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Fact Check

How I Got H1N1 (the “Swine Flu”) and Changed My Mind About Vaccines  

By December 7, 2015 1 Comment


About 10 years ago I thought vaccines caused autism. I didn’t believe this fallacy with any fervor or passion – in fact, I hadn’t researched it any sense of the word.  It was just something I’d picked up from what I call background noise, the kind of passive media consumption we all tend to do in this super-technical world we live in.

Then I was hospitalized with a vaccine preventable disease  – and I suddenly cared a lot about vaccines, autism and how one person’s decisions can impact a community.

I was in my mid-20s when it happened. I didn’t have any kids or plans for kids in my immediate future, so vaccines and autism were not things at the forefront of my mind. I’d had all my shots as a kid, I got an annual flu shot, but that was about as far as I went when it came to vaccinations.

It was during the height of the H1N1 media hysteria (or the “swine flu,” as it was dubbed, based on its common animal host) when my husband and I attended a party with some friends.  I was 27 and despite the excessive media coverage, catching that virus wasn’t something I was concerned about.  I was young and healthy with no major medical issues.  If I got it, I figured, it would just be a bad flu, and I’d survive. I was above the media hype.

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Categories: Faith + Beliefs, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Caring for Sick Kids: Know the Difference Between “Natural Remedy” Facts and Fallacies

By November 18, 2015 3 Comments

It’s hard to watch our kids suffer when they’re not feeling well. c/o M. Weinberg-Anderson

Taking care of an ill child is challenging. On one hand, a parent wants more than anything in the world to relieve their child’s discomfort, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to have concerns about the potential side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. It is also completely understandable that many well-meaning parents seek out remedies that are marketed as being “natural” because they believe that these types of remedies will be safer than conventional treatments. Unfortunately, many of these concerns are unfounded, since most so-called natural remedies are ineffective or even unsafe, as I have explained in my previous post.

Before I address a few specific bogus remedies for sick children here, I want to tackle a few equally bogus claims that are often raised during discussions of alternative approaches to health care. Whenever I question the safety or effectiveness of a “natural” remedy, I am invariably faced with one or more of the following rebuttals: natural means safer, natural means more effective, and finally, doctors only recommend drugs and surgery. None of these generalizations are remotely true, and here’s why:

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Newborns + Infants, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Toddlers + Preschoolers, Tweens + Teens

Kids and Energy Drinks – 3 Things Every Parent Should Know

By October 7, 2015 6 Comments


Headlines like “Energy Drink Consumption on the Rise in Kids, Teens,” appear frequently in the news, a somewhat alarmist reaction to data released last year which measured caffeine consumption in minors over a ten year period. That study in question, published in Pediatrics in February 2014, showed how children’s caffeine habits changed from 1999 to 2010.

However, those headlines aren’t quite accurate, particularly with how they allude to it being an issue that is “out of control.” Unfortunately, this is just one of the latest examples of how the wrong details are emphasized in energy drink news stories, even in publications as reputable as Time magazine. There are three major details often left out of these conversations on caffeine which could dramatically boost our efforts to keep ourselves and our kids healthy and safe.

Caffeine Consumption in Kids and Teens is Not as Bad as it Seems

Taking a closer look at the Pediatrics study, it’s not surprising that energy drink consumption among minors has increased since 1999 – energy drinks such as Monster Energy and Rockstar didn’t exist back then! What is surprising is despite these reports, the total amount of caffeine consumed per day per person didn’t change after the energy­ drink boom.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Food, Nutrition, + Infant Feeding, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Tweens + Teens

It’s Official: We Can All Calm Down About Screen Time

By October 6, 2015 4 Comments

Pediatric use of screen time is something I’m a little sensitive about. I spent six months of my life working on it and for six months of my life it was all screen time, all the time. Once my portion of the project was over I swore I would never talk about screen time again, that’s how exhausted of the topic I was.

But frankly, I’m tired of seeing parents shamed for allowing their kids watch an episode or two of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood while they fold the laundry or make dinner. The science doesn’t support the level of derision that parents receive for even minimal uses of screen time. So when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued new working group recommendations on screen time last week, I decided to make an exception and talk about the subject one more time.

I like to refer to subjects like exclusive breastfeeding, screen time, and the amount of time parents spend with their kids as “Modern Mom Guilt.” I think I and just about every other interested parent in America breathed a sigh of relief when the AAP let us know that screen time was one less thing parents had to feel guilty about.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Toddlers + Preschoolers

Should You Treat Your Child’s Cold or Flu With Traditional or Homeopathic Medications?

