MD, PhD, MAE, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

vaccination

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Guest post by Derk P. Kooi

Political lobbying is not only restricted to major companies, even quackery lobbies extensively in Dutch politics as well as at a European and global level. The EUROpean Complementary and Alternative Medicine Stakeholder Group (EUROCAM) has been active in Europe for some time. EUROCAM recently attracted attention with a statement on antibiotic resistance during the European Antibiotics Awareness Day.[1] EUROCAM claims that Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) could enhance the immune system and could therefore contribute to the fight against antibiotic resistance. An early study conducted by the anthroposophist Erik Baars was referenced, inter alia. However, this medical claim turns out to be pure nonsense.

EUROCAM regularly publishes so-called ‘position papers’ on the contribution CAM could provide to the European health care system. EUROCAM is currently cautious with its medical claims, and rightly so, as it has seriously overstepped the mark in the past. For example, claims about the efficacy of CAM for infections referred to research by Erik Baars, doctor, anthroposophical healthcare lector at the University of Applied Sciences Leiden and researcher at the Louis Bolk Institute. Baars is an associate of the society due to his misleading statements in his publications on the usefulness of CAM, more specifically of the anthroposophical variant.

Where does this fairly unknown club actually come from, what does it do and how seriously should we take it? Well, EUROCAM is an umbrella organisation for various alternative therapists and their patients. We are talking about Ayurveda, homeopathy, osteopathy, anthroposophy, herbal medicine, traditional (Chinese) medicine, Reiki and acupuncture. The Dutch Registry of Complementary Care Professionals (RBCZ) is also affiliated with EUROCAM. Classical homeopath Annemieke Boelsma is the contact person of the RBCZ at EUROCAM.

It is unclear precisely when EUROCAM was created, the LinkedIn page says 2009. The figurehead of the club is “secretary general” Ton Nicolaï. This homeopathic doctor is also well known to Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij, (www.kwakzalverij.nl) the Dutch Society against Quackery. The treasurer of EUROCAM is business administrator Wim Menkveld. Menkveld is on the Advisory Board of the Hortus Botanicus of Leiden. He is also active on the board of the European Patients’ Federation of Homeopathy. EUROCAM thus seems to have originated mainly from Dutch homeopathic circles.

Furthermore, TV producer Miranda Eilert-Ruchtie from Hilversum sits on the EUROCAM board. According to the EUROCAM website, she acts as their “operations manager” and communications advisor. The German Heilprakterin Sonja Maric, an anthropologist and “specialist in Tibetan medicine”, also acts as a communications consultant.

The European Transparency Register shows that in 2020 the total budget of the organisation was 40,498 euros; no more recent data is available. In the year 2018, 5,000 euros were reserved as an honorarium for Mr Nicolaï, for the 0.5 FTE that he works for the organisation. Miranda Eilert-Ruchtie works a number of hours a week for EUROCAM, as a freelancer. Sonja Maric does this on a voluntary basis.

EUROCAM is a member of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), the European Union Health Policy Platform. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises the organisation as a non-state actor, which means that both the EU and the WHO consider EUROCAM to be a serious legal entity. In the past, EUROCAM has intervened in public EU consultations in the fields of aging, pharmaceutical strategy, cancer, and digital data and services.

EUROCAM provides the secretariat of the MEP Interest Group on Integrative Medicine and Health, a group of five European parliamentarians who have set themselves the goal of promoting integrative medicine at the European level. Co-chairs are Finish Sirpa Pietikäinen, a European parliamentarian for the Christian Democrats, and French Michèle Rivasi, a European parliamentarian for the Greens. The other members are Luxembourg’s Tilly Metz, the Italian Eleonara Evi, and the Danish Margrete Auken. It is noteworthy that they are European parliamentarians for the Greens. They are all members of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI). Eleonara Evi was part of the illustrious Five Star Movement until 2020, known for its anti-vaccination stance. The Member of European Parliament (MEP) Interest Group organises annual events with speakers who are the same people who perform at EUROCAM symposia. These include the aforementioned anthroposophist Erik Baars. Baars worked closely with EUROCAM boss Ton Nicolaï in a European research project on CAM alternatives to antibiotics. More about his bad science later.

