Health News Digest

December 15, 2014

Medical Conspiracy Theory

By Michael D. Shaw

Following the assassination of JFK in November, 1963, the word “conspiracy” would enter common parlance. Defined as “A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful” [Oxford Dictionaries], the term leaves plenty of room for interpretation. At the very least, who decides what is “unlawful” or “harmful”? How can we be sure that the entity determining this is not itself a conspiracy? As the kids might say, “How meta can you get?”

In the health field, most alleged conspiracies involve either a major life-threatening illness that supports lucrative therapies, or a chronic condition in which conventional allopathic approaches seem ineffective. As such, countless theories are advanced whereby a particular chemical or food promotes cancer or heart disease—and the continuing sale of these items occurs only because it benefits a powerful cabal. Likewise, advocates claim that questionable pharmaceutical or surgical therapies are promoted despite reams of contrary scientific evidence as to their effectiveness.

In many cases, conspiracy theorists—acting as little more than fear entrepreneurs—can garner millions of dollars in donations and research grants to endlessly investigate such hobgoblins as endocrine disruptors. Fair enough, but sometimes identifying a conspiracy can be exceedingly difficult.

Consider the matter of Tagamet (cimetidine), the original and most successful of the H2-receptor antagonist drugs, which limit secretion of stomach acid. Peptic ulcers were the bane of the new “Organization Men,” as typified by Madison Avenue advertising execs. The conventional wisdom at the time was that they were caused by stress, smoking, and spicy foods, exacerbated by excess stomach acid. Thus, Tagamet became the first-line therapy in cutting back that nasty acid, and fighting ulcers—not to mention the best-selling drug in the world for a time.

However, in 1982, the Gram-negative bacteria Helicobacter pylori was discovered by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, and was soon implicated as the cause of most ulcers. Now, ulcers could be treated with much less expensive antibiotics. Yes, they could be, but it would take several more years before most doctors changed therapies.

Why did this happen? No one argued against the science proffered by Marshall, Warren, and others. Was Big Pharma forcing docs to stay with the program? Do physicians never advance from what they learned in med school? Did no one wish to be the pioneer in changing therapies? Perhaps this was more conformity than conspiracy.

Which brings us to the subject of neuro-immune diseases. According to the Whittemore Peterson Institute:

The term neuro-immune disease refers to a group of complex multisymptom diseases characterized by acquired dysregulation of both the immune system and the nervous system. These diseases most often follow an acute illness that does not fully resolve, and may result in lifelong disease and disability. Included in this definition are similarly presenting illnesses, such as ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, Chronic-Lyme disease, GWI, atypical multiple sclerosis (MS), and cases of autism spectrum disorder.

Let’s take a look at ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Termed the “Yuppie Flu” at one point, the condition can be debilitating for many sufferers, and has no official etiology or cure. As with any condition encompassing a multitude of symptoms, it is also difficult to diagnose. Moreover, some doctors find it vexing to ever reach this diagnosis since absent a specific cause, they believe that the syndrome might not even exist.

Imagine, then, the joy of ME/CFS victims when, according to a paper published in Science in October, 2009, the newly discovered retrovirus XMRV (xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus) was linked to the syndrome. Alas, this finding was soon to be questioned, and in December, 2011, the paper was retracted by Science

“Multiple laboratories, including those of the original authors, have failed to reliably detect xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) or other murine leukemia virus (MLV)-related viruses in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients. In addition, there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments in the Report.”

Based on work by several researchers, the XMRV detected in the CFS patients was due to contamination. In fact, there were also those who believe that XMRV does not even occur in nature, but is an artifact created by prostate cancer investigators. Notably, some of the authors, including Judy Mikovits of Whittemore Peterson, were not in agreement on the full retraction.

At this point, things went from strange to downright outrageous. Harvey Whittemore, long connected with Senator Harry Reid, was indicted for illegal campaign contributions. Mikovits was fired, and subsequently arrested supposedly for retaining her lab notebooks and related data. She spent a couple of days in jail, and charges were then dropped.

Here’s a thought: Did Reid call in some favors to stain the image of Whittemore Peterson, and his former buddy Harvey, who claimed that Reid heavily solicited those contributions? Did Whittemore Peterson then pass the baton to Mikovits?

By the same token, there are surely “vested interests” that dread the discovery of a viral cause for CFS or Autism. Do they believe that the elimination of a particular viral etiology permanently poisons the well for the introduction of any viral etiology? Inquiring minds want to know.