Plus! over false vaccine claims

A homeopathy seller’s claims, undermining of public health, have been dealt another strong blow in Australian federal court.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) prosecuted Homeopathy Plus! in Australian federal court, and the court has ruled in favour of the ACCC:

The Court found that Homeopathy Plus! and Ms Sheffield engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct and made false or misleading representations by publishing statements on the Homeopathy Plus website to the effect that:

the whooping cough vaccine is short lived, unreliable and no longer effective;
the vaccine may not be the best solution for, of limited effect, and is unreliable at best in protecting against whooping cough; and
the vaccine is largely ineffective in protecting against whooping cough,

when in fact the whooping cough vaccine is effective in protecting a significant majority of people from contracting whooping cough.

By itself, a homeopathic product is wholly ineffective because they are entirely devoid of active ingredients (although the products are regulated very loosely, so the products sold may cause harm if they differ from what the package claims are the ingredients).

When homeopathic practicioners or producers make misleading claims about actual medicine, though, they become agents of harm to public health. It’s very heartening to see the Australian federal court recognise this, and is an excellent evidence-based gift for the Solstice season, to all Australians.

Please be happy and safe in the festive season, and we will see you in 2015!