The texts EUROCAM produces nowadays (on its website) are carefully written, and the medical claims are carefully formulated. The texts are larded with synonyms for “possible”, known in linguistics as hedging. For example “Several CAM methods have shown high potential to reduce cancer pain”.[2] Generic health claims are also often used to suggest medical benefits, for example in the context of COVID-19, ‘In building and maintaining resistance to infectious illness, CAM modalities as a part of Integrative Medicine & Health can play an important role because they mobilise and stimulate people’s self-regulating capacity, thus increasing their resilience, their immune system.’.[3]

Furthermore, claims are put in the mouths of others, which can be read, for example, in quoting patient expectations: ‘While improving quality of life is the major rationale for CAM use, there is a definite undercurrent of expectation, particularly among the younger patients, that some therapies might have an anticancer effect (prolongation of remission periods) and slow/stagnate tumour growth (prolongation of survival periods), boost the immune system, making it easier to overcome the disease.’.[4]

The educated reader will immediately see through these strategies, but the question is whether the lobbied politicians targeted by EUROCAM understand these subtleties. EUROCAM has not always been so cautious, by the way. In an undated (presumably 2013) interview with the Dutch Association for Classical Homeopathy, “secretary general” Ton Nicolaï made a number of remarkable statements. For example, he claimed at the time that research shows “that for a number of herbal medicines there is a reasonable amount of evidence that scientifically confirms their effectiveness in respiratory infection treatments”. [5] Nicolaï bases his assertion on recent research by Erik Baars conducted as part of a European research programme that aimed to find CAM alternatives to antibiotics.

The report of this project, which ended in 2018, can be found on the EUROCAM website.[6] The authors of this report are, not surprisingly, Erik Baars and Ton Nicolaï. The report contains practically no hard science. Sub-studies focus on, for example, the frequency of antibiotic prescribing among alternative-working GPs and on the best practice of CAM believers. A so-called systematic review of systematic reviews offers good starting points to evaluate Mr Nicolaï’s claim: ‘A systematic review of systematic reviews demonstrates that there are specific, evidence-supported, promising CAM treatments for acute, uncomplicated RTIs [uncomplicated respiratory tract infections, ed.] and that they are safe.’

Here, a medical claim is made, which is weakened by the use of the hedge term “promising”. The conclusion can be summarised with “There would be ‘promising’ CAM treatments for respiratory infections, and they would be safe”. However, surprisingly, the project report does not refer to this “systematic review of systematic reviews”, nor to any of the other concrete results of the project!

Due to the lack of references, we cannot but conclude that the claim is based on a 2019 article by Erik Baars. One of the co-authors is Ton Nicolaï.[7] The article was published in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (EBCAM), which has a shady reputation. Even one of the founders of EBCAM states that the peer-review system is a farce, and therefore the majority of the articles published in it are useless nonsense.[8] In this article, besides a large amount of vagueness about the “worldview differences” between CAM and medicine, systematic reviews are discussed about the effectiveness and safety of CAM treatments. From this systematic review of systematic reviews, it is concluded that there are promising CAM treatments for respiratory, urinary tract and skin infections and that there is even evidence that some CAM treatments are effective for respiratory infections, but what is this based on?

The reviews that were looked at were split into Cochrane and non-Cochrane reviews. Among the Cochrane reviews, there is one that would demonstrate the efficacy of CAM. It is a review on the use of immunostimulants for the prevention of respiratory tract infections in children.[9] Of the 35 studies that were analysed, six involve small molecules, such as isoprinosine, levamisole and pidotimod. In other words, regular medicine, if it turns out to work, but describing it as being experimental would be more appropriate. Baars’ article states that the review also contains herbal medicine. This is somewhat exaggerated: only one of the 35 studies deals with herbs. Of the remaining 28 studies, 25 cover bacterial extracts and three thymus extracts. Again: Baars does not make clear what this has to do with the CAM that EUROCAM represents.

In summary, EUROCAM is a small European lobbying organisation with perhaps some influence at both European and WHO level. One keeps coming across the same names. The organisation is currently using woolly, disguising language to mask medical claims and to fend off criticism. In the past, this was different when EUROCAM, by means of Ton Nicolaï among others, made very reprehensible statements about the role of CAM in (respiratory tract) infections. For the time being, this little club does not seem to pose much of a threat, but European politicians should, of course, ignore this hobby club.

