The name Paul Offit is fairly well known in the autism communities. He has spent considerable time countering the false idea that the rise in autism diagnoses seen in the past is due to an epidemic of vaccine injury. He spends most of his time as Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is co-inventor of a vaccine which protects infants against rotavirus. Dr. Offit has written a number of books including one on autism: Autism’s False Prophets and one on the anti vaccine movements, which includes large sections on autism: Deadly Choices, How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. And now he has a new book on alternative medicine: Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.
There are two phrases which come to my mind when I hear about alternative medicine. First is a question: what do you call alternative medicine that works? Answer: medicine. The second phrase is more dark: medical fraud is a multi billion dollar business, and the bad guys know about autism.
Alternative medicine is big. Big as in a large fraction of the populations partakes in alt med in one form or another. Big as in it is big business. And, in terms of the subject of this site, big as in alt med is strongly promoted to and popular with the autism communities. Particularly the autism parent community.
As with other books by Dr. Offit, Do You Believe in Magic gives both sides of the various stories presented. He usually starts by giving the pro side, in this case the pro side of alternative medicine. For example, he presents the success stories of various alt-med practioners like chelationist Rashid Buttar and faux cancer therapist Stanislaw Burzynski. If you know the background behind a given story (say, Buttar) it can be quite jarring. You know that the claims aren’t true but you read Dr. Offit presenting them like they are. But when you get to the rebuttal it makes it very powerful.
The media has focused largely on the topic of vitamins–which does get a lot of play in the book. Dr. Offit points out how they supplement industry got a major boost from legislation which removed oversight on the industry. He also points out examples of how the claims for many supplements are either false (they don’t work) or worse (people on supplements live shorter lives than those with the same conditions who do not take supplements). As this is an autism focused site, I’ll point out the two chapters which focus on autism. The chapters largely center around various personalities and for autism the chapter focuses on Jenny McCarthy–the “pied piper of autism”. The chapter goes into detail–as in three page–listing the various theories of what causes autism (heavy metals, vaccines, misaligned spines, etc.) and the various therapies which are purported cures. Three pages. It’s amazing to see it laid out like that–showing that the alt-med community doesn’t have a real idea of what causes autism. Instead, they have dozens of ideas, sometimes contradictory, sometimes disproved, sometimes just without scientific merit. The second chapter with an autism focus is that on Rashid Buttar. He is a chelationist who includes autism as one of the many conditions he “treats”. He also came to fame recently as the doctor (recommended by Jenny McCarthy) chosen to treat Desiree Jennings, whose story of faux vaccine injury became a YouTube phenomenon.
In case you don’t recall him, here is Rashid Buttar’s IV chelation suite for children, complete with Disney characters painted on the walls.
Yes, there is room for 10 kids to receive IV chelation at the same time. Which is a small example of how this is big business. Dr. Offit makes the point even more clearly, with Dr. Buttar as one example. Many millions of dollars have been spent by patients on Dr. Buttar’s concoctions–some of which have been clearly shown to do nothing. Some people are getting very rich in the alt-med business. Very rich. Rashid Buttar is one. Stanislaw Burzynski is another. His cancer therapies are amazingly expensive, make no sense and are a grand example of selling false hope.
Bookstores are filled with books on alternative medicine. There are very few books which take a critical look at this industry. Do You Believe in Magic is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, it will likely never sell as well as false hope.
I recently had the opportunity to meet Dr. Offit. One question I posed to him was simply, why does he stay at a teaching hospital? Given his successes, he could do pretty much anything he wants. His answer boiled down to simply–he is doing what he wants. He has the freedom to say what he wants. On more than one occasion this has led to frivolous lawsuits, and even those haven’t shut him up. In his latest book he takes on faux medicine, practitioners who are making huge profits from it and the leglistors who facilitated the industry. One could ponder who will sue him first except that facts are laid out so clearly as to make it difficult for anyone to do so.
By Matt Carey