By September 29, 2015 4 Comments


We’ve entered that time of year when many of us try to stay indoors as much as possible, cringe at the mere sound of someone coughing, and stock up on hand sanitizer in attempts to ward off illness. Cold and flu season has begun and, as usual, our children are the most susceptible to these viruses.

As the father of two, I know that parents want to ensure that our kids are healthy and happy, it’s in our nature, so when our kids become ill, we want to fix it immediately. But are the cough and cold medications you find overflowing in the aisles of your pharmacy the best option for easing your child’s symptoms?

As a pharmacist I speak with parents all the time who grab a bottle of cold medicine off the shelf that makes the most promises of relief on the label. If the parents seek my advice I often tell them it would be wiser to put the bottle down and offer their kids comfort measures at home like warm soup, a humidifier, and lots of fluids instead. I know this seems counter-intuitive – I’m a pharmacist! Most people assume I see medication as the solution to every problem. Not so.

First, it’s important to note that over-the-counter cold and flu medications can’t cure or shorten the duration of those illnesses, they can only offer temporary symptom relief while the virus runs its course. The infection and symptoms will end when the child’s own immune system has won the battle.

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Newborns + Infants, School-Aged Children, Toddlers + Preschoolers, Tweens + Teens

Symptom Relief from Your Grandmother’s Pantry

By September 23, 2015 No Comments


Image of a child with chicken pox via The CDC. This is not a picture of Leslie with the chicken pox, she sincerely hopes there are none.

Image of a child with chicken pox via The CDC. This is not a picture of Leslie with the chicken pox, she sincerely hopes there are none.

When I was 10 or 11 I caught the chicken pox from a family member. After age two, the severity of the chicken pox increases with the age of the person infected, so as a tween I was at the older end of the spectrum. And I had them HORRIBLY. I remember the pustules, blisters and ulcers being Under my eyelids, down my throat, in my mouth, it hurt to lay down, it hurt to sit, it hurt to stand, really existing hurt for a solid two weeks.  For what it’s worth I still carry the physical scars of the illness today and recently had to explain to my toddler what they were when he noticed them.

Jumping back 20 years ago I remember my mother (at her wit’s end from what I’m sure was an exhausting experience caring for me) called her mother and asked for advice on how to control my itching. Because, again, the sores were everywhere and I was in agony. My grandmother suggested a cool bath in oatmeal and baking soda. To this day I remember the feeling of getting into that bath. The relief! The cool water, the oatmeal, the baking soda it felt so much better.

Flash forward some 20 odd years later, I’m now a mother myself, to a son that had a nasty diaper rash. The kind of diaper rash that makes you wince when you look at it, and he was understandably not happy about it. As he cried in discomfort, almost instinctively I grabbed some raw oats and baking soda from the pantry, tossed them in a cool bath, and plunked him in. Shortly after, he calmed down and said, “it feels bedder mommy.”

Relieved that the remedy had worked for now a third generation, I had to wonder what made it work, and what other therapeutic treatments passed down through the generations actually do work.

To be clear, there’s no such thing as a magic cure – the treatments discussed below are just that: treatments. We’re talking about things that can alleviate symptoms, because magic cures? Well, those don’t exist, much as we’d like to hope. Also, before you try any of these treatments make sure you talk to your doctor first. As Julia and I say, don’t take medical advice from strangers on the internet, including us. Talk to your doctor.


My grandmother was right; oatmeal actually does soothe inflamed skin, but you need to use it in a specific way. It’s not enough just to toss some oats in the bath and expect your eczema to clear up. You can either purchase colloidal oatmeal (essentially finely ground oatmeal), make your own colloidal oatmeal at home by tossing the oats into a food processor, or strain regular oats (either using a strainer, sachet or sock) in the bath. What you want is for the bath water to turn milky beige, it’s that milky substance that will coat your skin soothing any dry or inflamed bits. If it looks like you’re sitting in a bath of watered-down oatmeal from mealtime, that would be not the way to use it.

Oatmeal naturally retains water and when that milky substance I mentioned coats your skin, it brings some water in with it. Most importantly oatmeal is high in Saponins (a mild natural cleanser) and avenanthramides, natural antihistimines which reduce inflammation.

