Interview in Crazy Wisdom Journal

Last fall, I was interviewed in the Crazy Wisdom Journal (CW is a local bookstore and hub for local healing arts), and the interview was recently published. Like all written materials, things have changed slightly since it was written, but it’s mostly up to date. It’s pretty in-depth and long, but I don’t think it’s too boring to finish.
For people who want to get a better idea of my philosophy of health care, this is a good read.
Also, for people who like to nitpick, there is a small error on page 44 (don’t worry, it starts on page 42: it’s not
that long) where I said “disease sensitivities” instead of “food sensitivities”.
In any event, it is a decent read and the PDF can be found by clicking here:
The Crazy Wisdom Interview with Malcolm Sickels MD.

How effective is the Shingles vaccine?

These days, the shingles vaccine (for herpes zoster) can be found at just about any pharmacy. However it’s been hard to find real numbers on the benefit of this vaccine and so once again scare tactics come into play to get people to get the vaccine. How effective is it really? (Please note all these studies were done on healthy seniors, whose incidence of shingles is higher than younger populations.)
A
new study came out which adds to a previous study showing that the vaccine reduces the burden of illness by 50% and the incidence of post-herpetic neuralgia (where the pain of shingles never goes away) by 60%. In the new study, it looks like the benefit of the vaccine drops dramatically after the fourth year, so people would need to get a new shot every 5 years or so.
So, the cumulative risk reduction is about 50% for getting shingles and 60% for getting post-herpetic neuralgia, which sounds great, but what does that really mean for the person getting the shot. After all, if you wore a metal helmet around all the time, it might reduce your risk of getting killed by a meteorite by 50%, but the risk of getting hit my a meteorite is so small in the first place (less than 1 in 5 billion/year) that it’s not worth the trouble to wear the helmet.
In the study, the annual risk of getting shingles in seniors was 1.1% without a vaccine and 0.54% with the shot, meaning 0.57% of the people who get the vaccine will avoid shingles because of it. Put another way, if 175 people got the vaccine 1 person wouldn’t get shingles because of it. Usually, shingles is a temporary annoyance (about 1 in 8 seniors getting shingles will get post-herpetic neuralgia), so 175 shots and $38,500 (around $220/shot) seems like a lot to prevent 1 case of shingles. But wait! The shot gives similar protection for about 5 years, so we have to amortize that cost over 5 years: 35 shots and $7,700 to prevent 1 case of shingles.
However, post-herpetic neuralgia can be quite devastating, so what does it cost to prevent that? The risk in seniors is about 0.14% per year and goes down to 0.046% with the shot, so 0.09% of those who get the shot will avoid post-herpetic neuralgia each year. That’s 1087 shots, but spread over 5 years it’s only 217 shots to prevent 1 case of post-herpetic neuralgia at a cost of around $48,000. Compare that to the risk if avoiding a second heart attack by taking a statin: 50 people taking it for 5 years to prevent 1 heart attack at a cost of (say $20/month on the cheap end: $1200/person x50 people) $60,000.
What does all this mean to you? If you are a senior and get a shingles shot (for about $220), you have a 1 in 35 chance it will prevent you from getting shingles over the next 5 years and a 1 in 217 chance it will prevent you from getting post-herpetic neuralgia in the next 5 years. Better odds than wearing a meteor-protecting helmet (everyone on the planet would have to wear one for a few years to prevent 1 death from meteor), but still something to think about.
Also, note that having shingles is at least as effective at preventing future episodes of shingles as the vaccine is, so no need to get the vaccine if you’ve had shingles within the past five years.
Finally, understand that this is only looking at the simplest to measure outcome of the vaccine and monetary costs associated with it. Costs from side effects haven’t been discussed. Whatever immune dysregulation may occur from this vaccine is not only difficult to measure (it isn’t going to happen right away so would be hard to connect with the event of being vaccinated), but actively hidden (any reaction severe enough do trigger a lawsuit and prompt enough to implicate a vaccine bypasses the normal court system and goes to a special vaccine court, where all outcomes are kept secret, so there is no record of how much of a problem there is from any vaccine).

Time will tell.

