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.

Posted by Peter Lipson

Peter A. Lipson, MD is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan.  After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He currently maintains a private practice, and serves as a teaching physician at a large community hospital He also maintains appointments as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, the first being a large, established medical school, the latter being a newly-formed medical school which will soon be accepting its first class of students.  He blogs at White Coat Underground at the Scientopia blog network. A primary goal of his writing is to illuminate the differences between science-based medicine and everything else.  His perspective as a primary care physician and his daily interaction with real patients gives him what he hopes is special insight into the current "De-lightenment" in medicine.  As new media evolve, pseudo-scientific, deceptive, and immoral health practices become more and more available to patients, making his job all that much more difficult---and all that much more interesting. Disclaimer: The views in all of of Dr. Lipson's writing are his alone.  They do not represent in any way his practice, hospital, employers, or anyone else. Any medical information is general and should not be applied to specific personal medical decisions.  Any medical questions should be directed to your personal physician.  Dr. Lipson will not answer any specific medical questions, and any emails and comments should be assumed public. Dr. Lipson receives no compensation for his writing. Dr. Lipson's posts for Science-Based Medicine are archived here.