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Monday, November 9, 2009

The Needle and the Damage (Not) Done

You may already have heard about Desiree Jennings.


If not, here's a summary, although for the full story you should consult Steven Novella or Orac, whose expert analyses of the case are second to none. Desiree Jennings is a 25 year old woman from Ashburn, Virginia who developed horrible symptoms following a seasonal flu vaccination in August. As she puts it:
In a matter of a few short weeks I lost the ability to walk, talk normally, and focus on more than one stimuli at a time. Whenever I eat I know, without fail, that my body will soon go into uncontrollable convulsions coupled with periods of blacking out.
For some weeks the problems were so bad that she was almost completely disabled, and feared the damage was permanent. Vaccines had destroyed her life. You can see a video here - American TV has covered the story in a lot of detail (the fact that she is quite... photogenic can't have put them off). Desiree and the media described her illness as dystonia, a neurological condition characterised by uncontrollable muscle contractions. Dystonia is caused by damage to certain motor pathways in the brain.

However, Desiree Jennings does not have dystonia. The symptoms look a bit like dystonia to the untrained eye, but they're not it. This is the unanimous opinion of dystonia experts who've seen the footage of Jennings. A blogger discovered that it was also seemingly the view of the neurologist who originally examined her.

So what's wrong with her? The answer, according to experts, is that her symptoms are psychogenic - "neurological" or "medical" symptoms caused by psychological factors rather than organic brain damage. It's important to be clear on what exactly this implies. It doesn't mean that Jennings is "making up" or "faking" the symptoms or that they're a "hoax". The symptoms are as "real" as any others, the only thing psychological about them is the cause. Nor are psychogenic symptoms delusions - Jennings isn't mentally ill or "crazy".

Almost certainly, she is in her right mind, and she sincerely believes that she is a victim of brain damage caused by the flu shot. The belief is false, but it's not crazy - in 1976 one flu vaccine may have caused neurological disorders and today many, many otherwise sane people believe that vaccines cause all kinds of damage. (It could well be that this belief is actually driving Jennings' symptoms, but we can't know that - there could be other psychological factors at work.)

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One of the hallmarks of psychogenic symptoms is that they improve in response to psychological factors. Neurologist blogger Steven Novella predicted that:
I predict that they will be able to “cure” her, because psychogenic disorders can and do spontaneously resolve. They will then claim victory for their quackery in curing a (non-existent) vaccine injury.
They being anti-vaccination group Generation Rescue who were swift to offer Jennings their support and, er, expertise. And this is exactly what seems to be happening: Dr Rashid Buttar, a prominent anti-vaccine doctor who treats "vaccine damage" cases, began giving Jennings (amongst other things) chelation therapy to flush out toxic metals from her body, on the theory that her dystonia was caused by mercury in the vaccine. It worked! Dr. Buttar tells us - 15 minutes after the chelation solution started entering her body through an IV drip, all of the symptoms had disappeared (on the podcast it's about 6:00 onwards).

It's completely implausible that mercury in the vaccine could have caused dystonia, and even if it somehow did, it's impossible that chelation could reverse mercury-induced brain damage so quickly. If you are unfortunate enough to get mercury poisoning the neurological damage is permanent; flushing out the mercury wouldn't cure you. There's now no question that Jennings is a textbook case of psychogenic illness.

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On this blog I've often written about the mysterious "placebo effect". A few weeks ago, I said -
People seem more willing to accept the mind-over-matter powers of "the placebo" than they are to accept the existence of psychosomatic illness.
We certainly seem to talk about placebos more than we talk about psychosomatic or psychogenic illness. There are 20 million Google hits for "placebo", just 1.6 million for "psychosomatic", and 500,000 for "psychogenic". (Even "placebo -music -trial" gives 8.7 million, which excludes all of the many placebo-controlled clinical trials and also hits about the band.)

Why? One important factor is surely that it's very difficult to prove that any given illness is "psychosomatic". Even if a patient has symptoms with no apparent medical cause, leading to suspicions that they're psychogenic, there could always be an organic cause waiting to be discovered. Just as we can never prove that there were no WMDs in Iraq, we can never prove that a given illness is purely psychological in origin.

But occasionally, there are cases where the psychogenic nature of an illness is so patent that there can be little doubt, and this is one of them. Watch the videos, listen to the account of the cure, and marvel at the mysteries of the mind.

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