 

References

1. ‘Improving patient resilience to reduce the need to rely on anti-infection treatment: the role of Integrative Medicine’. EUROCAM. https://cam-europe.eu/statement-on-amr-2021/ (visited on 28 December 2021) 2. EUROCAM. https://cam-europe.eu/contribution-of-cam-for-a-better-health/cam-in-the-context-of-cancer/ (visited on 3 October 2021) 3. EUROCAM. https://cam-europe.eu/contribution-of-cam-for-a-better-health/cam-in-the-context-of-cancer/ (visited on 3 October 2021) 4. EUROCAM. https://cam-europe.eu/contribution-of-cam-for-a-better-health/cam-in-the-context-of-cancer/ (visited on 3 October 2021)

5. Miranda Ruchtie. In gesprek met Ton Nicolaï, CAM integreren in de Europese gezondheidszorg. [In discussion with Ton Nicolaï, integrating CAM into the European health care system]. Nederlandse Vereniging van Klassiek Homeopaten. [Dutch Association of Classical Homeopaths] https://www.nvkh.nl/nieuwsbrieven-nvkh/interview-met-ton-nicolai (visited on 3 October 2021)

6. Erik Baars, et al. Reducing the need for antibiotics, the contribution of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. EUROCAM, 2018. https://cam-europe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/CAM-AMR-EUROCAM-Post-Conference-Paper-2018.pdf (visited on 3 October 2021)

7. Erik W. Baars et al. The Contribution of Complementary and Alternative Medicine to Reduce Antibiotic Use: A Narrative Review of Health Concepts, Prevention, and Treatment Strategies. Evid. Based Complement. Alternat. Med., 2019:5365608. DOI: 10.1155/2019/5365608

8. Edzard Ernst. “EBCAM: an alt med journal that puzzles me a great deal”, URL: http://edzardernst.com/2016/05/ebcam-an-alt-med-journal-that-puzzles-me-a-great-deal/ (visited on 8 January 2022)

9. B. E. Del-Rio-Navarro, F. J. Espinosa-Rosales, V. Flenady, and J. J. Sienra-Monge, “Cochrane Review: Immunostimulants for preventing respiratory tract infection in children,” Evidence-Based Child Health: A Cochrane Review Journal, 2012, 7 (2), 629–717.

I have previously reported about the ‘Havelhöhe Community Hospital’ in Berlin and its medical director, Prof Harald Matthes. He made headlines two years ago when he claimed that anthroposophical remedies were effective for treating COVID. More recently, Matthes made headlines again when he went on TV claiming that serious adverse effects of COVID vaccinations were 40 times more frequent than generally accepted.

Now a German newspaper reports more about the ‘Havelhöhe Community Hospital’ and its medical director. Here are a few (translated) passages from this remarkable article:

At the Havelhöhe Community Hospital in Berlin, there are considerable shortcomings in the handling of the Corona pandemic … basic protective measures are in part neither adhered to nor monitored. In addition, employees of the anthroposophical clinic are recommended a vaccination regimen for which there is no approval, i.e. the option of “dose splitting with frequency increase,” in which the vaccine usually administered at one time is to be divided among several injections.

However, there is no official basis for this vaccination scheme. “There is no vaccine approved for it, and it does not correspond in any way to the Stiko recommendation,” said Gudrun Widders, the public health officer responsible. “My hair stands on end when I hear that,” says the head of the Berlin-Spandau health department, who is also a member of the Standing Commission on Vaccination.

Visitors of the hospital Havelhöhe can enter buildings and wards without control of the inoculation status or a daily updated test result which is against current regulations in Germany. While other Berlin hospitals such as the Charité imposed bans on visitors, a public concert took place at Havelhöhe Hospital, where the audience did not wear a mask, contrary to the valid Corona protection regulation. Employees of the hospital also report to the taz that many of the hospital staff are lax about wearing masks, even when on duty.

“I can only say something when I see someone,” said hospital director Harald Matthes. “And I don’t see anyone with me in the hospital who walks around without a mask.” Matthes had publicly criticized corona measures as excessive on several occasions.

