LONDON (Reuters): In a shocking announcement, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the UK Department of Health, and the Canadian Ministry of Health have all agreed to suspend recommendations for laparoscopic cholecystectomy, a minimally-invasive removal of the gallbladder that is among the most common procedures performed worldwide. US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius quoted the enormous number of patients seriously injured and killed by this procedure each year as the reason for withdrawing their recommendation, and she demanded more research into why so many people have this operation performed.
"In the United States alone," Ms. Sebelius reported to a joint session of congress last week, "there are approximately twenty million people living with gallstones. There is only about a 20% chance of these patients developing gallstone pain over a 20 year period, yet 500-600,000 people still have their gallbladders surgically removed each year in the US. Every one of those patients is at risk of hemorrhage, infection, bile duct injuries, blood clots, and even death."
Indeed, statistics show that up to 15% of patients undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy, which was only first done in 1985, are converted to the "open" technique, which is the old-fashioned procedure and involves a much larger incision, slicing across the abdominal muscles and causing much more pain and an increased risk of bleeding and wound problems.
In addition to bleeding and infection, up to 3 in 1000 patients undergoing this incredibly dangerous surgery will accidentally have their main bile duct accidentally torn, cut, or clipped, and these injuries are often not identified until days after the surgery. Almost 1 in 500 have a hole punctured in their stomach, colon, or small intestine, and unbelievably the overall complication rate is as high as 1 in 20. As many as 1 in 250 undergoing the procedure die due to complications, and if you happen to be lucky enough to survive, you have a 40% chance of developing bloating, abdominal pain, and indigestion, possibly permanently, after surgery.
"These injuries and deaths could all be prevented if people would just opt to live with their gallstone pain," Canadian Minister of Health Rona Ambrose told Reuters yesterday. "Surgery just shouldn't be necessary. I've heard a few anecdotes of people who read a story on Natural News and bought some kind of magic potion on Amazon or something which promises to flush the body of toxins and gallstones and other evil humours. Surely this is a better option than letting sadistic surgeons cut you open and remove an organ. These people were trained by barbers as recently as last century! It's truly barbaric."
UK Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt went even further, stating "More investigation into the dangerous and lethal practice of surgery is needed. We cannot in good conscience recommend anyone have this surgery, and possibly any surgery, until we can be sure that no one will ever again suffer a complication of any kind. To my knowledge there has never been a double-blinded study done on gallstones, and until that is done we feel the practice should be stopped.
Sibelius, Ambrose, and Hunt all suggested trusting a random website which touts the healing power of cilantro and turmeric than some doctor who spent 20 years getting educated in the cutting-edge science of healing people.
Now for those of you whom have never read A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, I suggest you click on the link and read it before you go any further. I'll wait. No seriously, go read it and I'll wait here.
All done? Good. The above Times article I just quoted is satire and entirely fabricated. It never appeared in any newspaper, because I just wrote it. However, the statistics I quoted are actually 100% true, and I presented them in a way to make the procedure seem as terrifying as possible.
So why am I making it sound like my colleagues and I are butchers who routinely maim and kill innocent people? Because I want to put myself out of business? No, it's simply to illustrate a point. People undergo surgery knowing that it is relatively safe, though not 100%. The risks of surgery are small, but patients undergo it anyway, because the benefits far outweigh the risks.
"So what's the point, Doc? What does this have to do with anything?"
My point is that many people these days are opting not to immunise themselves and their children against preventable diseases, even though vaccines are orders of magnitude safer than surgery. There is a large (and growing) faction of anti-vaccinators who forgo vaccines against measles, hepatitis B, tetanus, the flu, and others, many of them potentially-fatal diseases, because there are infinitesimally small risks.
What these people fail to realise is that there are risks with everything. There is a risk that your car will explode when you start it. There's a risk a meteorite will fall on your head and kill you. There's a risk that a sinkhole will swallow your house. There's a risk a squirrel will maul your face in your sleep. But that doesn't stop us from living our lives. It does make me close my windows at night, though...fucking evil squirrels.
But this is just how absurd anti-vaccination zealots and their arguments against routine vaccinations are. Vaccines are very safe, and this has been studied and documented over many decades. But vaccines are also not 100% safe, and this has also been well documented over the same period. Just like with surgery, a few people are injured, and a few people die. But vaccines are far safer than surgery. Of the millions upon millions of doses of vaccinations given per year, a handful of people are seriously adversely affected. By far the most adverse reaction is pain at the site of injection, but headaches, malaise, and flu-like symptoms are also very common. The serious reactions (including death) are fleetingly rare.
The anti-vax faction wants people to believe that these serious reactions are much more common than they are, making their stories sound as alarming and as terrifying as possible just as I did with my story about gallbladder surgery. They are also desperate to link vaccines to everything from autism to diabetes to other auto-immune disorders. But there is no conclusive evidence linking vaccines to any of these. Stories and anecdotes abound ("I got the flu vaccine, and the next day a train crashed into my house! It must have been the flu vaccine!"), and everyone seems to know someone who knows someone whose child developed autism 2.4 seconds after getting a vaccine.
The most telling aspect of anti-vax lunacy is how they claim that vaccines don't work. They have graphs that show how the death rate of various diseases was already dropping before vaccines were introduced, so obviously vaccination is a hoax! I mean, just look at these graphs and see for yourself!
Now wait a second and think. Look at the dates on the graphs. The advancement of medicine and antisepsis and supportive care were exploding in the early-to-mid 1900's, so of course the mortality rate would improve independent of vaccines. What the anti-vax people don't want you to see is the trend of the actual incidence of the diseases:
As they say, a picture says a thousand words. You can clearly see the normal annual fluctuations in incidence, but you can also clearly see how the rate dropped to near ZERO after the vaccines were introduced. There is just no doubt that vaccines do exactly what they are supposed to do, and they have successfully eliminated (or nearly eliminated) many potentially-deadly illnesses, including polio and smallpox, which killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone.
Despite this seemingly-overwhelming evidence, these groups of people, medical professionals included, continue to denounce vaccination programs, believing the minimal risks outweigh the concrete benefits. These nurses and doctors are advising their patients not to immunise themselves and their children, recommending instead various foods, potions, herbs, and other hocus-pocus voodoo magic, which may all be perfectly healthful, but will protect you from polio exactly as much as a boot to the head will. As the movement grows, outbreaks of these entirely preventable diseases are becoming more and more common.
I would never be so duplicitous as to say that vaccines are 100% safe, because they are not. But they are pretty damned close. They are probably the second-most safe and effective preventative measure (next to soap) medicine has ever known. Parents need to understand that there are risks, no matter how minuscule, before they come to a decision about immunising themselves and their children. But they also need to understand how the benefits far outweigh those risks.
Now who is ready to have their gallbladder removed? I have an opening next week.