Christiane Northrup: more bad medicine

A question popped up on facebook the other day about Dr. Christiane Northrup, an OB/GYN who has been a frequent guest on Oprah.  I hadn’t heard much about her for a while, but a foul taste still lingered from previous encounters with her work.  So I went over to her website to see what fare she’s currently dishing up.  It isn’t pretty. (Cached version).

This month’s news item is titled “Angst Over Not Vaccinating Children is Unwarranted.” Regular readers will be expecting a typical antivax screed, and they won’t be disappointed, but I’d like to highlight some of the propaganda techniques Northrup uses to advance her dangerous lies.

She begins her story with this:

In June, 2010 there was an outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) in California that reporters were calling the worst epidemic in 50 years.

There are two problems with this opening sentence.  The outbreak is ongoing, and it’s not “reporters” who are calling it “the worst epidemic in 50 years.”  The California Department of Public Health reports that the state has seen the largest number of cases in the last 55 years.  Of course the state was much smaller 55 years ago, so for comparison they give us an incidence rate: 10.3 cases/100,000 in 2010, the highest rate in 48 years (when the rate was 10.9 cases/100,000).  So far in California, there have been 9 deaths.  All of the deaths were in babies eight of whom were unvaccinated and one of whom had been vaccinated only days before becoming ill, not early enough to develop immunity.

The precise reason(s) for this outbreak are unclear, but there are probably a number of factors.  Pertussis outbreaks are cyclical, so increases in disease incidence are expected, but not to this extent.  The vaccine itself is imperfect, and immunity wanes fairly quickly.  Adults who have not been re-vaccinated can serve as a reservoir of the disease.  While adults do not normally become seriously ill (although I’ve seen plenty of cases of adults with pertussis coughing so hard that they fainted and injured themselves), adults can pass it on to those who do suffer more dire consequences: infants.  There are also significant reservoirs of disease in communities of vaccination refusniks throughout California, and while these communities tend to be wealthy, it is the poor who suffer.

Because the vaccine is not completely effective and not terribly long-lasting, herd immunity is even more important, and adults younger than 65 who haven’t had a tetanus shot in the last 2 years can get a TDaP, which includes a pertussis booster.

But since Christiane Northrup doesn’t believe in pesky things like germs and cellular and humoral immunity, she doesn’t get it:

Getting your child or yourself immunized is a culturally agreed-upon ritual, designed to shore up your first chakra. The first chakra, or first emotional center, of your body controls your bones, joints, bone marrow, blood, and immune system.

It’s sometimes hard for me to believe that someone who isn’t under the influence of a controlled substance can write something like that without a shred of irony.  She goes on to cite—I kid you not—Sherri Tenpenny, a noted antivax loon who writes for the Huffington Post.

Most people don’t know that the pertussis vaccine doesn’t provide lifetime immunity! Unlike chicken pox, having the disease once doesn’t protect you from having it a second time. This is why I don’t believe there was an epidemic at all. According to my colleague Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, who I consider to be the foremost medical expert in vaccine safety, “Outbreaks of pertussis are cyclical and tend to peak every two to five years, regardless of the vaccination rate….” Further, “Your child can be fully vaccinated and still contract pertussis.”

Um, no.  Outbreaks occur cyclically, but outbreaks this large do not.  Neither is Tenpenny a medical expert in vaccine safety.  Nor are doctors ignorant of the imperfections of the pertussis vaccine.

This negates accusations of California health officials who assert that when parents don’t vaccinate their children, they can create a rampant resurgence of diseases, like polio or pertussis. These conditions are thought to be under control because of mandatory vaccinations. Our society buys into something that Dr. Tenpenny calls herd immunity: If we vaccinate as many people as we can, especially the healthy ones, it will protect those who are young, elderly, and immuno-compromised. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Just because you are healthy and vaccinated against pertussis, you can still carry the disease without knowing it and become sick or infect others

This negates no such thing.  And Tenpenny didn’t invent “herd immunity”.  We’ve already established that the vaccination is imperfect.  What is she suggesting?

Babies under six months of age are at risk the most for contracting pertussis and dying from it. Babies have very narrow bronchial passages, which block air flow to the lungs. Sadly, this causes death in some. Six died in California this year as of July 21, 2010. The CDC believes that these same children are at risk because they aren’t fully vaccinated before six months (if you follow the recommended vaccination schedule).