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I have said it before and I say it again: in my view, Matthes’ behavior amounts to serious professional misconduct. I, therefore, suggest that his professional body, the Aerztekammer, look into it with a view of preventing further harm.

 

 

 

During the last two years, I have written more often than I care to remember about the numerous links between so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy. For instance:

Whenever I publish a post on these subjects, some enthusiasts of SCAM argue that, despite all this evidence, they are not really against COVID vaccinations. But who is correct? What proportions of SCAM practitioners are pro or contra? One way to find out is to check how they themselves behave. Do they get vaccinated or not?

Here are some recent data from Canada that seem to provide an answer.

A breakdown of vaccination rates among Canadian healthcare professions has been released, based on data gathered from 17 of B.C.’s 18 regulated colleges. The findings are most revealing:

  • dieticians, physicians, and surgeons lead the way, with vaccination rates of 98%,
  • occupational therapists were at 97%,
  • Chinese medicine practitioners and acupuncturists were at 79%,
  • chiropractors at 78%
  • naturopaths at 69%.

The provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is still working with the colleges on how to notify patients about their practitioner’s vaccination status. “We are working with each college on how to build it into professional standards. The overriding principle is patient status,” she told a news conference. “It may be things like when you call to book, you are asked whether you would prefer to see a vaccinated or unvaccinated professional. We are trying to protect privacy and provide agency to make the decision.”

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As far as I am aware, these are unique data. It would be interesting to see additional evidence. If anyone knows about vaccination rates in other countries of acupuncturists, herbalists, homeopaths, osteopaths, Heilpraktiker, etc. I would love to learn more.

I was alerted to the following short article from ‘The Blackpool Gazette‘:

Criminals have been using the brand name Pfizer to sell fake homeopathic vaccines to residents, according to police. The white tablets are sold under the pretence that they are an alternative to traditional vaccines, but actually contain no active ingredient. Analysis conducted by Lancashire Police revealed the tablets were nothing more than sugar pills. “Please note Pfizer do not produce any tablets as a cure or prophylactic for COVID-19,” a spokesman for the force added.

What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a “treatment” based on the use of highly diluted substances, which practitioners claim can help the body heal itself, according to the NHS. A 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos. In 2017, NHS England said it would no longer fund homeopathy on the NHS as the lack of any evidence for its effectiveness did not justify the cost. This was backed by a High Court judgement in 2018.

I think there might be a slight misunderstanding here. The homeopathic remedy might not be fake, as it was produced according to the concepts of homeopathy. It is homeopathy itself that is fake. To me, it looks as though we are dealing with the German product I mentioned a while ago. Let me remind you:

Many people believe that homeopathy is essentially plant-based – but they are mistaken! Homeopathic remedies can be made from anything: Berlin wall, X-ray, pus, excrement, dental plaque, mobile phone rays, poisons … anything you can possibly think of. So, why not from vaccines?

This is exactly what a pharmacist specialized in homeopathy thought.

It has been reported that the ‘Schloss-Apotheke’ in Koblenz, Germany offered for sale a homeopathic remedy made from the Pfizer vaccine. This has since prompted not only the Chamber of Pharmacists but also the Paul Ehrlich Institute and Pfizer to issue statements. On Friday (30/4/2021) morning, the pharmacy had advertised homeopathic remedies based on the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine. The Westphalia-Lippe Chamber of Pharmacists then issued an explicit warning against it. “We are stunned by this,” said a spokesman. The offer has since disappeared from the pharmacy’s website.

On Friday afternoon, the manufacturer of the original vaccine also intervened. The Paul Ehrlich Institute released a statement making it clear that a vaccine is only safe “if it is administered in accordance with the marketing authorization.”

The Schloss-Apotheke had advertised the product in question with the following words:

“We have Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19-Vaccine in potentized form up to D30 as globules or dilution (for discharge) in stock.”

The chamber of pharmacists countered with a warming under the heading “Facts instead of Fake News” on Facebook and Instagram:

“Whatever they might contain: These remedies are no effective protection against Covid-19.”

