BY S. Eliza Dunn, MD FACMT | Special to the Observer
OPINION – Receiving the COVID vaccine should be an easy decision for adults. But it isn’t. This reality has made me think about our pledge to “First, do no harm” and I realized that we are actually causing harm when we fail to properly explain fundamental science to our patients and their families.
The truth is that confusion drives fear. When people are afraid, they are inclined to refuse the wisest course of action. Because of this, we need to do a better job of reassuring families by sharing some basic education about science – not just for the pandemic, but so many other illnesses, especially those involving children.
As parents, we decide to protect our kids in so many ways. We put them in car seats. We have baby monitors to make sure they are safe in beds. We take them to annual check-ups. These decisions are driven by scientific data that show the benefits of these actions.
At first glance, the confusion is understandable. There is an overabundance of information, misinformation and even disinformation on the internet. There are unfamiliar and unpronounceable words that sound imposing. And there exists an entire cottage industry that preys on the natural fear of parents. But emotions aren’t facts. There are many products designed to protect us that have been proven effective and documented as safe.
What are some ways you as a parent can become knowledgeable and savvy in sorting fact from fiction?
Here are six tips to better communicate with families:
· Without chemicals we wouldn’t be here. People are afraid of chemicals. However, most chemicals come from nature. Everything from air we breathe to the water we drink is a chemical. In fact, our bodies are entirely composed of chemicals that work together to make us each into a unique human being. The natural chemicals in our brains can make us feel happy or sad, the chemicals in our stomachs help us digest food. Even better, the chemicals in our livers and kidneys run our own natural detox program that doesn’t cost a penny!
· The dose makes the poison. All chemicals, whether natural or man-made, can cause toxicity in the right dose. We think of water as harmless, and in fact it is necessary for life, although if you were forced to drink 50 gallons of pure water over several hours, you would die. On the other hand, botulinum toxin (Botox) is the most potent toxin. However, we feel comfortable enough to choose to inject very small doses in our faces for cosmetic purposes because we see the benefit and know that if we follow the label, we won’t be harmed.
It’s the dose that makes a chemical harmful or lethal.
· Chemicals are used for a good reason: they protect us from the things that can harm us. Chlorine in swimming pools kills bacteria that cause diarrhea. Pesticides in farming kill insects and toxic weeds that threaten our food supply. Chemicals are used as pharmaceuticals in medicine to treat diseases. Hand sanitizers kill germs such as the corona virus, so you don’t get sick. Suntan lotion protects from skin cancer.
· Many chemicals were developed specifically to protect public health. By killing bad things, we can help ensure a healthier population. Consider pesticides – people hear all sorts of negative things about them. “Pesticide” is an umbrella term that covers a variety of different important chemicals. Insecticides kill bugs, like mosquitos, ticks and lice. Herbicides kill invasive and toxic weeds, like kudzu and Datura. Fungicides kill fungi like athlete’s foot and fungi that infect crops. Fungi that infect crops secrete mycotoxins that are known carcinogens, which then can get into the food supply. Control of these pests protects public health.
Consider pyrethroids, some of the most studied and common insecticides in the market. Pyrethroids are critical for protecting us from the diseases that mosquitos, ticks and lice carry. These include fatal diseases like West Nile and Zika viruses, crippling Lyme disease and typhus. Bedbugs, fleas and cockroaches are not only nuisance insects but also harmful to public health. Without pesticides, we become vulnerable in a disease-threatened world.
· Medicines and synthetic chemicals are often derived from plants found in nature. Since plants can’t run away from predators, they make their own chemicals to protect themselves. These chemicals act as natural pesticides in plants. Pyrethroids are derived from the naturally-occurring defense mechanisms found in certain types of chrysanthemums. Other chemicals produced by plants to ward off pests have been used as medicines. For example, metformin – a widely used diabetes drug, was derived from a chemical called guanidine from the French lilac.
· Rely on trusted sources of information. Facebook friends may be nice people, but they are rarely experts in the fields of medicine, toxicology or public health. Misinformation is like gossip – it spreads quickly, is unverified and becomes more exaggerated the more it spreads.
Our patients should seek out information from credible sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), The World Health Organization (WHO), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All these agencies are tasked with protecting public health and employ thousand of scientists to review all the data submitted by companies to ensure public safety. As physicians we must assure patients that we have the most robust regulatory system in the world, and these organizations regularly review all the science behind every medicine and pesticide on the market.
The bottom line is this: our understanding of chemistry has made the world a much healthier and safer place for our families. Hopefully, truth will prevail over the widespread on-line misinformation.
The health of our patients depends on it.
Eliza Dunn is the Medical Sciences and Outreach Lead for Bayer. She is an Emergency Medicine physician and Medical Toxicologist with a long-standing interest in Global Health. After completing her Toxicology Fellowship at NYU in 2006, Dr. Dunn returned to Washington University in St. Louis and started an ACGME accredited fellowship in Medical Toxicology. She organized a relief mission to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, started the scholar track in Global Health for the Washington University Division of Emergency Medicine, and is one of the Global Health Scholars for the Department of Internal Medicine. She is an adjunct faculty member of Washington University