There’s much you can do to support your infant’s health, the most important of which is to breastfeed her. It’s well documented that breast milk contains antibodies against all kinds of germs a newborn is likely to encounter, organisms to which her mother is already resistant.

So, Northrup is saying that because the vaccine is imperfect, we should simply toss up our arms and give in to an horrible, asphyxiating death?  Or is she saying we should rely on a potential passive immunization from breast milk, breast milk which her earlier comments imply no longer contain pertussis antibodies?

I was going to skip the rest of her article, but when I read her take on meningococcal meningitis, I shuddered.  Not only is her advice dangerous, it betrays a fundamental lack of medical knowledge.

The meningitis vaccine is one of the safer vaccines, because it’s acellular. That means there is no live virus in the vaccine. It’s also not preserved with mercury or other toxic material that are still in many vaccines. When my youngest daughter went to college, I threw in the towel and had her vaccinated. (I’m referring to the one given to college-age children, not infants.) It just wasn’t worth the fight with her school’s administration at the time. But I was ambivalent, and would have opted out if it had been easier to do.

Three childhood vaccines protect against meningitis: Hib, pneumococcus vaccine, and meningococcus vaccine.  Meningococcus is most relevant in certain populations and situations, such as college dormatories and military barracks.  She is correct in stating that the vaccine contains no live virus.  One of the main reasons for this (aside from the manufacturing process) is that meningococcus is a bacterium, not a virus.  While Northrup doesn’t come across as entirely against this vaccine, her decision is based purely on superstition and convenience rather than reality:

The main reason kids get sick when they’re in college is they are run down. Meningitis is no different. Like pertussis and HPV, typically a child will be sick and recover—it’s not fatal. The main reason these adult children get sick is due to a shaky first chakra.

Ten percent of people who get meningococcal meningitis die.  They do not get sick because of their “chakras” but because they have been colonized by a dangerous bacteria (not a virus) that becomes invasive, and once it does, you’re in big trouble.

I’m not simply troubled by Northrup’s truth- and fact-impaired version of the science of immunology and infectious disease.  I’m more troubled by her representing herself as a doctor and an authority on health, when she doesn’t know a bacterium from a virus and thinks chakras are real.

She is a danger to the public health, and for the sake of public health, she should retire into obscurity.

18 Comments

  1. I love every word of this post and Northrup makes
    my skin crawl. Keep up the good fight!

  2. SurgPA

     /  September 23, 2010

    As idiotic as Northrup’s blathering is, I’m more disturbed by the platform and veneer of plausibility Oprah provides for her to spread this nonsense. Not that it’s a great surprise; many of Oprah’s choices to champion reveal her to be reasonably intelligent but frequently uninformed/ignorant, a crusader who is motivated more by emotion than intellect. The question I keep returning to is “how does one influence the influential”, or in this case, how could you penetrate her perimeter to make her aware (my sense is that she is teachable) of the idiocy she helps perpetuate?

  3. @SurgPA:

    One way to “reach” Oprah, given her reliance on emotion-driven stories, might be to work to get some parents of VPD-killed/injured kids on the show. Sadly, thanks to the Pertussis epidemic in California, there are 9 more candidates with horrible stories to tell.

  4. In which Chakrah is the Stupid located?

  5. Gaythia

     /  September 23, 2010

    I think that it would be helpful to look at innovative responses to pertussis immunization, as opposed to having what seems to me to be such a large amount of time spent focusing on the middle class extreme anti-vaxers.

    As stated above, many of the victims of whooping cough are infants, too young to be fully immunized themselves. As I understand it, the deaths in California were Latino, and whooping cough cases have been highest in Fresno County, in California’s Central valley. These are not Dr. Christine Northrup’s patients, nor are they families that I would think would be likely to be spending their time sitting around at home watching Oprah on TV.

    The California Department of Public Health is now recognizing that non-immunized parents and other caregivers are major transmitters of pertussis and many local health officials are vaccinating parents whenever possible; before the birth of the child, or even at the hospital when the baby is born.

    http://www.migrantclinician.org/announcement/california-declares-whooping-cough-epidemic.html
    http://www.cdph.ca.gov/Pages/NR10-041.aspx
    “Pregnant women may be vaccinated against pertussis before pregnancy, during pregnancy or after giving birth. Fathers may be vaccinated at any time, but preferably before the birth of their baby. CDPH encourages birthing hospitals to implement policies to vaccinate new mothers and fathers, and inquire about vaccinating grandparents, aunts, uncles and others before sending newborns home. CDPH is providing vaccine free of charge to hospitals. Others who may have contact with infants, including family members, healthcare workers, and childcare workers, should also be vaccinated. Individuals should contact their regular health care provider or local health department to inquire about pertussis vaccination.”