Recently, I had a new patient who had been inappropriately placed on Fosamax (a bisphosphonate) for a bone density that just barely edged into the osteopenia range. She didn’t like being on it and persuaded her doctor to take her off it after 5 years. Recently, another doctor put her back on it (after 8 years off) because her bone density was about the same (i.e. still osteopenia).
Now, I know that 15 years ago, Fosamax was new and the
drug reps were pushing it hard and everyone thought it was the bee’s knees, so it’s understandable (but not justifiable) for her doctor to have placed her on Fosamax then. Now, however, it’s generic so there’s no drug rep pushing the medication, so why would a physician be prescribing it inappropriately?
Well, despite my
pointing out that this is poor practice by the evidence five years ago, an article on the current evidence of these medications’ lack of benefit with long term use only came out today after FDA presentations about the lack of efficacy.
The risks have been continually underplayed: osteonecrosis of the jaw and atypical fractures. Both of these, like most side effects, are dramatically under-reported. An oral surgeon isn’t going to want it getting out that a patient got osteonecrosis of the jaw, so is going to avoid working on people with risk and downplay what does happen. Meanwhile, atypical fractures aren’t going to get reported simply because the people seeing them (mostly ER docs) are too busy and are just trying to get the patient better. So, the true incidence of these risks is probably dramatically higher than what is reported in the literature.
It’s unfortunate that the real data on risks and lack of benefit of these medications only comes out once the medication goes off patent. We see the same with the PPIs (Prilosec, Nexium, etc): nutritional docs have been pointing out the risks for years, but now that they are off patent, the risks of pneumonia, bone loss, and small intestine bacterial overgrowth are starting to trickle out into the mainstream press.
Could it be that media corporations are hesitant to bite the hand that feeds them? Ever since direct-to-consumer drug advertising started, those advertising dollars have bought silence from the news outlets in addition to interest from patients. Perhaps the for-profit media is only willing to speak ill of a drug once it’s gone generic and the profits have already dried up.

HBOT for Horses

Last monday there was an article in the New York Times on using alternative therapies for treating racehorses. Among the treatments discussed was hyperbaric oxygen for healing up muscles better and faster.
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It’s nice that the benefits of
HBOT are getting some recognition. By delivering more oxygen to the tissues, it can speed wound healing and help bring damaged tissues back from the brink.
There’s more and more data on the benefits of using it and we’re finally starting to see
some research on the benefits of mild hyperbaric therapy (1.5 atmospheres pressure or less).

Settling for treatment

I was talking to some of my neighbors today about IPT (Insulin Potentiated Therapy), and how it uses lower doses of chemotherapy with fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy and may even produce better outcomes (though there’s not much research on it). One of them asked why more doctors aren’t learning how to do this. To me, the reason seems straightforward in our current medical system: there’s no economic incentive to do it.
In order to learn to do IPT, a doctor needs to take time off work to learn to do it. That means no income for that time (actually, losing money since overhead costs remains when the doctor isn’t working) without much potential for increased revenue after learning the treatment. Hospitals and offices make money from delivering chemotherapy by marking up the drugs they are giving in addition to charging for services. More chemo and higher priced chemo (recent cancer drugs cost 20-200 times more than older drugs and may not give any more substantial benefit) means more money to keep the offices open and funds to cover fancy new cancer clinics and free art therapy classes. So, using less drug (IPT typically uses 10% of the usual dose) or older drugs (a vial of an old medication can be as little as $15 where a vial of a newer drug like Topotecan costs nearly $2000 per vial and others cost more... remember that chemo may use multiple vials and costs to administer the drugs will add substantially to the price) would substantially reduce the revenues of these offices and hospitals.
With big organizations, money drives everything they do and a potential loss of income (switching from larger margin chemos to smaller amount of cheaper drugs) isn’t going to contribute to a healthy bottom line.
It is an unfortunate reality that in this country there’s more interest in doing more expensive procedures than a less expensive procedure that may perform better.

Gluten in hemp milk

I’ve heard a case report of hemp milk having gluten in it. After noticing a reaction that correlated with hemp milk drinking, one person sampled every brand and flavor she could find and they all tested positive for gluten with an in-home kit. She had a conversation with one of the companies who told her that the farmers who grow hemp also grow barley, so cross-contamination is probably the issue.
Yes, the hemp milk was labeled gluten-free, but in the US right now there is no legal definition of gluten-free. So, if there’s any lesson in this, it’s that we should push the FDA to hurry up and settle on a definition of what “gluten-free” means.

I'm not crazy: aspirin for everyone?

