Dissecting Homeoprophylaxis


There are three predominant camps when it comes to vaccination. Parents who believe that their children are best served by (1) the science of vaccination, (2) the so-called “natural immunity” of enduring the process of infection and subsequent immunity, or (3) an alternative option to vaccination that does not rely on chemicals, microorganisms, preservatives, adjuvants or growth mediums. Let me be clear in saying that I only support one of those options - vaccination. After spending a Saturday afternoon at a homeoprophylaxis workshop, I can say that I find the third camp, the alternative option, to be the most disturbing.

A parent who chooses not to vaccinate because (s)he believes that the process of infection and immunity are superior to vaccination seems to hold at least a base level of understanding of the immune system. Don't get me wrong, I find it wildly disturbing that a parent would choose the consequences of a disease over the consequences of vaccination, but a parent in this camp is making a clear choice. This parent understands that his/her child is not protected.

A parent who chooses an alternative option like homeoprophylaxis (HP) is making the admirable decision to protect his/her child against disease. It just happens to be under the veil of some seriously woo-woo "science." This is scarier because these parents are exploring the world with their kids under the false sense of security that these children are actually protected against diseases.

So, what is homeoprophylaxis?

To be clear homeoprophylaxis is not a substitute for vaccines like aspartame is for sugar, nor is it called “homeopathic vaccines.” Homeoprophylaxis uses homeopathic remedies called nosodes (prepared from disease germs) to educate the immune system towards the disease process. They are not intended to force antibody production, nor are they polluted with every other ingredient vaccines have. Nosodes are pure disease energy aimed to stimulate appropriate immunological response to natural disease so that the immune system knows how to get sick and how to get better. (Kate Birch, author of The Solution)

sputum collection

The bottom line is that you take a disease product from a sick person (scraping a measles pustule, collecting sputum (phlegm, snot)) and dilute it with distilled water or alcohol and then shake vigorously (succussion) to activate the "vital energy" of the diluted substance. One of the most common potency scales (based on dilution) is the centesimal or "C-scale." This scale is based on a factor of 100 at each dilution. In opposition to how most other things work, homeopathic solutions are considered to increase potency with higher dilutions (the more dilute, the stronger it is).  So, if you pick up a homeopathic bottle in the store and see something like "30C," that is a dilution factor of 10^60 or a 1 with sixty zeros after it. It is estimated that 12C is the greatest dilution that is reasonably likely to contain one molecule of the original substance if starting from 1 mole of original substance.

How does it actually work? Homeopathy is based on an assumption with an unknown methodology. In other words, working models have changed over time. A current model proposes that radio frequency signals translate information from homeopathic preparation to the cells in our body. There are also discussions about whether nanoparticles of the original material are actually present in those high dilutions. Of course, that would be highly disturbing considering the starting material for HP is diseased material from a sick person. Yuck.

There was a handout with the history of HP including the few highlighted studies presented in most arguments for the efficacy of HP. These studies are based on trials in Brazil, Cuba & Japan. I am not going to dissect each study, but this is a great blog post that breaks down all the problems with the Cuba study. It is also worth pointing out that the author of this handout, Fran Sheffield, has been banned from selling vaccine alternative products for five years and her business was fined $138,000 for misleading consumers about the untrue claim that conventional whooping cough vaccines were ineffective, and that HP vaccines were a safe alternative.

Personally, the concept of disease energies and remedies that get stronger with dilution raises flags for me. Think about squeezing out a few drops of blue food coloring into a glass of water. Now line up a series of glasses of water. Take a few drops from the first glass and transfer them into the second. Repeat until you get to your last glass. Can you honestly look at the last glass and say that it looks more blue? Now this is somewhat unfair since the basis of homeopathy is not about molecules remaining in the final dilution, it's about the energy situation. So, take a sip of the final glass. Does it taste more energetically blue than the first glass?