    In a middle class environment such as my own, perhaps parents of infants should be advised to think of neighbors, people who would just love to pick their baby up and “coo all over them” as possible health threats. Some 5 year old down the street, with whom the baby is likely to have little contact, may not really be that relevant as far as the infant is concerned, unless the infection passes through some inter-related adult.

    I don’t think that this means we should abandon childhood immunization, I just think that perhaps there should be an increased focus on non immunized adults and the retention of immunity by formerly immunized adults.

    • When I was first reading your comment, I was sure you were going to say something crazy… and I still think you are wrong to suggest easing off in the slightest on combating anti-vax propaganda.

      But you’re totally right about getting the word out about adult vaccinations. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I’ve been advocating against anti-vax propaganda for nearly two years, even going so far as to crash an anti-vaxer meeting — and I only just found out a couple of weeks ago that I’m supposed to get a pertussis booster. Nobody told me, y’know!

      • Gaythia

         /  September 23, 2010

        I think that we can start with the personal:
        How many of us need personal care physicians who include questions, and have the time to discuss, vaccine status (and other possible preventative measures) in addition to sending us off for expensive testing( like mammograms and colonoscopy)? And what can we do to encourage that sort of service?
        And we can work on the societal issues:
        Do our local and national public health care systems have the structure and the funding necessary to provide needed services, like vaccinations, prenatal care, pediatric care, and preventative medicine, for everyone who needs them?
        Finally, I believe that a key aspect of what destroys the credibility of the anti-vaxers, with members of the public, is that we are not just trying to combat propaganda,we aren’t just saying you are stupid, we are clearly offering a complete, comprehensible and sensible health care plan.

  6. What I don’t get — and probably never will — is why exactly getting vaccinated is so harmful, even if we take her claim that it’s not very effective at face value. I mean, what does she claim it does? What sort of risks make even a limited benefit infeasible?

    Certainly none of the common antivaccine talking points apply to the meningitis vaccine at college age — the student’s immune system is supposedly developed, the vaccine doesn’t contain the harmful chemicals usually associated with vaccine damage, and I’ve never heard antivax groups talking about adult-onset autism or anything.

    Or is it that sticking a needle in a person’s body interrupts a chakra or whatever?

  7. SLC

     /  September 24, 2010

    I ask the same question as I have asked about other quacks, namely, why hasn’t Ms. Northrups’ license to practice medicine been revoked? It would seem that the medical board in the state where she is licensed has much to answer for.

  8. JustaTech

     /  September 24, 2010

    Meningitis isn’t serious? Please tell that to the parents of the 2-year-old who died while my 6-month-old brother was in the ICU for meningitis. What a horrible person.

  9. Shay

     /  September 25, 2010

    During my military career I think I was vaccinated for/against just about anything I could even remotely come up against. I can remember running a gauntlet of sailors with needleguns on several occasions. You didn’t ask, you just got the shot. Once a year some yeoman pulled your record, figured out what you needed, and sent a demand to your unit that you report to sick bay and have a grinning corpsman harpoon you.

    Tracking my own vaccinations is a hard habit to acquire. My physician certainly doesn’t seem to care.

  10. Gaythia

     /  September 25, 2010

    The New York Times seems to have picked up the vaccines for Grown-Ups cause.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/25/health/25patient.html

  11. The Gregarious Misanthrope

     /  September 27, 2010

    I’m still in the military, so I get an automated notices of when I need a vaccination. Electronic medical records would be a big help to everyone in this case. Either your health care provider could notify you or an automated system could send you an email or text. With your shot record in hand, you could set up automatic reminders in your phone’s or computer’s calendar.

    Take one for the team! Get vaccinated.

    • Heh, that’s a good point. I get postcards saying when my dogs and cats need to get vaccinated; why don’t I get a postcard when I need to get vaccinated!

  12. My head is still reeling.
    To parapharase Keith Olbermann, “That woman is a moron.”

  13. MM

     /  October 4, 2010

    (Dr.) Northup gets exposure on Public TV as well when they are doing their fund raisers. Any nut with enough money to buy off PBS can have an hour or two of air time to hawk whatever they want.

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