Baking Soda:
Ah yes baking soda, AKA sodium bicarbonate. We all have a box or two of this laying around our houses likely either for cooking, deodorizing, but baking soda has been a go-to for relief for rashes, burns and insect bites for generations.  Here’s the really interesting thing I discovered while researching this post: nobody seems to know why it works.  Coming up empty on journal searches, I even turned to a PhD analytical chemist to ask if he knew why baking soda soothed minor dermatological irritations and even he shrugged.  His best guess is that it has to do with the alkalinity of baking soda having a neutralizing effect on the acidity of the irritation.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using it as a paste or an additive in a bath to soothe poison ivy and bee stings, but apparently no one knows how or why it works.

Cranberries + Cranberry Juice:
If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI) you know how painful and uncomfortable they are and cranberry juice is often cited as an at-home remedy for the dreaded UTI. It looks like there is some science behind using cranberries and cranberry juice to help alleviate the urgent and painful symptoms of a UTI while you wait for the antibiotics to start working, but in terms of curing UTIs, it seems cranberries don’t live up to the hype. But here’s where it gets interesting: if you suffer from recurrent UTIs, it looks like there is some evidence to support that cranberries and cranberry juice can help prevent them. The mechanism for how this happens isn’t quite clear, but researchers are working on discovering the relationship between cranberries and UTI prevention.

 Olive + Flaxseed Oil:
If you’re feeling a little constipated and struggling to go, it turns out that a table spoon of olive oil or flaxseed oil can help get things moving again, and quickly, especially if you don’t want to turn to stool softeners or laxatives. Flaxseed oil has a laxative effect, helping your digestive tract along, whereas olive oil, well, it “greases the way” for your stool on it’s way through your digestive tract. Just like with oatmeal and baking soda, using olive or flaxseed oil only offers temporary relief. If you’re regularly constipated, you need to talk to your doctor.

Prunes and Prune Juice:
Just about everyone’s grandmother had (or has) a bottle of prune juice in the fridge and usually it’s expired. As a kid I remember seeing this in both sets of grandparents’ houses and wondering “why would anyone ever drink this stuff?!” It turns out my grandparents were on to something. If you’re constipated (again with the poop) prunes and prune juice can not only soften stool but help your stool on it’s way out of your GI tract, making it easier to go. Prunes (aka, dried plums) are high in fiber, something your GI tract relies on to stay regular. Again, just like olive and flaxseed oil, prunes and prune juice will only temporarily relieve mild to moderate constipation.

So there you have it, just a few of the at-home treatments your grandmother was probably right about. If you’ve noticed, none of them are cures, but simply relieve symptoms or offer temporary relief for minor issues. As always, you should consult with a licensed health care provider before trying any home remedy your grandmother has recommended, or have found online (including from us)!

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

Despite Carson and Trump’s Sidestepping, No, Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism

By September 17, 2015 4 Comments

There were major face-palms happening during one of the early GOP Debates here at The Scientific Parent’s headquarters when former presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson massively sidestepped a pretty simple question about vaccines and autism.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the debate or comment on the politics, just the piece that concerns us here on our blog, which is all about science-based parenting.

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Dr. Carson if he thought Donald Trump should “stop saying that vaccines cause autism,” Carson avoided challenging Donald Trump’s stance directly, (which has been highly public and scientifically incorrect) and said:

ben_carson“Well let me put it this way…there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism. This was something that was spread widely 15 or 20 years go and it has not been adequately… revealed to the public what is actually going on.”

-Dr. Ben Carson, GOP Debate 9/16/2015

Carson, an incredibly educated physician, went on to redirect the conversation before being interrupted by Tapper, who once again pushed him to disagree with Trump. Which Carson would not do.

While that’s in essence not a problem (challenging someone’s opinion when you would prefer not to engage in a battle), language and presence is persuasive, particularly when you’re an expert in front of tens of millions of viewers. It’s what these debates are all about. You put potential leaders in a room with cameras and you listen to how they command power, expertise, and thoughts on issues that are relevant to the public. And then viewers at home are left with new information, some correct, some not-so-correct, and to make the best judgment call they can about the candidates and the issues from what they know, and what they heard.

Carson is a former pediatric neurosurgeon who has dealt with some of the most medically fragile patients around during his tenure at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He knows the science surrounding the safety of vaccines as he touched on it in his initial response, referencing studies which you can read about in this quick crash course compiled by the CDC. He’s an expert, so one would assume that what he says is accurate.

Posed with the same question, Donald Trump, whose command of authority is essential to his business image, did not stand down from the question:

trumpface“Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close [to what it is now]…I am totally in favor of vaccines but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.”