Let's say you're still interested in HP. What will this option cost? A payment of $395.50 covers the nosodes, shipping & a 44-month consultation with the practitioner for a family of four people. A $100 per person for disease protection does not seem so bad. Then again, the main childhood vaccines are covered under most insurance plans, the affordable healthcare act and Medicaid. So, HP is not necessarily any cheaper than vaccinations. In fact, since insurance does not cover HP, it's likely going to be more expensive. People opposed to vaccination love to hate "Big Pharma" for profiting on vaccinations, but trust me when I tell you that someone's wallet is definitely getting bigger when you purchase your HP program. It's also worth mentioning that the costs associated with producing vaccines far outweigh those of dilution and succussion.

Amazingly, I quietly sat in the back row and endured insults to my beloved vaccination as well as some choice quotes like, “developing antibodies is not the same as disease resistance” and “contracting the disease is not the same as getting a vaccine.” Neither of these statements are outright false, they were just delivered under the assumption that swallowing a series of sugar pills with "disease energy" provides a stronger boost to the immune system than vaccination.

The presenter also highlighted that HP does not need to be as precise (as vaccinations) because it is designed to educate the body about disease rather than producing antibodies. The problem is that our best model for how immunity to disease works is based on the principle of building antibodies. The presenter summarized the success of HP by stating that "children in a long-term study on HP tend to be pretty healthy, they tend to stay well in general, and we have had zero reported adverse effects…like 105 fevers, swelling brains, things you see in adverse vaccine reaction." No offense, HP, but those qualifiers do not inspire confidence. I want those disease energies to do better than "pretty healthy" and "well in general."

The 44-month standard program includes nosodes for Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Pneumonia, Polio, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Meningitis, Tetanus, Mumps and Measles. There are additional remedies available for Diphtheria, Hepatitis A & B, Varicella, Influenza and Tetanus wounds. Upon inquiry as to why Varicella (Chicken Pox) was not included in the standard program, the presenter said, "as with most alternative medicine professionals, we believe the benefits of chicken pox outweigh the risks.” Ok, let's be honest, many of us (my age and older) made it through chicken pox with a sick week at home and a few scars. We are very lucky. Chicken Pox can be very serious, and I am extremely happy that my child had the option of a vaccination. I am also heavily biased from my years of scientific training and love of logic.

I believe a selling point of HP is that the language is casual and colloquial. It feels approachable with careful seasoning of medical terminology to add legitimacy. Most of the presentation consisted of a friendly conversation guided by a series of handouts, passing around bottles of nosodes, talking about vaccine injury stories and ample time for Q&A. The presenter even provided self-deprecating humor when she cautiously read aloud the names of the nosodes, which happen to be derived from Latin (Pertussin, Lathyrus sativus). The only deep dive into science was a five-minute spiel on how HP favors a balance between T helper 1 (Th1) and T helper 2 (Th2) cells whereas vaccines promote only Th2 cells. This imbalance leads to "constipated" cells and HP can help the vaccinated body "finish the job" by helping to clear the diseased tissue out of the cells. However, not a single citation was provided to support this claim, and I have yet to find unum.

So, for ~$400 you get a kit of sugar pills with "disease energy" that are not designed to create antibodies. We're still not sure how they work, and there aren't many (if any) peer-reviewed, tiered scientific journals reporting any efficacy beyond the placebo effect. If people choose to spend money on homeopathic remedies for sleep, beauty or pain, so be it. It's nearly a $3 billion dollar industry. However, the idea that HP is a genuine alternative to vaccination is disturbing and it affects other people.

The immune system is one of the most fascinating systems in the human body. Its role in our general function both in healthy and diseased states continue to grow (e.g., cancer). It is complex, sophisticated and beautiful. Perhaps practitioners of homeoprophylaxis would agree. However, vaccinations are not scary and they provide a fantastic opportunity to do something great for yourself, your children & your community. I discussed that in a recent talk. While the idea of disease energies in water or alcohol seems easier to swallow than a syringe containing a cocktail of microorganisms, adjuvants, and other critical ingredients, simple is not always better. In fact, it may not be anything at all.

neurdy goes to the White House!


Admittedly, not the exact view we had after passing through four layers of security checkpoints to attend the Science Fair.

If you ever want to experience the feeling of being completely humbled and optimistic about the future, the White House Science Fair is the place to be. I was truly honored to have the privilege of walking around, talking to the students about their projects and breathing in all of the excitement and enthusiasm swirling around in the air. Of course, it didn't hurt having the energy of science heroes like Bill Nye and Leland Melvin in the crowd. Here is a quick highlight video of the event.

Bill Nye and Leland Melvin

Sneaking in a few pictures with heroes.

As part of the event, the President released the statement of commitments from institutions of all kinds, including his pledge of $240M for STEM education. Our invitation to the event was tied to our sponsorship of a program with the United Negro College Fund, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to engage students in maker activities. The program will include the first-ever Making for Change Showcase, which will highlight innovative solutions to community-based challenges.

At the heart of every project is the desire to solve a problem or improve upon a current solution. For students like Kenneth Shinozuka and Harry Paul, the challenge at hand was close to home with inventions solving issues these students faced in their own lives or the lives of family and friends. For others, the projects ranged from rockets and robotics to clean water, saving the bees, encouraging exercise and mitigating hiccups. Read more about each of the participants or watch the video (55min) of President Obama speaking with all of the amazing students.


SuperGirls! Junior FIRST Lego League Team from Daisy Girl Scouts’ troop 411 and their battery-powered page turner that could turn pages for people who are paralyzed or have arthritis. Emily Bergenroth, Alicia Cutter, Karissa Cheng, Addy Oneal, and Emery Dodson, 6 (Tulsa, OK)

While there was certainly some mention of intellectual property and patents, I was elated to see an open source project from Mohammed Sayed and Kaitlin Reed (both 16 years-old) who used a 3D printer to transform Mohammed's wheelchair into a cutting-edge piece of technology. I was able to catch Kaitlin for a few minutes and she was quick to highlight the fact that making the project open source allows for it to be accessible and affordable. Big high-five to these students and we look forward to visiting the NuVu program the next time we're in the area!


Lilianna Zyszkowski exhibits her PillMinder prototypes

The familiar sight of open source hardware led me to Lilianna Zyszkowski, 14, of Norfolk, CT. Lily and I spoke for quite awhile about her various projects and how she used SparkFun hardware in her prototypes. Lili's main project, the PillMinder, was created with a grandparent in mind. It uses capacitive touch sensors, LED lights and a networked microcontroller to remind people to take their medications on schedule. The device also alerts caregivers via Twitter and SMS whether the proper pills have been taken on time. As a Next Step Inventor with the Connecticut Invention Convention, Lili is also working with a Silicon Valley firm to bring the PillMinder technology to market.*


President Obama addresses the guests and exhibitors at the White House Science Fair

It was an honor to be in the ballroom for President Obama's address. He was genuinely enthusiastic, charming and even tossed out a jab at Congress to support his budget for research funding. President Obama highlighted these students' contributions to science and engineering while also emphasizing the importance of ensuring that there are laboratories and jobs for these students to pursue in the future. Admittedly, while I am biased in this regard, I dream of a day when science is a fully-supported bipartisan issue!


I even showed up on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Twitter feed!

*Project descriptions from White House

Data Raconteurs


The city of Longmont has opened its data collected around things like schools, crime maps and bike routes. I've had an idea for awhile now that I'd like to turn a Madsen cargo bicycle into a mobile version of a little free library. Like an ice cream truck, I would ride the bike through neighborhoods exciting children to borrow interesting books from the mini-library. Longmont is not a particularly large town, but I would put some thought into where I would ride the bike. I'm looking for an efficient way to identify and locate underserved neighborhoods where children may benefit from local access to books. Using the open data available from the city, I can overlay maps of data related to school attendance, graduation rates and household income. I can look at distances from these neighborhoods to local libraries and cross-reference that information with established bike routes. Using all of this information I can draw a strategic route to ride this bibliocycle through town offering books to underserved children. While I have not had the time to pursue this little dream of mine, I was pleasantly surprised to see a program like this already happening with the Boston Public Library. For now, I'll add it to the long list of dream projects that are a few grant applications away from reality.

So, why bring up my bibliocycle idea? It's a human interest story. Who doesn't like the visual of a person riding a brightly colored cargo bicycle through neighborhoods giving books to kids? The piece that makes it relatable is crucial in how we tell the stories that hide in the ever-evolving vast, untapped data streams. This notion applies not only to "Big Data" but to all data as well. Data scientists see stories unfold from numbers and z-scores. They make sense of sample sizes that mere mortals can barely comprehend. This critical layer of analysis sets the foundation for the next equally important piece - the human-relevant story. I would even argue that this subsequent layer might actually be more important. Oddly (to folks like me), most humans don't find data inherently sexy. Even a concise report of findings rarely whets the appetite of your average information consumer. This is precisely where two of my favorite worlds collide - science & communication.

What happens when we deliver the data analysis to storytellers? As defined on Wikipedia, communication (from Latin commūnicāre, meaning "to share") is a purposeful activity of exchanging information and meaning across space and time using various technical or natural means, whichever is available or preferred. The focus on meaning carries particular importance when we're talking about communicating heaps of data into relevant information. Translating columns of numbers and statistical significance into a story takes a specific set of skills. Communication is not simply the stringing together of words. The stronger we build the bridge between science and communication, the better informed our society will become. As the general knowledge base improves so does our ability as global citizens to tackle the present and future challenges we face. On a more personalized level, this improved knowledge empowers people to make informed decisions about issues like healthcare.

Let's consider the hot topic of vaccinations in the United States. There are so many well-written articles from healthcare providers and scientists attempting to lift the veil on the fear and ignorance surrounding vaccination. However, it was a respected storyteller, Roald Dahl, that brought the human element to this debate. Dahl's poignant story about his daughter whom he lost to a particularly dangerous complication of measles is still relevant thirty years later. The image of Dahl's daughter struggling to make animals out of pipe cleaners hours before her passing may be stronger than any statement of statistical significance. However, it is the combination of both elements in his article that makes the story so powerful.

I can take the return of the ironic mom jeans and 1800's beards in stride, but let's be sure that we don't let this hipster nostalgia go too far. When period-specific fashion and diseases start trending together, we've gone too far (in the wrong direction). Nobody likes retro-epidemiology. As a scientist, I want to share my knowledge of immunology and vaccines with others. As a communicator, I want people to engage with the topic and feel comfortable asking questions. Hopping onto a soapbox is a dangerous shortcut. If we want to improve engagement with science and technology, we have to make it approachable. But what does it mean to be approachable? Aesthetics and language play key roles. The burgeoning field of data visualization is a great example where aesthetics and function work in conjunction.

Project Tycho at the University of Pittsburgh aims to "advance the availability of large scale public health data to the worldwide community to accelerate advancements in scientific discovery and technological progress." Access to this kind of "Big Data" will undoubtedly result in amazing discoveries. Again, it's important to remember the second layer of that mission. How will we communicate those discoveries outside of the scientific community? Recently, the Wall Street Journal used Project Tycho data to visualize the dramatic effect of vaccination programs in recent articles on measles in California and the impact of vaccination programs in the 20th century. These visualizations demonstrate that 100 million cases of childhood diseases have been prevented by vaccination programs in the US during the 20th century. An important next step is to take the data and story and sculpt them into public health campaigns. I would argue that the Wall Street Journal is still not the level of approachability for which we should strive.

Juhan Sonin

I am beyond enthusiastic about the movement towards improving citizen access to federally-funded research. In February of 2013, the Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a memorandum (.pdf) to Federal agencies that directs those with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publicly available free of charge within 12 months after original publication. This gets to the accessibility aspect but leaves much to be desired in the area of approachability.

Despite being lucky enough to call a research laboratory my home for many years, I never enjoyed reading scientific journal articles. I still don't. I was reminded of that when I spent six weeks on bed rest during the third trimester of my pregnancy reading articles about preeclampsia. I felt fortunate that I had trained long enough to be able to skim and scan those articles and make sense of the agonizingly dry language and muddled figures and charts. But I represent a very small fraction of the population. Even if we make the results of federally-funded research available, who is going to translate all of that information into approachable knowledge for non-scientists? Who is going to sift through all of the data and translate them into actionable knowledge for the public?

I commend my alma mater, University of Florida, for putting forth the resources to address this very issue. The STEM translational communication research (TCR) program was created as part of the UF Preeminence Plan, a $15 million project to bring new talent in areas that can advance UF’s standing as a national leader. Its mission is to "improve human health and well-being by making scientific research more accessible, understandable, and actionable. Properly translated and communicated to various audiences, basic research in science, technology, engineering, math, and health (STEM) can lead to enhanced individual, family, group, and policy-level decision-making." This is an incredibly sophisticated version of what I was attempting to do when I started a Master's in Communication during my doctoral studies in Biomedical Sciences. I wish this structure had existed ten years ago, but I couldn't be happier to see it now.

Organizations continue to unlock data for public use and with access to these large datasets comes responsibility. Misrepresentations and misinterpretations could have strong repercussions. Just as computer programming is reemerging as a 21st century critical skill, so too will data analysis and statistical know-how. The fields of data science and visualization are exploding. We need to ensure that there are people who can tell those stories. People who can translate series of numbers into relatable human experiences. People who can transform accessibility into approachability.

Further Reading, Resources & Pretty Data:

How the Beastie Boys Helped this Little Girl Grow Up to be a Scientist


Goldieblox should be a total win for someone like me. I am a 32 year-old female with a doctorate in a scientific field. I grew up with a single mother who mercilessly coached me on growing up to be an independent and successful woman. I’ve been in plenty of those situations where you don’t see a lot of other females, like being the only little girl on a Little League tee ball team. Now I am the Director of Education at an electronics company where I work with a fantastic team dedicated to providing accessible and affordable technology and materials to all students. As you can probably imagine, getting young women interested in becoming scientists and engineers is a given. When I first learned about Goldieblox through their Kickstarter campaign I supported it just on principle – how could I not? Unfortunately, when I received the kit I felt deeply disappointed but I was a bit afraid to come out and say that. How could I possibly say that I think this brand new toy designed by a female engineer that was going to take over the pink aisles of the toy stores was totally underwhelming? First of all, aside from the picture of Goldie on the box and in the book, you are playing with five animals and the gender breakdown of the characters looks like 4:1 male to female. Is this the best you could do? Second, who cares if girls like pink and purple? This goes for young boys as well by the way. Most of the time my hair has pink or purple dye in it and a great role model for future female engineers, Limor Fried, rocks a full head of hot pink hair. Color is not the issue. I hear the new toy has something to do with a pageant. Seriously?

When the hundredth person sent me a link to the Goldieblox Girls video, I painfully cringed at the Beastie Boys “parody” and wished it hadn’t been an advertisement for a toy and just a public service announcement to energize young girls. When the first story broke that the Beastie Boys were suing GoldieBlox I took a moment to ponder what to do with this incredible clash between a lifelong love and a career passion. I held out judgment hoping the story would turn around because I just could not believe that the Beastie Boys would make that move. It appears I was right. That being said, this post is not a legal or ethical analysis of this situation. My background is in science and I have absolutely no legal training. I’ve read as much as I can tolerate regarding Fair Use laws. I actually don’t even care anymore. What I do care about is the fact that the Goldieblox toys are near worthless and young girls would learn a lot more from cranking the volume on a few Beastie Boys albums and building, hacking and tinkering.