I sometimes start to wonder if I’m crazy when conventional docs continually and persistently do things that I’m sure are a bad idea. Are they all practicing bad medicine or am I crazy? It’s nice when I’m reassured that I was right all along.
This time, it’s about aspirin. Whenever anyone over the age of 35 goes into a doctor’s office, it seems like the doctors routinely put them on an aspirin a day. The dose of aspirin depends on the doctor’s specialty: primary care docs recommend 81mg and cardiologists want people on 325mg or more.
Ostensibly, the aspirin is to reduce the risk of heart attacks. It reduces the stickiness of platelets (which make blood clot), making them less likely to clump and clog up arteries and cause heart attacks and ischemic strokes (caused by a clot).
However, aspirin is (like most drugs) not an entirely benign substance. It can cause bleeds in the stomach and intestine, which can be worsened by the anti-clotting actions of it. In addition, it can increase the risk of any type of bleeding, particularly hemorrhagic strokes (caused by a bleed rather than a clot: less common but worse).
Recent research has demonstrated that while aspirin does reduce the risk of another heart attack in people who have had one, it isn’t so impressive in people who have never had a heart attack. In particular, the only people who haven’t had a heart attack yet who should be candidates for daily aspirin use are people over 45 (men) or 55 (women) who are already at high risk of a heart attack and don’t have risk of bleeding (BP is close to normal and not at risk for falls).
Now the big question: if some should get aspirin, what dose should they get? Once again, the
primary care docs provide better care than specialists: 81mg provides better risk reduction and less increase in risk than 325mg. In fact, it appears that higher doses of aspirin might blunt the anti-platelet effects in addition to increasing the risks of adverse events (however it appears that cardiologists might not be reading their own journals like Chest).
So, how effective is it? Well, 119 high-risk men under 60 would need to take aspirin for 5 years to prevent one heart attack. Over those 5 years, there is a little more than a 1 in 3 chance that someone in that group will have a major intestinal bleed because of the aspirin. Put another way, if we took 1000 men with a 6% 10-year risk of hart attack and gave them aspirin for 10 years, we will have prevented 19 heart attacks (dropping the number from 60 to 41), caused 8 major bleeds and 1 hemorrhagic stroke. Men can
look up their risk/benefit ratio here.
In women, the benefit is less impressive: the chance of preventing a stroke is less and isn’t that different from the chance of causing a bleed. Women can
look up the specific risk/benefit ratios here.
However, if you are
having a heart attack, one of the best things you can do (in addition to calling 9-1-1) is chew up and swallow an aspirin. I’d still make the phone call first, though.

