Consumer Health Digest #17-22

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
May 28, 2017

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., with help from William M. London, Ed.D., M.P.H. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making. Its primary focus is on health, but occasionally it includes non-health scams and practical tips.

U.S. Education Secretary heavily invested in questionable "brain training" clinic. The Washington Post has published a detailed report on Neurocore, a "brain performance" company owned by the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos resigned her Neurocore board seat when she joined the Trump Cabinet, but she and her husband maintain a financial stake between $5 million and $25 million, according to a disclosure statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics. The Neurocore program is claimed to improve brain performance through sessions in which the patient watches television while hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. The report's author underwent a $250 program evaluation, examined the relevant experimental evidence, interviewed several experts, and concluded:

I'll admit that before I stepped into Neurocore, I had little intention of signing up for the company's treatment. I had read too many articles skeptical of brain training to think that I should pay for its services. But it took talking to experts and a visit to Florida to discover that the firm was also hurtful — a Trump University for people with cognitive struggles. By wrapping weak science in sleek packaging, by promising something that it cannot fully deliver, Neurocore offers false hope to people who need honest help. In this regard, what's most remarkable is that DeVos, the nation's foremost pedagogue, is behind it all, promoting a form of education that doesn't actually seem to educate. [Boser U. Betsy DeVos has invested millions in this 'brain training' company. So I checked it out. Washington Post, May 26, 2017]

Study finds children can be taught to detect dubious health claims. Vox has has described a remarkable series of interventions in which grade school children were taught to detect "bullshit health claims." In 2009, a researcher challenged 10-year-olds to figure out whether M&M candies could help them write more quickly or cause them to develop stomach pain or dizziness. When they readily figured out how to do randomized controlled experiments, he began working with researchers around the world to develop lesson plans and textbooks for critical thinking skills to school children. In 2016, his research team tested some of the materials in a trial of 10,000 children (ages 10-12) in central Uganda and found that the children who were exposed to them did remarkably better than those who were not. The results of the study were published this month. [Nsangi A and others. Effects of the Informed Health Choices primary school intervention on the ability of children in Uganda to assess the reliability of claims about treatment effects: a cluster-randomized controlled trial. The Lancet, May 19, 2017] The resources inspired by the studies include an interactive Web site and a 222-page book called Testing Treatments: Better Research for Better Healthcare, which is downloadable free of charge.

Australian Government pressing for higher vaccination rates. In March, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote to premiers and chief ministers throughout Australia urging them to stand firmly on the issue of vaccination. Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria already require children to be fully immunized or on an approved catch-up program in order to enroll in a child care program, but Turnbull said he wanted similar laws to be passed throughout the whole country. [Federal Government pushes to ban unvaccinated children from childcare centers. ABC News, March 11, 2017] A recent Australian Child Health Poll survey found (a) 93% of 1945 parents prefer their children to receive all vaccines recommended on the National Immunization Program, (b) there is widespread concern about exposure to nonvaccinated children and (c) among the 5% of children who were not up to date with their vaccinations, one in six had been refused care by a medical provider. 

Raw milk still a serious problem. After tabulating data from 2009 through 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued another warning about the risks associated with consumption of raw (unpasteurized) dairy products. Outbreak-related disease burden associated with consumption of unpasteurized cow's milk and cheese, United States, 2009–2014. Emerging Infectious Diseases 23:957-964, 2017] The CDC report concluded:

The growing popularity of unpasteurized milk in the United States raises public health concerns. We estimated outbreak-related illnesses and hospitalizations caused by the consumption of cow's milk and cheese contaminated with Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coliSalmonella spp., Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter spp. using a model relying on publicly available outbreak data. In the United States, outbreaks associated with dairy consumption cause, on average, 760 illnesses/year and 22 hospitalizations/year, mostly from Salmonella and Campylobacter. Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2% of the population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6% of the population, caused 96% of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products. Unpasteurized dairy products thus cause 840 times more illnesses and 45 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized products. As consumption of unpasteurized dairy products grows, illnesses will increase steadily.

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This page was posted on May 28, 2017.