Pharmacy manager, Annette Eichele, of the Schloss-Apotheke claimed she had not sold homeopathic Corona vaccines and stressed that effective vaccines of this kind do not exist. According to Eichele, only an additional “mini drop” of the original Biontech vaccine had been used and “highly potentized” and prepared homeopathically. According to Eichele, Corona vaccinations that had already been administered were thus to have a “better and more correct effect with this supplementary product, possibly without causing side effects … but this is not scientifically proven”. The homeopathic product had been produced only on customer request and had been sold less than a dozen times in the past weeks. Ten grams of the remedy were sold for about 15 Euros. On Twitter, Eichele stated: „Wir haben nichts Böses getan, wir wollten nur Menschen helfen!“ (We have done nothing evil, we only wanted to help people). I am reminded yet again of Bert Brecht who observed:

“The opposite of good is not evil but good intentions”.

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If I am right, the remedy is not truly fake but a genuine product of a fake concept, namely homeopathy. In that case, the term ‘criminal’ might need to be applied to homeopathy itself – an interesting thought!

Harad Matthes, the boss of the anthroposophical Krankenhaus Havelhoehe and professor for Integrative and Anthroposophical Medicine at the Charite in Berlin, has featured on my blog before (see here and here). Now he is making headlines again.

Die Zeit‘ reported that Matthes went on German TV to claim that the rate of severe adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccinations is about 40 times higher than the official figures indicate. In the MDR broadcast ‘Umschau’ Matthes said that his unpublished data show a rate of 0,8% of severe adverse effects. In an interview, he later confirmed this notion. Yet, the official figures in Germany indicate that the rate is 0,02%.

How can this be?

Die ZEIT ONLINE did some research and found that Matthes’ data are based on extremely shoddy science and mistakes. The Carite also distanced themselves from Matthes’ evaluation: “The investigation is an open survey and not really a scientific study. The data are not suitable for drawing definitive conclusions regarding incidence figures in the population that can be generalized” The problems with Matthes’ ‘study’ seem to be sevenfold:

  1. The data are not published and can thus not be scrutinized.
  2. Matthes’ definition of a severe adverse effect is not in keeping with the generally accepted definition.
  3. Matthes did not verify the adverse effects but relied on the information volunteered by people over the Internet.
  4. Matthes’ survey is based on an online questionnaire accessible to anyone. Thus it is wide open to selection bias.
  5. The sample size of the survey is around 10 000 which is far too small for generalizable conclusions.
  6. There is no control group which makes it impossible to differentiate a meaningful signal from mere background noise.
  7. The data contradict those from numerous other studies that were considerably more rigorous.

Despite these obvious flaws Matthes insisted in a conversation with ZEIT ONLINE that the German official incidence figures are incorrect. As Germany already has its fair share of anti-vaxxers, Matthes’ unfounded and irresponsible claims contribute significantly to the public sentiments against COVID vaccinations. They thus endangering public health.

In my view, such behavior amounts to serious professional misconduct. I, therefore, feel that his professional body, the Aerztekammer, should look into it and prevent further harm.

The pandemic has shown how difficult it can be to pass laws stopping healthcare professionals from giving unsound medical advice has proved challenging. The right to freedom of speech regularly conflicts with the duty to protect the public. How can a government best sail between Scylla and Charybdis? JAMA has just published an interesting paper addressing these issues. Here is an excerpt from the article that might stimulate some discussion:

The government can take several actions, including:

  • Imposing sanctions on COVID-19–related practices by licensed professionals that flout substantive laws in connection with providing medical services, even if those medical services include speech. This includes physicians failing to comply with COVID-19–related public health laws applicable to medical offices and health facilities, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and restrictions on elective procedures.
  • Sanctioning recommendations by professionals that patients take illegal medications or controlled substances without following legally required procedures. The government can also sanction the marketing by others of prescription medications for unapproved indications. However, “off-label” prescribing by physicians (eg, for hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin) remains lawful as long as a medication is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for any indication and no specific legal conditions on use are in effect.
  • Enforcing tort law actions (eg, malpractice, lack of informed consent) in cases of alleged patient injury that result from recommending a potentially dangerous treatment or failing to recommend a necessary treatment.
  • Imposing sanctions on individualized medical advice by unlicensed individuals or organizations if giving that advice constitutes the unlawful practice of medicine.