Finally some clear-headed thinking about flu shots

Just as the media frenzy is reaching a fever pitch about the swine flu (variant H1N1 influenza), the Atlantic has a well-researched and thought-out story about the holes in the data supporting the utility of the flu shots in the first place. Mike Adams has a reasonable, point-by-point summary of the story as well. However, allow me to summarize the fundamentals of the story:
  • While the influenza vaccines have become a ritual in the fall, there is no reasonable evidence that they do any good.
  • The studies that the influenza vaccine supporters use to justify the shots is quite lousy. On one hand it claims a 50% reduction of total death rates (which is patently absurd since it would then have to also prevent heart attacks, traffic accidents and other things that have nothing to do with the flu), and on the other hand they refuse to do any quality studies on the vaccines since they claim it would be unethical. (The 50% reduction is based on cohort studies, so it compares people who voluntarily got the shot to those who didn’t. At the time of the studies, not that many people got the shot and they were mostly people who were trying to stay healthy and avoided doing risky things and thus had a lower mortality rate at baseline.)
  • By examining death rates during times when there was a shortage of flu vaccine (2004) or there was a completely ineffective vaccine (the strains that hit the US weren’t any of the strains that were in the vaccine in 1968 and 1997) we see that the lack of effective vaccination does exactly nothing to the death rate, ergo the vaccine doesn’t affect the death rate.
  • In a best case scenario, the vaccine would only build up antibodies in people with robust immune systems. These are not the people who are at risk from the flu.
  • Evidence for benefit of antiviral medications is about the same quality and timbre as for the influenza vaccine. On average it only knocks 1 day off the time someone’s sick with the flu (at $10/pill taken twice daily), and Gilead (who makes Tamiflu) was required to take back its earlier claim of benefit for the medication by putting this up on their website: “Tamiflu has not been proven to have a positive impact on the potential consequences (such as hospitalizations, mortality, or economic impact) of seasonal, avian, or pandemic influenza.” (Also note that Donald Rumsfeld, a major stockholder of Gilead’s, was Secretary of Defense when the military got $1.8billion to stock up on Tamiflu and then his president asked congress to approve legislation for another $1billion to stockpile more–all of which led to a greater than 50% jump in the stock’s price.) All this for a 20% incidence of medication side effects that seem to be worse in children. Also, viruses mutate so quickly that using lots of antivirals when not absolutely necessary will only lead to widespread resistance and a loss of whatever benefit they might give.
  • The medical establishment has decided that flu shots are good despite the lack of decent evidence for it and will attack anyone saying otherwise. Mr. Adams labels this as quackery (a fair turnabout of when orthodox medicine accuses others of practicing things not supported by evidence).
There are a few dots that the article fails to connect, however:
  • The writers say that no one knows why there’s more flu in the winter, which is technically true. However, a good deal of evidence points to less sun exposure and lower vitamin D levels as a major component of the increase in incidence. Read point 3 at the end of my last article on swine flu to see some of the evidence or go read more at the vitamin D council’s website.
  • The 1918 “Spanish Flu” that killed 40-100 million people is the pandemic flu that everyone is worried about. It’s thought that if we had another like it we would be in trouble and this is why everyone gets so excited about H1N1. However there are several differences between then and now. 1918 was near the end of WWII, so health care and nutrition were pretty bad across the world. In 1918 there were very few antibiotics, so the secondary pneumonias that would kill people were left unchecked. Finally (as pointed out by Dr. Starko in Clinical Infectious Diseases and discussed in the NYT science section), 1918 was when global marketing for that new “wonder” drug aspirin was in full force (the patent had just expired and Bayer fought to preserve its marketshare by using massive advertising campaigns while other manufacturers pushed to build their markets) and the surgeon general and the US Navy both recommended using aspirin for the flu (we now know that using aspirin in a viral illness can cause Reye’s syndrome and so discourage it’s use during viruses) while the recommended dose was double the maximum dose used today. These massive doses of aspirin can cause the symptoms exhibited by the people who died early in the course of the disease. So, with late deaths looking like bacterial pneumonia and early deaths looking like aspirin overdose, it’s certainly reasonable to think that even if the same 1918 Spanish Flu virus came around again there would be much lower rates of complications and death.
Finally, the article in the Atlantic offers a useful sidebar with answers to questions about H1N1 influenza and immunity. It does a good job of delivering the basic information about the flu, treatment and vaccination, including the tidbit that nearly all the current flu is H1N1 so the current seasonal vaccine is essentially useless even if it did work.

