... although this form of acupuncture may carry slightly greater health risks.
So while killing time on facebook researching new science articles I came across this short Guardian article containing a startling headline announcing that:
“Dozens killed by incorrectly placed acupuncture needles”
But before I could begin hunting for news stories about the recent activity of an acupuncture themed serial killer the sub heading informed me that a “survey reveals punctured hearts and lungs among causes of death over past 45 years”. Despite my general lack of statistical competence even I can work out that ‘dozens’ of deaths across more than four decades does not work out as a particularly scary statistic and certainly not one that warrants such a sensationalist headline. In fact as the first paragraph of the article explains the total recorded deaths numbers 86 over 45 years which works out as an average of around 2 deaths a year.
What makes this figure even less impressive is that the number was obtained from worldwide reports including those from Japan and China. Two deaths a year from a treatment that is performed on millions of people, multiple times every year is really not something which people should worry about. Winning the lottery would appear to be more likely than dying from a botched acupuncture treatment.
The American magazine Newsweek set the internet abuzz last week ago when it published a detailed six page article discussing ‘Why Health Advice on Oprah could make you sick’, which it also ran as its front page story. The article in question was extremely critical of Oprah focusing on how she uses her remarkable amount of influence to promote various dubious health ‘experts’ who were guilty of promoting ineffective, and occasionally dangerous, pseudoscientific treatments.
A good example of this is her continuing promotion of Jenny McCarthy, the ex-playboy model turned staunch anti-vaccine advocate. Jenny McCarthy claims that her ‘mommy instinct’ trumps the scientific evidence in relation to whether vaccines cause autism (oh and by the way they don’t!) and Oprah not only gives her a platform to promote her views but also allows her arguments to be presented without any real challenges being made to her claims. Eugh…
Anyway, the article was in general excellent and I recommend everyone read it now if they haven’t done so but inevitably it did include one or two hiccups. Namely contrary to the articles claims 1) Oprah’s resident doctor ‘Dr. Oz’ does not always promote evidence based medicine in actual fact he quite frequently promotes dubious alternative treatments and 2) we do have a very good idea why autism rates have risen (wider diagnosis and increased reporting).
That is probably being too nitpicky though as the important facts about this article are 1) it was a critical and skeptical mainstream article about a popular show that reached a wide audience, 2) it illustrated all of its criticism of Oprah and her show with numerous forehead slapping examples and 3) all of the major issues with Oprah’s show that the article raised were entirely valid and explained very clearly.
Imagine the following:
A drug company promoting a drug for back pain conducts a blinded clinical trial in which patients receive either 1) the drug, 2) a placebo sugar pill that looks the same as the drug or 3) nothing. The results from the trial show that patients who receive both 1 + 2 show more relief from back pain than those receiving no treatment but there is no significant difference between the effect of the placebo pill and the real drug.
Now imagine a newspaper article reporting on the research chose the headline ‘Scientists find new drug can help to relieve chronic back pain’ followed by a glowing report of how the drug has proven to be effective in treating back pain complete with pleased quotes from the trial authors.
See the problem here? The drug was proven in a clinical trial to be no more effective than an inert sugar pill and yet it is being promoted in the newspaper and by the trial authors as if the trial showed that it is an effective treatment.
This is exactly what happened yesterday when The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror published extremely complementary articles about a recent trial of acupuncture for chronic back pain.