In addition, the government probably can:

  • Impose sanctions for false or misleading information offered to obtain a financial or personal benefit, particularly if giving the information constitutes fraud under applicable law. This would encompass physicians who knowingly spread false information to create celebrity or attract patients.
  • Threaten disciplinary action by licensing boards against health professionals whose speech to patients conveys incorrect science or substandard medicine.
  • Specify the information that may and may not be imparted by private organizations and professionals as part of specific clinical services paid for by government, such as special programs for COVID-19 testing or treatment.
  • Reject legal challenges to, and enforce through generally applicable contract or employment laws, any restrictions private health care organizations place on speech by affiliated health professionals, particularly in the absence of special laws conferring “conscience” protections. This would include medical staff membership and privileges, hospital or other employment agreements, and insurance network participation.
  • Enforce restrictions on speech adopted by private professional or self-regulatory organizations if the consequences for violations are limited to revoking organizational membership or accreditation.

However, the government probably cannot:

  • Compel or limit health professional speech not made in connection with patient care, even if the speech is false or misleading, regardless of its alleged effect on public trust in health professions.
  • Sanction speech to the general public rather than to patients, whether or not by health professionals, especially if conveyed with a disclaimer that the speech is “not intended as medical advice.”
  • Sanction speech by health professionals to patients conveying political views or skepticism of government policy.
  • Enforce restrictions involving information by public universities and public hospitals that legislatures, regulatory agencies, and professional licensing boards would not be constitutionally permitted to impose directly.
  • Adopt restrictions on information related to overall clinical services funded by large government health programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

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The article was obviously written with MDs in mind and applies only to US law. As we have seen in previous posts and comments, the debate is, however, wider. We should, I think, also have it in relation to practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and medical ethics. Moreover, it should go beyond advice about COVID and be extended to any medical advice given by any type of healthcare practitioner.

Vaccine hesitancy is currently recognized by the WHO as a major threat to global health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing interest in the role of social media in the propagation of false information and fringe narratives regarding vaccination. Using a sample of approximately 60 billion tweets, Danish investigators conducted a large-scale analysis of the vaccine discourse on Twitter. They used methods from deep learning and transfer learning to estimate the vaccine sentiments expressed in tweets, then categorize individual-level user attitudes towards vaccines. Drawing on an interaction graph representing mutual interactions between users, They analyzed the interplay between vaccine stances, interaction network, and the information sources shared by users in vaccine-related contexts.

The results show that strongly anti-vaccine users frequently share content from sources of a commercial nature; typically sources that sell alternative health products for profit. An interesting aspect of this finding is that concerns regarding commercial conflicts of interests are often cited as one of the major factors in vaccine hesitancy.

The authors furthermore demonstrate that the debate is highly polarized, in the sense that users with similar stances on vaccination interact preferentially with one another. Extending this insight, the authors provide evidence of an epistemic echo chamber effect, where users are exposed to highly dissimilar sources of vaccine information, enforcing the vaccination stance of their contacts.

The authors concluded that their findings highlight the importance of understanding and addressing vaccine mis- and disinformation in the context in which they are disseminated in social networks.

In the article, the authors comment that their findings paint a picture of the vaccine discourse on Twitter as highly polarized, where users who express similar sentiments regarding vaccinations are more likely to interact with one another, and tend to share contents from similar sources. Focusing on users whose vaccination stances are the positive and negative extremes of the spectrum, we observe relatively disjoint ‘epistemic echo chambers’ which imply that members of the two groups of users rarely interact, and in which users experience highly dissimilar ‘information landscapes’ depending on their stance. Finally, we find that strongly anti-vaccine users much more frequently share information from actors with a vested commercial interest in promoting medical misinformation.

One implication of these findings is that online (medical) misinformation may present an even greater problem than previously thought, because beliefs and behaviors in tightly knit, internally homogeneous communities are more resilient, and provide fertile ground for fringe narratives, while mainstream information is attenuated. Furthermore, such polarization of communities may become self-perpetuating, because individuals avoid those not sharing their views, or because exposure to mainstream information might further entrench fringe viewpoints.

I have to admit that I grew tired of endless discussions around COVID with people who deny the proven facts. Yes, there is much uncertainty – as would be expected in a situation that in many ways was unprecedented. But there are also important issues that are quite clear:
  • COVID vaccinations are not 100% harmless but they generate much more good than harm.
  • They are certainly far less dangerous than the disease.
  • COVID infections are not ‘just a flu’ but have serious consequences.

