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Monday, June 13, 2005

Fear of Science

What happens when people become irrationally afraid of conventional medical treatment?  A recent article in the New York Times  was a powerful reminder of the dangers of scientific  ignorance.  Michele and Edward Wernecke probably want the best for their 12-year old daugther Katie, but they discontinued radiation treatment for her Hodgkin's disease because they decided that she shouldn't receive "a charge to her heart and lungs" and they didn't want her to "develop breast cancer" or "stop growing."  Hodgkin's is a highly curable cancer, and radiation therapy is frequently the first/best treatment option.  This is an extreme case,  involving a young girl, a mother who opted to hide her child from the police, rather than consent to state-ordered treatment, and recent medical tests showing that Katie's cancer has returned.   But it certainly makes you wonder whether some version of this story is occurring in your neighborhood, even among your friends.  Although I do not personally know anyone who  would refuse medical treatment on religious grounds, I know well-educated people who dither over immunizations, scan the internet for medical advice,  and take their sick children to the chiropractor, instead of the pediatrician. 

Posted by Joelle Moreno on June 13, 2005 at 12:15 PM in Information and Technology | Permalink


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I am in general sympathy with Joelle's comments, but I've found some very useful info on the Internet, including info about a drug that cured a persistent case of hives. The doctor (who is very good) thought we had tried that one already. It pays to do your own research, but you have to be able to distinguish the junk science sites from the good ones.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Jun 14, 2005 12:28:43 PM

DGM does have a point. However, one also has to recognise that thee is a lot of BS medical info on the net, and sometimes it is difficult to figure out which is which. yet, there are people lik ethe example Joelle cited, who, for reasons unknown, choose to develop a blind spot, and actually take actions that defy logic. In cases such as those, I think it is the State's responsibility to find the child, and throw the irrational parents in jail, since they have, by their actions demonstrated that they are unfit parents.

Posted by: sid | Jun 14, 2005 12:58:20 AM

Joelle, I agree it is important to educate ourselves, and I take that responsibility seriously. That, to me, means not accepting whatever the first doctor I ask tells me just because it is a doctor telling me. They are people, too, quite fallible in many instances. Some are blinded by inexperience; others by their own experience or ego or payments from manufacturers of drugs. You have to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

One of my friends goes to a pediatrician who will call in an antibiotic prescription for her based on her description--over the phone--of her kid's green snot and a cough. That sounds like irresponsible doctoring (and, I would say, irresponsible parenting), not necessarily grounded in good science or good medical practice. Moreover, we know several pediatricians who will prescribe antibiotics at the drop of a hat, or because the parents request it, apparently just to make everyone's life easier. This, despite scientific studies that show that overruse of antibiotics opens us up to the creation of "superbugs" and other resistant strains.

You can ask several doctors for a course of treatment for the same symptoms, and they won't necessarily all agree. In the end, as parents we have to go with our gut on the advice we think most sound. Sometimes that means going against what the first doctor you encounter advises. It might be the move that saves your kid's life.

Posted by: dgm | Jun 13, 2005 9:07:04 PM

My point was that it is important that we educate ouselves and that we not assume that these issues arise only in cases involving patients with deeply held religious objections or elementary school educations. The internet is useful, but only if you know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Most of the web sites devoted to childhood immunizations are garbage, but if you start with the American Medical Association's website (www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/3160.html) you should find useful information and links. I consider myself fairly skeptical, but if I thought my doctor was planning to "utterly rip me off," I'd get a new referral.

Posted by: Joelle | Jun 13, 2005 4:02:34 PM

Well, scanning the internet for medical advice is a useful way to avoid waste: if one has a funny mark on one's skin and can determine that it's a bruise rather than a tumor, one can avoid the time and expense of going to the specialist...

I think a lot of it is the auto-mechanic factor: doctors, like auto mechanics, are specialists who have the power to utterly rip you off and you might not even know it. Tends to breed distrust.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 13, 2005 1:42:34 PM

You close this post with: "I know well-educated people who dither over immunizations, scan the internet for medical advice, and take their sick children to the chiropractor, instead of the pediatrician."

I'm a well-educated person who has "dithered" over immunizations, and it has nothing to do with my "fear of science" as the title of the post suggests. It has more to do with the fact that our state keeps mandating new vaccines on newborns, with no testing or evaluation of the cumulative effect on the baby's system. Any individual vaccine might be fine (and for some, it's not), but what do they know about the cumulative effect?

As I understand it, vaccine manufacturers are immune from liability, and a parent whose child suffers injury or death from a vaccine has little recourse--they can file a claim for damages, capped at $10K, from the federal government. You can argue about why that may or may not be a good thing for the production of vaccines, but I don't believe it creates the right incentive for a vaccine manufacturer or the states that mandate all those vaccines to create something both absolutely necessary and safe to newborns. Is that irrational dithering? Perhaps so. But, for example, since neither of my kids were sexually active or needle-using newborns, we skipped the mandatory Hepatitis B vaccine.

Posted by: dgm | Jun 13, 2005 1:34:59 PM

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