An unhealthy dose of rubbish
It is that time of the year when conversation around the office water cooler changes from comments about the hot weather to the astute observation that it is getting cooler in the morning.
It then progresses to the annual debate about flu vaccination — whether it is worthwhile or a waste of time and money.
And invariably it will include the observation from at least one vaccine sceptic that having the jab actually gives you a mini-dose of the flu. Or how someone’s great-uncle does not have the flu vaccine, is never sick and is still alive at 93.
When it comes to winter bugs, everyone has a theory about how to avoid them or get rid of them.
Unfortunately, a fair chunk of them are based on hearsay or what is becoming the growing industry of “rubbish science” which is overtaking the health world.
There is so much information that does the rounds it is difficult to tease out credible information from the mythology. As health consumers, we can get so much advice at the click of a few buttons but it is not without its downside and risks.
Because no one wants to be on prescription pills or having probing diagnostic tests unless they really have to, there is a drift to more natural treatments and tests, even if they have not passed the same rigorous testing.
The complementary medicines industry is now worth a reported $3.55 billion a year in Australia, and while some products and therapies undoubtedly have a benefit, others are largely unproved.
A few are downright dangerous, none more so than homeopathic vaccines that claim to protect children from disease, without the side effects from conventional vaccines.
For the record, the flu vaccine used in Australia does not give you the flu because there is no live virus in it.
That does not mean you might not have a few uncomfortable symptoms such as a sore arm for a few days but if you get a cold or bug afterwards, it is just bad luck more than anything.
Vaccines more generally remain the source of scaremongering and misinformation but they are not an orphan when it comes to being the victim of rubbish science and unsubstantiated claims. And others are just as potentially dangerous.
Take breast cancer screening, which continues to be a hotly debated issue in research circles.
Is the government-funded mammography program BreastScreen worthwhile, or do too many women have false positives and end up having unnecessary biopsies?
Strong critics of the program argue it is not very effective, but while it’s true it has limits, it’s still the best test we have.
A recent study showed a 20 per cent reduction in death rates in women over the age of 45 who have regular mammograms, which is not insignificant.
Scrutinising the value of mammography is worthwhile because it could lead to measures that improve the accuracy of these tests. But a few years ago it gave rise to a surge in alternative tests using electrical frequency and thermal imaging, which had absolutely no value in breast cancer detection.
Worryingly, there were several cases in Australia where women were checked with these unproved tests and cleared of disease, only to have breast cancer diagnosed at a later, more advanced stage through conventional tests.
For these women, the alternative tests were not just a waste of time and money, they were potentially lethal.
Thankfully, as a result of complaints from the Cancer Council and others that led to a successful prosecution by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, these alternative tests have been largely stamped out.
The issue highlights the importance of robust scientific debate and scrutiny of a test or treatment that has been shown to have value but may have a downside.
We need to be questioning. Gone are the days of blithely accepting all the health advice we are bombarded with.
But rubbish science is different. It often preys on vulnerable people, their time, money and emotions.
It can also appeal to the more educated, convincing them that they know better than the so-called experts and challenging that authority is a sign of intelligence.
The research world is always moving forward and never static, and this can present the problem of seemingly conflicting findings that make it hard for the average consumer to decipher the wheat from the chaff.
There is also a natural resistance to “big pharma” and what many see as the growing medicalisation of health which has helped to fuel pseudoscientific nonsense.
But where does that leave the good old-fashioned health advice we got from our parents or grandmother, that clearly was not from a peer-reviewed medical journal?
Well, thankfully, while they did not have the benefit of the internet, one very basic piece of advice over the generations seems to have held true.
Studies by Cardiff University in Wales have found that getting wet really is linked to getting a cold, apparently because blood vessels in the nose constrict when we’re wet or cold and this helps bugs get into the nose and gain the upper hand.
So, while we need the serious science, when your mother told you to stay dry and out of the rain she was clearly on to something.
© The West Australian
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