Regarding Dr. Mehmet Oz: Whoops. Maybe I spoke too soon about vaccines

Yesterday, I expressed dismay at how Dr. Mehmet Oz, the protege of Oprah Winfrey who now has his own popular syndicated daily show, recently named the quackery known as reiki as number one in his list of “Dr. Oz’s ulimate alternatie medicine secrets,” leading me to characterize him as having “gone completely over to the Dark Side.” You, my readers, kindly provided me with a YouTube video of actual segments from the show in which Dr. Oz has a reiki master demonstrate reiki on an audience member:

Ugh. Get aload of this introduction:

Now you’re about to see things that are going to challenge everything you think you know about what makes you well. Now I’ve worked and trained in some of the finest medical schools and hospitals in this country, and I know first hand the amazing miracles we can achieve with modern Western Medicine. But I also know that for centuries people around the world have developed alternative therapies that treat the body, mind, and the soul. So today I’m revealing my ultimate alternative medicine secrets. If you’ve got a medical problem you can’t solve, you may find the answer in the next few minutes.

It’s much worse when you actually see it on TV. First off, I really, really wish that Dr. Oz would stop wearing scrubs on his show. I realize that it’s designed to scream to the audience that “I’m a doctor, dammit! Listen to me! I know what I’m talking about!” As a surgeon, I just find TV doctors who wear scrubs on the air to be pathetic and risible. The sole exception is a doctor who just happens to be interviewed at work for a news show. Dr. Oz is in his TV studio doing a partially scripted talk show, and he just looks silly. There’s no other way to describe it.

Also, one can’t help but note that, back when most of these so-called “alternative” therapies were developed, they weren’t really “alternative” at all! Herbalism, for instance, was medicine for centuries because practitioners couldn’t identify and isolate the active components of plants; they just knew from uncontrolled observations that some plants and plant extracts produced profound physiological effects, some of which were beneficial and some of which were deleterious. Cupping, which Dr. Oz recommends, is based on a prescientific understanding of how the human body works. One exception to the rule that most of what we call “alternative” medicine dates back to prescientific days is Dr. Oz’s favorite, reiki. As I’ve pointed out before, reiki is nothing more than faith healing using Eastern mysticism rather than Christianity as its base, and the “demonstration” on Dr. Oz’s show really is more akin to the sorts of demonstrations at a Benny Hinn or Peter Popoff revival. (Can I get an amen?) Reiki is different as well in that it was only developed in 1922 by Dr. Mikao Usui. Scientific medicine existed back then, but somehow the charismatic Usui popularized this particular form of faith healing quackery, although he had been interested since the 1870s in spiritual healing like what Jesus is described to have done in the scriptures. Unfortunately as well, it turns out that Dr. Oz has been at the woo a lot longer than I had thought.

As appalling as all this is, it’s actually not what I meant when I entitled this post “Whoops. Maybe I spoke too soon about vaccines.” Remember when I said that one thing Dr. Oz gets props from me about is that he appeared to be pro-vaccination? Well, his pro-vaccination stance appears to be slipping, and the evidence that it is appeared on the very same morning as my post in which I gave him a pass on this issue. Indeed, as the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism crows, Dr. Oz appears to be buying into the whole “too many too soon” thing and hasn’t gotten his children vaccinated against seasonal flu and H1N1, as he discusses in this transcript of an interview he did a week ago with Joy Behar:

BEHAR: Well first of all, someone want to know there`s a rumor that your kids did not get flu shots or swine flu shots is that right?

OZ: That`s true, they did not.

BEHAR: Do you not believe in them for the kids or what?

OZ: No, I would have vaccinated my kids but you know I – I`m in a happy marriage and my wife who makes most of the important decisions as most couples have in their lives.

BEHAR: Yes.

OZ: Who absolutely refuses. And listen the kids are pretty healthy. We actually think two of them caught swine flu very early on anyway. So there`s no point vaccinating them again. And you know –

I realize that this doesn’t sound that bad on the surface. However, reading between the lines, I gather that Dr. Oz’s wife is almost certainly vehemently anti-vaccine and that there is a bit of tension in the Oz household over the issue of vaccinating the children. If that’s the case, Dr. Oz actually has a bit–just a little bit–of my sympathy, but also a bit of my contempt. He needs to grow a backbone and admit his responsibility; throwing his wife under the bus by in essence blaming her for the decision and washing his hands of it on national TV is cowardly, and, worse, he gives the impression that he’s not involved in the health decisions for his children. Dr. Oz is a frikkin’ doctor, for cryin’ out loud!

Dr. Oz’s apparent discomfort with his wife’s refusal to vaccinate their children according to CDC recommendations notwithstanding, here’s where Dr. Oz makes me think that he’s starting to slide into antivaccinationist beliefs:

BEHAR: What do you, on that same subject, what do you think about this controversy that`s going around about vaccinations and autism and other little things that happens to kids?

OZ: I think kids like the canary and the coal mine. That they are more susceptible to some of the toxins maybe our generation was able to overcome. That`s why we have a lot more allergies now. Perhaps one of the reason why we have more autism. But I don`t think it`s just the vaccine.

BEHAR: No.

“I don’t think it’s just the vaccine”? What does he mean by that? Certainly he seems to be implying that the vaccine is part of the cause, as here Dr. Oz spews nonsense about “toxins” that is not validated by science. While it’s true that there may be an environmental component contributing to the development of autism, there hasn’t really ever been one demonstrated convincingly (except, ironically, rubella infection during pregnancy infecting the fetus; i.e, congenital rubella–the very thing a vaccine can prevent). Moreover, if there is an environmental component, one thing we have copious evidence that such a component is not is vaccines.