Swine flu over the cuckoo's nest

Nearly every patient is asking me these days if I have any thoughts about the new novel H1N1 flu, also known as the swine flu. Yes, I do have some opinions. Of course, like everything else, this should not be construed as medical advice, talk to your doctor, blah blah blah.
First, let me apologize to Chicago magazine for baldly stealing the title of this article from an article they had back after the 1976 swine flu vaccination fiasco. In case you don’t remember, in 1976 there were 2 strains of a swine flu that hit the US but only resulted in one death (they were fairly limited in how much they spread). Public-health officials got alarmed (remember that the 1918 influenza that killed 10-20% of those infected (over 500,000 Americans died) was thought to be a swine flu) and recommended immunizing the entire population of the country. The vaccinations started in october and the first day three seniors died shortly after receiving the shot (though they were never proven to have died from the vaccine and there didn’t seem to be any further events like this reported) and then there were some cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a few of which resulted in death. By the time the vaccination program ended, over 48 million people had been vaccinated (over 20% of the population). There were 1098 cases of GBS reported, though only half of those were linked to the vaccination, and 25 people with GBS died. This means that a little more then 1 in 100,000 people got GBS and one in twenty of them died. So, the vaccine wasn’t especially dangerous, but it was more dangerous than the swine flu that year.
Now, the swine flu this year is clearly nowhere near as deadly as the 1918 influenza. Recently, it’s been estimated that 10% of New York City has already had the flu and there no reports of large numbers of empty apartments cleared out by the flu. Also, England recently
downgraded their estimate of the number of people who will die from it to as low as 3,000 (if only 5% are infected) or more likely around 19,000, while the regular flu kills 6-8,000 each year.
So, while this novel flu is clearly more dangerous than the regular flu, it’s not the plague that was being predicted. As for the various conspiracy theories about the virus being man-made because it contains DNA common to other flu viruses, they conveniently manage to neglect the fact that this is how viruses normally adapt and rearrange themselves.
The current swine flu is susceptible to treatment with oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza)
according to the CDC, but they only trim 1-2 days off the duration of the illness (amantadine seems to be ineffective against it). Neither of these have ever been tested on pregnant women, Tamiflu has been tested on kids down to 1 year of age while Relenza is only approved for children 7 and over, and you may recall the report of some kids in Japan jumping off a building during a Tamiflu-induced delirium during the bird flu craze. Generally, however, the drugs are well-tolerated but will only do their trimming of 1-2 days off the total duration of the flu if the drugs are started in the first 2 days of the flu. Also the drugs should be limited to only those at high risk for complications: the ill and infirm.
The vaccine is supposedly safe and effective (at least, in so much as
any influenza vaccine is safe and effective) despite not being available yet (actually, there are reports of it just starting to become available). I’m not a fan of the regular flu vaccine and not much more of a fan of this one. Of course adding any thimerasol (ethyl mercury) containing vaccine to your body should only be done for sound benefit, realizing that the effects of the mercury may not manifest for years. While there have been some alarms sounded about squalene in the vaccine causing GBS and worse, the only official information I’ve found about squalene in the vaccine suggests that it isn’t being used now and would only be used if the vaccine supply suddenly needed to be expanded massively, however it’s listed under various names so it may be in there and people may not know it.
So, on to the big question: what can you do to prevent yourself from getting swine flu? It’s fairly elementary:
1. Wash your hands. The virus gets into you usually by contact, so keep ‘em clean.
2. Keep your fingers out of your face. It needs to get into your body and your face has the most enticing routes of entry. 2 lines of defense: a moat and a wall.
3. Take some vitamin D. A
recent article shows the clear association between season and latitude (and therefore vitamin D status back when people went outside) and 1918 influenza pandemic survival: more vitamin D led to less death. Reports by 2 physicians who keep their patients’ vitamin D up to good levels shows a profound reduction in influenza among those replete with vitamin D. If you can get your 25-OH vitamin D level checked, take enough to get it up to 50 ng/ml (it generally takes 1,000 iu daily to make it go up 10 points and can take 3 months to level off, so you could double the dose for the first week). If you can’t get your level checked, take 2,000 iu daily (you could double it the first week). Remember all these guides are for normal sized adults and vitamin D does have some toxicity at higher levels (over 150 ng/ml), so don’t go crazy with it.
4. Take some vitamin C every day. White blood cells need vitamin C to do their jobs. Give them what they need, at least 1,000 mg daily, spread it out if you can manage it.
5. Get enough sleep. I can’t say enough about the importance of sleep for the immune system.
6. If you do get sick, IV vitamin C may knock the flu back quite a bit (if not completely eliminate it). Read
dr. Klenner’s papers about his experience with using IV vitamin C for various illnesses. See also dr. Weeks’ article on using vitamin A at the onset of the flu.

The Triple Crown and then some

I was just getting ready to announce that I had achieved the Triple Crown of physician recognition (featured in Hour Detroit’s Top Docs issue, appearing on TV, and the Vitals.com Patients’ Choice Award) when a got a Google alert that I am the runner-up in the Current Reader’s Choice Awards for “Place to get alternate healthcare”. (Yes, half of these spelled my name wrong: Malcolm Sickel and Malcolm Sickles, but it’s not a big deal.)
So let’s recap:
1.
Hour Detroit, an oversized glossy of all things fabulous around Detroit, starts the ball rolling by featuring me as the first holistic physician ever in their magazine.
2.
Fox News Detroit, the big local TV station, has me come in for a spot on their morning news.
3.
Vitals.com, the main website that scores doctors, gives me the Patients’ Choice award for doctors who have “received near-perfect scores as voted by patients.”
4.
Current, Ann Arbor’s monthly newspaper of events and all things hip, has an annual reader survey and in the category for “best place to get alternate healthcare” (which I didn’t know existed), I get the runner-up position after Castle Remedies, a great retail store for homeopathics and supplements. The fact that I landed first place after a retail shop that gets a lot more traffic than I do is quite flattering.
Of course, I must give credit to the
Crazy Wisdom Journal for featuring me first back in 2006. A nice way to get the ball rolling.
So,
thank you to everyone who has put their faith in me and voted for me. I’m honored. A friend of my brother’s said that I should write a book, but I’m already pretty busy. Maybe if I had a better idea of what people wanted to read...