–  Donald Trump, GOP Debate 9/16/2015

And, after alluding to a baby being “pumped” with vaccines in the amount “meant for a horse,” he pointed to evidence of an employee of his, whose child “…went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Trump concluded by pointing to vaccine spacing as what will reduce autism in America. Since vaccines aren’t linked to autism, and science backs that, how does spacing non-autism-causing shots reduce autism? It’s a mystery to us. But it does have an undercurrent of the conspiracy theory about pediatricians we’ve addressed before on The Scientific Parent. And I’m not even going to touch the epidemic and anti-autistic language here. That’s for another time, and another post.

Where I nearly flipped a table over is when Carson followed up to Trump’s comments by agreeing with Trump about vaccine spacing, and then reiterating his stance that vaccines don’t cause autism. The doctor said WHAT?

Though children get nearly two dozen vaccination shots by the time they are two years old (for a series of deadly, preventable diseases), there’s no general belief in the medical community that this nationally applied schedule of vaccines is a problem for healthy children. In fact, the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend the current vaccine schedule based on what is considered safe and prudent according to a wide array of factors, most important being what a child’s immune system is able to tolerate at different points in their growth and development, and what’s absolutely essential to protect them against at the earliest possible age.

Vaccines from 0-6

Example vaccine schedule from CDC, ages 0-6:

Not convinced yet? Take a look at this document, which explains what the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is. It’s a panel of experts who are rigorously vetted and have a range of expertise, and they have multiple public meetings a year where they review a range of information, research, and clinical data to determine what’s safest for children. They’re the ones who provides the CDC with schedule recommendations. And I’m pretty sure they know a lot more than either Mr. Trump or Dr. Carson could dream about vaccine science and safety.

So again, challenging someone you don’t want to challenge is in essence, not a problem. What is a problem however, is for a nation that’s worked hard to eradicate so many tragic infectious diseases, to have Dr. Carson publicly representing pediatric medicine and not correcting something that is a matter of life, death, and severe disability through disease injury for millions of Americans and their children. We’ve covered that elsewhere on this blog, which you can read here, here, here, and here. We really, really hope he moves to correct this in upcoming public statements, and we’re not alone.

Misinformation of this nature spreads quickly and keeps its hold for a long time, because oftentimes it’s rooted in fear. Trump’s vaccination stance has been highly visible and what he says, if it were true, is scary to even consider. A few snapshots of his comments on Twitter, for example:

Trump Twitter 3


Trump Twitter 1

When you’re an expert in medicine and you allow misinformation to linger as Dr. Carson did, particularly misinformation that can be fatal if in the wrong hands, it can have massive impacts. It can lead to malpractice if you’re an actively practicing or teaching physician. And in front of a nation of attentive TV viewers, it can lead to a whooooole lot of people listening to the more bold candidate and believing that he or she is speaking the truth. It’s what terrifies the masses that leads to situations such as what happened with Tara Hills, the formerly anti-vaccination advocate mother of 7 children who ended up with whooping cough, who was misinformed and fearful by messages similar to what Trump said on stage last night.

The damage is done, though many, many websites and blogs such as our own took to the interwebs that night, as we do often, to argue in favor of science and safety.

Ask anyone who works or has worked in broadcast and we’ll tell you the same thing. People (myself included) tune out after the first few seconds of a soundbites, and they surely did given how circular political-speak can get during those debates.  Lets just hope that for a nation dependent on vaccinations for so much of its basic health protection, we can keep the facts straight from the opinions. Cast your vote where you may, but protect your kids, please, they’re our most precious candidates for this nation’s future.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

What “Fear the Walking Dead” Gets Right About Public Health

By August 24, 2015 No Comments

When I was 16 weeks pregnant with my son I caught a nasty head cold. Unable to take any of the traditional over the counter cold medications (because, pregnancy), I was forced to ride it out in misery on the couch praying for my own swift demise. The cold knocked me down hard and by the second or third day of misery on the couch I had binged watched just about everything I could binge watch.

Then I came across The Walking Dead on Netflix. Now, I had very particularly avoided watching the show because my fellow #publichealthnerd colleagues had pressured me to watch it, and urging me to do something is the best way to get me to not do that thing. I’d also avoided watching it because I’m not a fan of horror.  Blood and guts are not my preferred form of entertainment. Sure, give me intrigue, drama, suspense and I will eat it up (hello House of Cards and Mad Men) but toss in zombies or vampires? I’m out.