In essence, Dr. Oz is talking out of both sides of his mouth, as they say, because in the very next segment he both parrots the “too many too soon” mantra and at the same time says that vaccines don’t cause autism. He is to be applauded for the latter to some extent, although his thinking seems very muddled on this, given that he just said that he doesn’t think it’s “just the vaccine.” Again, reading between the lines, I suspect that Dr. Oz is being influenced by his wife, who sounds roundly anti-vaccine:

OZ: Although, I don`t want to ignore the potential role they have. So what we do with our kids is we spread the vaccine out.

BEHAR: Right, so why don`t the doctors just do that?

OZ: It`s a lot more expensive and kids fall through the cracks.

BEHAR: Yes.

OZ: It`s hard enough to get in there once a year for the shots and imagine if you have to bring them in every other month. And those two factors are a big issue.

BEHAR: I see.

OZ: Plus, we have no evidence at all, Joy, none, that they actually cause autism.

BEHAR: Right.

“I don’t want to ignore the potential role they [vaccines] have” in causing autism?” and “we have no evidence at all…that they actually cause autism”? There you go again, Dr. Oz, trying to have it both ways! Which is it, Dr. Oz? Again, even though he acknowledges that there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism (and, implicitly, that there is a lot of evidence that they do not), Dr. Oz still seems to think that they might, or at least he doesn’t believe the science that says that they don’t strongly enough to stand up to his wife. Again, Dr. Oz needs to grow a backbone. Either stay science-based and state unequivocally that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism, or let your freak flag fly and go full antivax! Come on, Dr. Oz! You know you want to. Or at least you know your wife wants you to!

Here’s where Dr. Oz buys into the “too many too soon” nonsense:

OZ: And a lot of doctors very reasonably say, listen, why you want to spend more money, cause more hardship for the kids and their families, if we don`t think it`s really a problem. But you know if you want to be cautious, you can do what we did.

BEHAR: Well, I don`t remember getting this many shots when I was a kid. Or my daughter getting as many shots.

OZ: We did Joy. When you and I were –

BEHAR: She got the measles on her own. She got chicken pox on her on, so what?

OZ: We got exposed to ten vaccines when we were kids. Children today are now getting closer to 30. So there`s a big difference between the exposure amounts and, plus, we have a much purer environment that we grew up in and compared to what kids are exposed to today.

I’m not sure what Dr. Oz means by a “purer” environment. When I grew up, pollution was much worse than it is now because the laws regulating it were either nonexistent or much weaker. In any case, what Dr. Oz said above could have come right off the pages of Generation Rescue’s website (except for the bit about vaccines not causing autism, of course). As has been pointed out time and time again, vaccines have become “smarter.” Back in the 1980s, children were exposed to over 3,000 antigens in their vaccination schedule, even though there were fewer diseases vaccinated against. Now they are exposed to around 150. The idea that we are “overvaccinating” our children is nonsense based on that alone. In fact, it’s actually a good thing that we can vaccinate against more and more disease with fewer antigens. the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement takes advantage of the inherent fear of needles we all have and how much parents hate to see their children stuck with a needle. Morever, there’s simply no good evidence, the bleats and brays of the anti-vaccine movement notwithstanding, that the current vaccination schedule is even weakly associated with autism or any other neurodevelopmental disorder.

I also can’t help but note the breathtaking stupidity of Behar’s question about getting the “measles on her own.” Measles can kill; it can cause permanent neurological damage. It is not a benign disease. Fortunately, in developed countries with good nutrition and sanitation, a relatively small percentage of measles victims succumb to these complications, but back when hundreds of thousands of children a year got the measles, those numbers of children who died and suffered permanent neurological damage were not insignificant at all. That’s why there was an impetus in the 1960s to develop the measles vaccine in the first place. We’ve forgotten just how nasty measles can be, thanks to the vaccine. They haven’t forgotten in Africa, though. Abject lessons of how deadly measles can be assault us even now.

Sadly, I have a vision for Dr. Oz. (Hey, maybe I’m a psychic.) First, I see him abandoning all pretense of being science-based and writing a reiki book with his wife. It will be on the New York Times bestseller list for months. Next, I see him going all Dr. Bob Sears on us and writing a book with an “alternative” vaccine schedule or doing episodes of his show espousing such a schedule. It’s coming sooner or later, I fear.

Finally, Dr. Oz demonstrates one thing about “alternative” medicine. Anti-vaccine beliefs are very strongly associated with alt-med–joined at the hip, if you will. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re part and parcel of believing in alt-med, but they are so pervasive in virtually every form of alt-med that it’s very hard even to dabble in alt-med and avoid them. After all, when so much of the woo that makes up alt-med blames disease on the modern day equivalent to miasmas or evil humors in the form of vague and undefined “toxins,” vaccination can easily be seen to be superfluous or even dangerous. A victim of its own success, vaccination is perceived by all too many alt-med believers as all risk and no benefit, and, besides, vaccines are a product of that evil reductionist “Western” science. So far, Dr. Oz clearly has apparently not yet completely fallen for anti-vaccine beliefs. Clearly, if this interview is any evidence, he still to some extent supports vaccination and appears very uncomfortable about having to admit that his children have not been vaccinated according to recommended standards, so much so that he blames this lapse on his wife. However, the longer one believes in, promotes, and practices “alternative” medicine, the further from science one will drift, and that appears to be what’s happening with Dr. Oz. Indeed, I fear that, the longer Dr. Oz stays down the rabbithole of quackery like reiki, the more likely he is to go completely anti-vax on us. I wouldn’t say it’s inevitable, but I would say that it’s highly likely.

And the process has clearly already begun.