Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Audacity of (False) Hope

No, this isn’t going to be an analysis of a presidential candidate’s “groundbreaking” recent speech on race relations that, now that I’ve read the transcript several times, I still find beautifully worded but lacking in any substantive message and full of misleading equivalencies. In fact, this blog post is not political at all. (I’m sure you’re all breathing a sigh of relief).

Instead, it’s about one of my pet peeves: people who take advantage of those in dire medical situations with unsubstantiated and expensive cures that “your doctor doesn’t want you to know about”. I’ve always been surprised by people who take tons of vitamin C because it will cure what ails them, or people who think that just because something is natural, it must be healthy. (My favorite story there, which I may have mentioned already, is a video we watched in Physics class where people were not worried about “natural” radon that was polluting their homes and giving them cancer, but they were worried about the non-existent levels of radiation coming from a well-built nuclear power plant nearby.) But about a year ago I read an expose on the entire vitamin industry called Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry that explained some of the lies and politics the vitamin industry goes through to get people to use their products without having to do any rigorous safety or effectiveness testing. Recent news stories about Airborne show that this is something that’s prevalent even where you wouldn’t expect it.

That said, I was horrified to hear an NPR story last week that gave an entirely positive view of an experimental use for stem cells. I originally heard the story on Morning Edition last Tuesday. It described a $20,000 treatment that one Chinese doctor was doing where he would inject stem cells into children to cure a particular form of blindness. American doctors were advising their patients not to get it done, but parents willing to try anything were going there. I was disturbed that they were reporting the story as though it were proven fact that, because there were a few cases where the children seemed to improve, this was a great new treatment that might change the face of medicine. There was absolutely no skepticism in the report, except in the form of, “well our Doctor was skeptical about this, but we didn’t believe him and did it anyway and now look how great things are”. This plays right into the fears and assumptions that the Vitamin industry plays into – “we know something your Doctor doesn’t want you to know about”.

So I was relieved when, the next morning, Renee Montagne interviewed Dr. Borchert, who’s in charge of the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital in LA, to give his opinion on this miracle cure. He made some great points, including (a) This particular form of blindness can improve on its own, so there’s no telling that the stem cells had anything to do with the recovery and (b) If the treatment were really as simple as injecting a few stem cells, then $20,000 is an insane amount of money to charge and shows they’re taking advantage of the patients. Ms. Montagne also interviewed prominent Chinese scientists who are worried that this false treatment will ruin China’s entire reputation in biotech.

It’s clear to me that this is yet another way that people have the audacity to sell “hope” to the folks who need it most, but without delivering any of the real results. I hope next time Morning Edition takes the time to get the full perspective the first time around.

No comments: