Health·Second Opinion

Taking on vitamin D headlines, and health professionals weigh in on Donald Trump

Second Opinion is a vital dose of the week's news in health and medicine from reporter Kelly Crowe and CBC Health.

Plus, a major journal makes a correction on autism numbers

This week's headlines promised vitamin D could help beat colds and flu. (Shutterstock)

This week, we look behind breathless headlines about vitamin D and a reported spike in autism spectrum disorder. We also find that it's difficult to determine who "owns" science or to diagnose from a distance. 

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What's with this week's vitamin D hype?

Vitamin D beats colds and flu? Those were the headlines following an analysis in the BMJ this week. The paper reanalyzed patient data from 25 studies that looked at the effect of taking vitamin D on "acute respiratory tract infections" — a mixture of colds, flu, pneumonia and other infections, some laboratory confirmed, others self-diagnosed. The data suggested patients taking vitamin D got fewer infections, and authors concluded they had identified "a major new indication for vitamin D."

But a second group of scientists had a different opinion. They said the data showed vitamin D reduced the risk of respiratory infection by just two per cent. "It seems unlikely that the general population would consider a two per cent absolute risk reduction sufficient justification to take supplements," they wrote in an accompanying editorial. "We wonder if there would be very much interest in vitamin D if the effect is so small," University of Aberdeen professor Alison Avenell, one of the editorial's authors, told us.

So what about this week's headlines promoting vitamin D pills: "Scientists have found a super-easy way to cut the number of sick days you take" or "Seasonal sniffles could be a thing of the past"? Avenell is used to them. "There's often hysteria and media interest for a few days and then it dies down and goes back to what it was before," she said. 

You can listen to our full interview with Prof. Avenell here:

Major journal issues correction over flawed comparison

The high-profile journal Pediatrics was feeling some heat this week after publishing an article saying the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder had climbed a whopping 400 per cent between 2003 and 2011. The problem is the study's authors were comparing apples with oranges, as pointed out by MedPage Today.

They used data collected from the National Survey of Children's Health conducted in 2003, 2007 and 2011-12. But where the 2003 survey asked parents only about "autism," the 2007 and 2011-12 surveys broadened the question to include "autism, Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder or other autism spectrum disorder."

The authors did note "methodological differences in how the question was asked," but still relied upon the 2003 data to draw their startling conclusion. 

Who owns CRISPR? It's still not clear

The CRISPR gene-editing system could change the world by allowing scientists to edit genes with greater ease and efficiency than ever before. But companies wishing to use CRISPR to develop new drugs or devices don't yet know who they have to pay to license the technology.

On Wednesday a long-awaited U.S. patent ruling was announced. On Thursday, the experts were still trying to sort out who owns what. The court did clear up one question: the two competing groups have patented different things. That means MIT's Broad Institute has a valid patent on the use of CRISPR in human cells and other eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus).

You can bet MIT's Feng Zhang is all smiles after being awarded the patent rights for the use of CRISPR in human cells. (Justin Knight/Broad Communications/Canadian Press)

But the University of California group might be able to claim a patent on using the technology in all other cell types.The UC patent application was held up pending the court decision and still hasn't been officially issued. If it does get issued, companies wanting to use CRISPR might have to pay two groups.

So who won? "Some say both," Richard Gold, a research patent expert at McGill University, told us. "We know we have one winner and we might have two. The people who pay are the losers."

Mental health professionals at odds over diagnosing Trump

Donald Trump is a narcissist but he isn't mentally ill, according to Dr. Allen Frances. And he should know. As chair of the task force that wrote the DSM-IV — the American Psychiatric Association's compendium of mental disorders — he helped write the definition of narcissistic personality disorder. While he agrees the new U.S. president has many of the traits of the disorder, he says Trump does not suffer from "the distress and impairment required for a diagnosis."

In an editorial in the New York Times this week, he argued it's a "stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill" to label Trump's actions as a disorder.

Frances was responding to an earlier letter in the Times questioning Trump's fitness as president, and signed by 35 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. That had mental health professionals debating a long-standing ethical policy barring mental health professionals from diagnosing public figures from a distance.

As Scientfic American reports, the Goldwater Rule was included in the American Psychiatric Association's first code of ethics, after psychiatrists weighed in on the mental fitness of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Now some are arguing it's time to abandon that rule and speak out.

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