The last point was well-documented in a recent Lancet paper. Here is its abstract in full

Mortality statistics are fundamental to public health decision making. Mortality varies by time and location, and its measurement is affected by well known biases that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper aims to estimate excess mortality from the COVID-19 pandemic in 191 countries and territories, and 252 subnational units for selected countries, from Jan 1, 2020, to Dec 31, 2021.

Methods

All-cause mortality reports were collected for 74 countries and territories and 266 subnational locations (including 31 locations in low-income and middle-income countries) that had reported either weekly or monthly deaths from all causes during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and for up to 11 year previously. In addition, we obtained excess mortality data for 12 states in India. Excess mortality over time was calculated as observed mortality, after excluding data from periods affected by late registration and anomalies such as heat waves, minus expected mortality. Six models were used to estimate expected mortality; final estimates of expected mortality were based on an ensemble of these models. Ensemble weights were based on root mean squared errors derived from an out-of-sample predictive validity test. As mortality records are incomplete worldwide, we built a statistical model that predicted the excess mortality rate for locations and periods where all-cause mortality data were not available. We used least absolute shrinkage and selection operator (LASSO) regression as a variable selection mechanism and selected 15 covariates, including both covariates pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as seroprevalence, and to background population health metrics, such as the Healthcare Access and Quality Index, with direction of effects on excess mortality concordant with a meta-analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the selected best model, we ran a prediction process using 100 draws for each covariate and 100 draws of estimated coefficients and residuals, estimated from the regressions run at the draw level using draw-level input data on both excess mortality and covariates. Mean values and 95% uncertainty intervals were then generated at national, regional, and global levels. Out-of-sample predictive validity testing was done on the basis of our final model specification.

Findings

Although reported COVID-19 deaths between Jan 1, 2020, and Dec 31, 2021, totalled 5·94 million worldwide, we estimate that 18·2 million (95% uncertainty interval 17·1–19·6) people died worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic (as measured by excess mortality) over that period. The global all-age rate of excess mortality due to the COVID-19 pandemic was 120·3 deaths (113·1–129·3) per 100 000 of the population, and excess mortality rate exceeded 300 deaths per 100 000 of the population in 21 countries. The number of excess deaths due to COVID-19 was largest in the regions of south Asia, north Africa and the Middle East, and eastern Europe. At the country level, the highest numbers of cumulative excess deaths due to COVID-19 were estimated in India (4·07 million [3·71–4·36]), the USA (1·13 million [1·08–1·18]), Russia (1·07 million [1·06–1·08]), Mexico (798 000 [741 000–867 000]), Brazil (792 000 [730 000–847 000]), Indonesia (736 000 [594 000–955 000]), and Pakistan (664 000 [498 000–847 000]). Among these countries, the excess mortality rate was highest in Russia (374·6 deaths [369·7–378·4] per 100 000) and Mexico (325·1 [301·6–353·3] per 100 000), and was similar in Brazil (186·9 [172·2–199·8] per 100 000) and the USA (179·3 [170·7–187·5] per 100 000).

Interpretation

The full impact of the pandemic has been much greater than what is indicated by reported deaths due to COVID-19 alone. Strengthening death registration systems around the world, long understood to be crucial to global public health strategy, is necessary for improved monitoring of this pandemic and future pandemics. In addition, further research is warranted to help distinguish the proportion of excess mortality that was directly caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection and the changes in causes of death as an indirect consequence of the pandemic.

I am posting this in the hope that the many proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) who deny proven facts about COVID might learn and stop falling victim to proctophasia.

The associations between so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and negative attitudes to vaccinations are, as discussed repeatedly on this blog, strong and undeniable. A new paper sheds more light on these issues.

By far the most common strategy used in the attempt to modify negative attitudes toward vaccination is to appeal to evidence-based reasoning. However, focusing on science comprehension is inconsistent with one of the key facts of cognitive psychology: Humans are biased information processors and often engage in motivated reasoning. On this basis, it is hypothesized that negative attitudes can be explained primarily by factors unrelated to the empirical evidence for vaccination; including some shared attitudes that also attract people to SCAM.

