Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Trumping the Evidence - The Donald Denies Asbestos Related Disease, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy but Asserted Vaccines Cause Autism

One of the main causes of health care dysfunction identified by demoralized health care professionals in our 2003 qualitative study was threats to evidence-based medicine, and by extension, evidence-based public health and health policy.(1) Since then, we have frequently discussed threats such as manipulation and suppression of clinical research to further vested interests, and distortion of research dissemination, such as ghost written articles, often enabled by individual and institutional conflicts of interest.

These and other causes of health care dysfunction which we discuss, however, have hardly been the stuff of political debates. In particular, US presidential campaigns often feature very bland discussions of health care, when they feature them at all. These discussions, furthermore, usually are limited to health insurance, but rarely challenge the unusual American system which relies on for-profit health care insurance.

So Health Care Renewal usually does not provide much content relevant to political campaigns.

The 2016 presidential election season has not been usual. True, one campaign, that of Hillary Clinton, has featured the detailed, but relatively bland policy points that we usually see.

Her opponent, Donald Trump, is very different. He is known for wide ranging unscripted comments. In particular (barely) reported instances, his comments have included apparent attacks on the clinical or public health research evidence base. (I used the word "appearent" since nothing Mr Trump writes or says is ever that clear.)

Denied Asbestos Related Disease

The best reported example is the oldest. A Mother Jones article from June, 2016, noted that in Mr Trump's presumably ghost-written book, Art of the Comeback, he wrote that asbestos is "100 percent safe, once applied," and it "got a bad rap." He also claimed that

the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.

It is possible that these comments arose from Mr Trump's resentment of the costs of asbestos removal from his many real estate holdings.

Nonetheless, the evidence that asbestos is a major health hazard is old, but quite clear. (See summaries by The National Cancer Institute, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration.) Asbestos can cause asbestosis, which may lead to severe respiratory insufficiency, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The application of asbestos can be very hazardous, but once applied it can still endanger not only those who remove it, but firefighters, other first responders, etc.

Ridiculed the Concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

On October 3, 2016, the Washington Post reported,

Donald Trump told a group of military veterans on Monday that some members of the military develop mental health issues because they are not 'strong' and 'can't handle it.

'When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat, they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over. And you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it,' the Republican presidential nominee told an audience of military veterans at an event in Northern Virginia on Monday morning.

Allowing for Mr Trump's famously chronically garbled syntax, he appeared to say that PTSD is not a mental illness, but simply a manifestation of weakness. However, there seems to be no data to support this assertion, rather the contrary seems more likely to be true (for example, see the links in this article.)

Scoffed at Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

In a story apparently only reported in the sports sections of the media (for example, here in USA Today on October 12, 2016), Mr Trump appeared to dismiss the dangers of concussions,

Trump likewise demonstrated a poor grasp of concussions and lashed out at the NFL when he commented on a woman who passed out in the crowd.

From the speech:

'That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back. We don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions..’oh, oh! Got a little ding on the head. No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.'

This isn’t the first time Trump has ridiculed the NFL for its increased awareness of brain injuries. At a rally in Iowa earlier this year, he made similar comments.

Via Mic:

'Football’s become soft. Football has become soft,' GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump said (twice) at a rally in Iowa on Sunday.

'But football’s become soft like our country has become soft,' he added to cheers and nods. 'It’s true. It’s true.'

'What used to be considered a great tackle, a violent head-on [tackle]. … You used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch, right?' Trump said.

Rather than being a "little ding on the head," there is pretty convincing evidence that concussions can lead to real neurological problems. See the website of the Boston University CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) Center, which provides this summary,

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published of neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

The Center's personnel wrote a 2009 review article(2), available here, which supplies considerably more detail.

Asserted Vaccines Cause Autism

A September, 20, 2016, Huffington Post article noted that Mr Trump has been a proponent of the theory that vaccines cause autism at least since 2012,

The Republican nominee is a full-blown proponent of the notion that vaccines cause autism, a theory that researchers have studied and rejected over and over after a medical journal helped launch the notion with a 1998 article since retracted.

Lots of autism and vaccine response. Stop these massive doses immediately. Go back to single, spread out shots! What do we have to lose.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2012

I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2014

Again, at best, the link between vaccines and autism is very controversial at best.  Most reviews suggest that the evidence supporting any relationship is very limited, for example, see the 2003 review by Wilson et al(3) and the 2016 review by Taylor et al.(4)

The Republican Party Platform Which Trump Presumably Approved Asserted that Pornography is a Public Health Hazard

At least partially related is this story, as reported by CNN in July, 2016,

The Republican Party will declare internet pornography a 'public health crisis' under an amendment added to the draft party platform Monday at preliminary meetings in Cleveland.

North Carolina delegate Mary Frances Forrester successfully proposed the amendment in a subcommittee of the platform committee Monday morning.

'The internet must not become a safe haven for predators,' the provision states. 'Pornography, with its harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions....'

It appears that this provision conflates adult and child pornography.  There seems to be no good evidence that adult pornography creates health risks.

(Note: there is some irony in this story, as Mr Trump has appeared, albeit fully dressed, in several softcore porn videos, see stories here and here.  He also nominally wrote a racy novel, which was actually ghost written, see story here.  Also, his current wife also has appeared in one "lad mag" photo shoot sans clothes, see story here.)  


We have been discussing threats to the clinical and public health evidence base for a while.  We are used to discussing distortions of the evidence base that serve to support vested interests.

However, I cannot recall casual attacks on specific parts of the evidence base by apparently woefully uninformed political candidates.  It is not unusual for candidates for public office to talk about health care, public health, and related policies.  It is unusual for them to make assertions about specific evidence about particular diseases, and their risk factors and causation.

It is disturbing when one candidate for the most powerful political office in the US repeatedly disregards the best clinical and public health evidence, and offers ill considered opinions about public health that could potentially harm patients.

But Mr Donald Trump is a very unusual candidate.  Perhaps this is why Scientific American, which "is not in the business of endorsing political candidates," took a strong position against what Mr Trump has been saying about science.

'If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.'
—Richard Feynman

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. 'By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation's founders,' Otto wrote, 'the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.'

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: 'It warn't so. I tried it.' A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country's particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—'We hold these truths to be self-evident'—they were asserting the fledgling nation's grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

While this election may have effects that go way beyond science, particularly the integrity of the clinical and public health evidence base, those concerned about these issues need to take heed now before the voting is finished.  


1. Poses RM. A cautionary tale: the dysfunction of American health care. Eur J Int Med 2003; 14 (2003) 123–130.  Link here.

2. McKee AC, Cantu Rc, Nowinski CJ et al. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Athletes: Progressive Tauopathy following Repetitive Head Injury. J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2009 July ; 68(7): 709–735. doi:10.1097/NEN.0b013e3181a9d503.

3. Wilson K, Mills E, Ross C et al. Association of Autistic Spectrum Disorder and the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine: A Systematic Review of Current Epidemiological Evidence. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2003;157(7):628-634. doi:10.1001/archpedi.157.7.628. Link here.

4. Taylor LE, Swerdfeger AL, Eslick GD. Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies. Vaccine 2016; 32: 3623–3629. Link here.

No comments: