Thursday, April 22, 2010

Busting Dr. Mercola

Dr. Joseph Mercola runs the most popular natural medicine website on the Internet. Millions of people rely on him for medical advice and guidance for healthy living. He's known for being a medical maverick, often disagreeing with the conclusions of established medical practice and traditionally trusted sources.

Take flu shots, for example. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that almost everyone should get vaccinated as the best way of avoiding the flu -- but especially children and young adults age 6 to 24; pregnant women; health care workers; and adults at higher risk of complications because of existing health conditions. The Mayo Clinic agrees, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association.

But Dr. Mercola disagrees. In
this article about the flu shot causing death and mysterious illness, Dr. Mercola actually quotes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to back up his claim that "flu vaccines have a dismal success rate," but does not provide a link to the entire fact sheet (called Flu Vaccine Effectiveness: Questions and Answers for Health Professionals) so that his readers can get the whole story.

He's right: the CDC does admit that in some years, some studies do not demonstrate vaccine effectiveness. However, the article also reports that, among nursing home residents, for example, the vaccine provides "substantial protection against more severe outcomes, such as influenza-related hospitalization and deaths." Among adults age 65 or older, "the vaccine has been reported to be 50%-60% effective in preventing influenza-related hospitalization or pneumonia, and 80% effective in preventing influenza-related death."

The same CDC report cites three studies that "suggest substantial benefit from influenza vaccination of children," and yet Dr. Mercola claims that "the flu vaccine is no more effective for children than a placebo, according to a large-scale, systematic review of 51 studies."
This claim is just not true. Here's what the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews DOES say (italics mine):
From RCTs, live vaccines showed an efficacy* of 79% and an effectiveness* of 33% in children older than two years compared with placebo or no intervention. Inactivated vaccines had a lower efficacy of 59% than live vaccines but similar effectiveness: 36%. In children under two, the efficacy of inactivated vaccine was similar to placebo. AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Influenza vaccines are efficacious in children older than two years but little evidence is available for children under two.
[Read this article for a discussion of the difference between efficacy and effectiveness. Basically, efficacy studies control for other factors in determing whether a treatment works, but effectiveness studies do not, implying that effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a treatment might have more to do with other factors than with the treatment itself.]

Why would Dr. Mercola misrepresent the conclusions of the authors, who clearly stated that vaccines are 33-36% more effective than placebo, with significantly higher efficacy rates?

On November 10, 2009 Mercola posted an article asking
"Why is Canada Changing Its Flu Vaccine Policy?" One section alleges that "Many conventional physicians have doubts about H1N1 vaccines," and it cites an article by Nancy Terry alleging that "other physicians are adamant about not getting the H1N1 vaccine." Not one of the "many conventional physicians" quoted is named. (And by the way, who is Nancy Terry? She is a "medical writer and editor" from Jackson Heights, New York. I searched, but I can't find any evidence that she has any kind of medical degree or scientific training.)

Another off-the-beaten-track health and wellness tip: Dr. Mercola
recommends that smokers NOT stop smoking until they've solved their diet and sleep problems first. "Sugar is worse for you than smoking," he claims, and "One french fry is worse than one cigarette." He does not cite any sources, and I was not able to find any reliable primary source who agrees with him.

I'm not the only one with concerns about Dr. Mercola and his Shop of Superstitious Medicine. He's been warned by the FDA twice (in 2005 and 2006) to stop making illegal, unapproved claims about products he sells on his web site. And speaking of selling products: I might not admire Dr. M's medical creds, but man -- that guy is one highly qualified master of marketing. He uses his website to sell supplements, and he pulls in customers by making shocking, counter-intuitive, anti-medical-establishment claims.

The blog Science-Based Medicine offers an
interesting piece on Mercola and his anti-flu-vaccine screeds. I liked this bit in particular:

[The article] reveals his exceptionally poor grasp of the immune system, asserts that influenza is not worth preventing (36,000 deaths, 200,000 hospitalizations from seasonal flu, I suppose one could see his point), and perpetuates the thoroughly refuted toxin gambit. Nevertheless, at the time of this writing, his article has misinformed nearly 250,000 readers.

I think it is odd that of the 75 comments on the H1N1 article linked to above, NOT ONE expresses disagreement with Dr. Mercola's opinions. Apparently, he does not tolerate dissent. Here's an interesting and articulate
dissenting response to a Mercola article on Vitamin D which was blocked from his website and subsequently posted elsewhere.

If you're still a believer, at least check Mercola's sources, and see if any other legitimate source agrees with him, or backs up his opinions. Investigate whether he's endorsing or selling any products that are connected to his conclusions

And here's a thought: You trust your own doctor, right? (If not, why is she your doctor?) Ask her if you should follow Mercola's advice. Let me know what she says.


Leslie Wolf said...

I am not familiar with Dr. Mercola. Does he describe himself as a medical maverick? I ask because I would be skeptical of any licensed physician who characterized himself or herself in such terms. It sounds to me that Dr. Mercola may have been fanning the flames of recent concerns about the general effectiveness and/or safety of vaccinations, and that he may have been doing so for personal gain. I think that there is a lot of mistrust of modern medicine in this country, which I attribute in large part to the profound ignorance of Americans about science. I wouldn't be surprised if some doctors are able to capitalize on this mistrust in order to sell their own products by playing up their roles as dissenters and mavericks.

E. Peevie said...

Les--Maverick is my word for Dr. M., which is kinder than the original word that came to mind, which begins with Q and ends with wack. Phonetically speaking, of course.

And I think you've hit the nail on the head about docs capitalizing on fear, mistrust, and a certain amount of ignorance.

But Steve makes some good points in his comments on my subsequent post about Mercola--that there are good reasons for mistrusting the medical establishment. We need solutions, but Mercola isn't bringing them.

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