This study tested psychosocial factors associated with SCAM endorsement in past research; including aspects of spirituality, intuitive (vs analytic) thinking styles, and the personality trait of openness to experience. These relationships were tested in a cross-sectional, stratified CATI survey (N = 1256, 624 Females).

Questions regarding SCAM were derived from a previously validated instrument, designed to standardize the measurement of SCAM utilization, and distinguish between those that use a particular SCAM from those that do not. Each SCAM item provided an indication of whether the respondent had utilized each of the following therapeutic or self-treatment activities within the last 12 months:

  • herbal and homeopathic remedies,
  • energy-based and body therapies (including therapeutic massage),
  • vitamins, yoga, meditation, prayer, body therapies, hypnosis, spiritual healing,
  • and chiropractic or osteopathic treatments.

The results show that educational level and thinking style did not predict vaccination rejection. Psychosocial factors such as

  • preferring SCAM to conventional medicine (OR .49, 95% CI .36-.66),
  • endorsement of spirituality as a source of knowledge (OR .83, 95% CI .71-.96),
  • openness (OR .86, 95% CI .74-.99),

all predicted negative attitudes to vaccination. Furthermore, for 9 of the 12 SCAMs surveyed, utilisation in the last 12 months was associated with lower levels of vaccination endorsement. Additionally, the rank-order correlation between the number of different alternative therapies used in the last 12 months and vaccination attitude score was significant. Finally, analytical thinking style was negatively related to all forms of CAM, with this relationship significant in three cases:

  • herbal remedies ρ = −.08, p = .0014,
  • homeopathy, ρ = −.06, p = .0236,
  • prayer for the purpose of healing, ρ = −.15, p < .0001.

The authors concluded that vaccination scepticism appears to be the outcome of a particular cultural and psychological orientation leading to unwillingness to engage with the scientific evidence. Vaccination compliance might be increased either by building general confidence and understanding of evidence-based medicine, or by appealing to features usually associated with SCAM, e.g. ‘strengthening your natural resistance to disease’.

In the discussion section of their paper, the authors argue that these results describe a vaccine sceptic as viewing themselves as anti-authoritarian and unconventional, with a preference for unorthodox treatments with spiritual or ‘life-affirming’ features. The significant effect for personality, but not for cognitive style, is congruent with the notion that it is a reluctance to engage with the evidence, rather than a lack of capacity to appropriately process the evidence, that predicts vaccination scepticism…

SCAM endorsement and vaccination scepticism are components of a common attitudinal stance, with some shared psychosocial determinants. The results of the present study indicate that vaccination rejection is related to psychosocial factors: a general preference for complementary over conventional medicines, valuing diverse and unconventional alternatives, and a spiritual orientation to attitude formation. The null findings with regard to cognitive style and educational level suggest that factors unrelated to the actual empirical evidence for vaccination – i.e. a particular personality and attitudinal mindset are most instrumental in determining vaccination attitudes. Efforts to counter vaccination concerns should be mindful that negative vaccination views appear to form part of a broader attitudinal system that does not necessarily trust empirical or positivist evidence from authoritative sources. Vaccination promotion efforts may benefit from targeting groups associated with SCAM and building general confidence in scientific medicine, rather than targeting specific misunderstandings regarding vaccination.

Yesterday I received the following interesting email:

Pfizer your God father has now officially released the list ofAdverse events.. it’s huge.. and it’s official…If you guys had half a brainYou would have seen this coming.. calling others quacks..Pfizer clowns need to be hung on a tree just like Judas..

Is this a death threat?

Probably!

Never mind, I am getting used to them.

The first one that I remember came when I was still working at my department in Exeter. We had to call the police who instructed my secretaries how to identify letter bombs without opening them. We had reason to believe that such a device had been posted to me. Not a nice experience!

Since then, death threats have arrived with some regularity.

The one above, however, seems special.

I do not recall advertising the Pfizer vaccine on this blog and elsewhere. It seems therefore that the author (who used the following email address: John <nicetry@hotmail.com>) is more than mildly deranged.

Am I worried? No, not about my safety (but a little about John, I must admit). I have long learned that such aggressions of this nature are a sign that I am probably on the right path. They are, in other words, a victory of reason over unreason.

So, maybe I will start advertising the Pfizer vaccine after all?

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