If you asked anyone that knows me even remotely well what thing (s)he associated me with, most people would say the Beastie Boys. The outpouring of people sending me condolences the day that Adam Yauch passed away would have looked to an outsider like I lost a family member. And while I was just another fan in his world, he was an immeasurable part of mine.

My memories of listening to the Beastie Boys date back to my early elementary school days. My musical interests were definitely shaped by watching television in the glory days when MTV and VH1 played music videos. I’ve been a fan so long that I own Beastie Boys albums in four different form factors of music recordings. They were the soundtrack to my awkward adolescence, trials and tribulations of transitioning from the teenage years into adulthood, and the ups and downs of every relationship I have ever had. I’ve listened to their music in my happiest, saddest, and darkest times.

I was in high school when Adam Yauch was working on the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. I won’t deny that there were elements of idolatry and delusion in my relationship with this band. I subscribed to the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, and had them addressed to Lindsay Yauch. Much to the dismay of my ever stylish yet accepting mother, my entire fashion sense through middle and high school was influenced by them. I read books on Tibetan Buddhism and frequented a meditation group. I listened to chanting, became a vegetarian, and tried to save every insect that crossed my path – a tall task in Florida. Then my scientific brain hit a roadblock with the reincarnation piece and decided that while there were plenty of tenets to carry with me for the rest of my life, I needed to allow myself the space to find my own way.

Without ever giving it much direct thought, growing up listening to the Beastie Boys meant that I knew I could be whomever I wanted to be and, when I wanted to change, I could do that too. Authenticity and confidence is what I learned from the Beastie Boys and that’s what got me through all of the challenges that anyone, not just young women, face growing up. I listened to Get it Together when I couldn’t handle the dramas of high school, I listened to the Sounds of Science when I needed the motivation to get past another failed experiment in the lab, I listened to Hey Ladies (and watched the video) when I wanted to get energized for a night out with friends, I listened to Netty’s Girl when I daydreamed of a crush pining for me, I listened to Skills to Pay the Bills when I needed the confidence to go in and defend my dissertation, and I listened to Boomin’ Granny when I just needed a good laugh.

The Beastie Boys have always been authentic and yet willing to make amends with their past. They have apologized to women and the gay community for lyrics and statements that were hurtful. They’ve composed lyrical penance, admitted failures of judgment, and owned all of it. Even in the midst of the bratty beer drinking, breath stinking, sniffing glue days it was still just three young men growing up through music. Sure, they had ridiculous and mostly satirical lyrics about girls doing laundry and the dishes, but in real life they dedicated themselves to causes like Tibetan freedom and victims of Hurricane Sandy. They have always been poignantly human even down to the very disease that rips many of our own families apart.

A toy with a female character on the front and animal characters spinning rods and cylinders is probably not going to inspire a young girl to be an engineer nor will it likely change a girl’s life. A parent, friend, teacher or musical influence that gives a young girl the confidence to take on whatever she desires probably will. Failing, dusting off the overalls, and trying again is the lesson. You don’t need a bunch of plastic parts to get young girls interested in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

Go out to your garage or your local hackerspace and let them build things, let them hack, tinker, create and customize. Let them fail and rebuild. Take that $30 and spend it at your local hardware store or art store. Buy Rosie Revere, Engineer and read it to your daughter and her friends. Pick one of the thousands of tutorials that are out there and go build something together. Help a young girl build her prototype of a better injection system for helping to vaccinate people in underprivileged areas or a solar-powered clinic that can be set up after natural disasters. Find old milk crates and build emergency veterinary hospitals or find cardboard and build structures to launch rockets and spaceships. Help them identify mentors and idols and don’t worry too much if it’s not Marie Curie or Grace Murray Hopper right now – that may come in time. Let them wear weird outfits and dye their hair and listen to music that hurts your ears. Let them wear princess dresses out to Home Depot to buy materials to build a fort. Let them explore things and give them the room to change and grow. Just like the Beasties put it in Pass the Mic, encourage them to be true to themselves and they will never fall.