But it was a few days before Hallowe’en* and I was 16 weeks pregnant, miserable, and out of binge-worthy TV. I decided to give the first episode a watch…and I haven’t looked back since. Well, except during the really gory scenes. Where I literally look backwards.

As a public health nerd, I can say that there have been times where from a public health standpoint the show has been laughable. The season one finale where our group of survivors winds up at the CDC?(OH COME ON!) Nothing that the show depicted about the CDC’s facilities in Atlanta is even remotely accurate. Even the evidence the CDC researcher claims to have (as in, shooting someone while in an MRI machine? OH COME ON!!) was preposterous.

Don’t even get me started on the idea that the CDC somehow, somewhere, has billions of dollars squirreled away for a state-of-the-art underground command center. Please show me the line item for that in the annual congressional allocation. I’m sure if Congress did earmark funds for a Dr. Evil-like underground lair, there would be a deafening outcry from both within and without the CDC for the desperate need for that funding to go towards more pressing public health concerns. Like anything not secret-underground-lair-ish.

I digress.

When the announcement came early this year that there would be a spin-off show of The Walking Dead, detailing the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse, I was intrigued, if not concerned. After the complete media fail that was the news coverage for Ebola in America I was suspicious about how the show would portray public health infrastructure, and to be frank after the premiere I still am, but the premiere gave me much to be hopeful about.


The family at the center of Fear the Walking Dead c/o

The family at the center of Fear the Walking Dead c/o

The premiere episode does do a great job of highlighting the world as it currently is. We have made accommodations, and in fact are comfortable with, symbols of fear in our daily lives against things like violence (metal detectors in high schools, bars on the windows of homes, police activity). Likewise, we’re somewhat oblivious to more insidious threats like drug abuse and infectious disease.

What the show does get right in terms of science in its first episode is the emergence of the Walking Dead’s infamous zombie virus in an intravenous drug using population. A variety of infectious diseases have presented first or early among members of this group, including HIV/AIDS and numerous bacterial infections.

The reason for this is simply because of the behaviors associated with the practice; needles are often shared, and blood and other bodily fluids are exchanged,making it the perfect scenario for bacteria and viruses to replicate and mutate.

The demographics of IV drug users also interferes with what public health nerds call epidemiological surveillance. Epidemiological surveillance is how public health officials monitor what viruses, infections, and diseases are prevalent in a given population. The most common form of this surveillance is through passive surveillance, which is when an individual reports to their health care provider with an illness or concern and its documented, instead of public health officials actively seeking out cases.

If this sounds a little creepy, it’s actually not. Typically, and depending on the disease, your doctor or hospital isn’t reporting to the CDC that you, Jane Doe, born on this date, had the flu. What they’re reporting are generalities, so that public health officials can assess where resources would be best allocated. What your doctor or hospital reports is that a female, in this age range had this strain of flu at this time.

But the fatal flaw in passive surveillance is that it requires people to actually go to their health care provider. Unfortunately IV drug users tend to lack the means to seek out timely medical care. In many cases, a lack of a regular income, health insurance, fear of being reported to the police, or simply fear of judgment means that people often wait until an illness has reached a crisis point before they seek medical care. This means that illnesses can circulate undetected in the population for a longer period of time than they would in a population without similar barriers to accessing health care.

When looking for their son, whom they fear has fled hospital to score heroin, the main characters of Fear The Walking Dead drive through several rough neighborhoods where “Missing” posters have gone up on walls and fences. The implication the audience is meant to intone from these posters is that there is a massive outbreak underway that the powers-that-be are not yet aware of, because of who the missing (we know to be zombified) individuals are.

The genesis of the zombie virus in an intravenous drug using population was something I wasn’t expecting from the show, but something I find completely plausible (as plausible as a zombie virus can be).  I was concerned considering the show’s previous ridiculous portrayal of the federal public health infrastructure, that the writers would go in the direction of a government-engineered virus released on an innocent and unsuspecting public.  If they’d done that, I would have been out immediately and I have to admit, it probably would have ruined the original Walking Dead series for me as well.

I have to say, Fear the Walking Dead has stepped up its game in terms of scientific accuracy, which I greatly applaud.  But I’m obviously not watching it for that – or maybe just partially. As my husband can tell you, I’ve spent a good chunk of time watching The Walking Dead yelling at Rick and his crew “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, HOW HAS NO ONE DIED OF A STAPH INFECTION YET?!”  Robert Kirkman, if you’re listening, someone on the show needs to step on a rusty nail and die of tetanus.

*I’m Canadian, so I spell Hallowe’en with an apostrophe

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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health