Richard G. Petty, MD

Vaccinating Against the Snivels?

I’m using a deliberately provocative title for a story that is quite serious, both medically and ethically.

We have today heard about two new developments. Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center announced that they are starting trials of a new vaccine aimed at eliminating childhood ear and sinus infections as well as many cases of bronchitis in adults. Second, and on the same day, the University of Rochester announced that it had won a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders, one of the divisions of the National Institutes of Health, to develop the new vaccine. The team at Rochester helped to develop the vaccine marketed by Wyeth as Prevnar. It is used to protect infants and toddlers against some strains of bacteria that can cause pneumonia, meningitis and ear infections.

The vaccine will target Nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae or NTHi, which is the main remaining cause of ear and sinus infections and bronchitis, now that vaccines exist for various forms of streptococcal bacteria and Haemophilus influenzae B, the previous leading causes. NTHi is now the leading cause of ear and sinus infections, and of bronchitis in adults.

But why this news is so important for all of us, is that unlike virtually all other vaccines on the market, this one will not be aimed at saving lives, but at preventing what are usually nuisance illnesses. But please note my use of the word “usually.”

Dr. Michael Pichichero, a professor of microbiology, immunology, pediatrics, and medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center who is leading the trial, was quoted as saying, “While ear infections are never fatal, they can cause serious damage in some children.” He went on to say that “83 percent of U.S. children experience one or more ear infections by age 3 and in some cases hearing loss becomes permanent.”

This is the point, and also why the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders has chipped in. Most of these infections get better on their own, so an initial reaction might be to say, “why bother with this at all?” The trouble is that not only can they lead to long-term problems with hearing, I have seen more than one person develop a cerebral abscess as a result of a severe infection: the illness is not always innocuous.

Another problem is that infections of the sinuses and ears bring children to clinics and emergency rooms, and are the leading reason for antibiotic prescriptions. Even though many of the infections are viral, and viruses do not, of course, respond to antibiotics. Every expert agrees that antibiotics are overused in the United States, which wastes money and also helps the evolution of bacteria that ultimately resist all antibiotics.

What’s the downside of these announcements?

  1. We have already run into a great many problems with previous vaccinations. Some long-term and some subtle; so we desperately need long-term safety data.I know many natural healers who blame many of our health woes on vaccinations.
  2. I hope that the researchers have built into the contract a clause to allow them to report efficacy and safety data without having to clear everything with the study’s sponsor.
  3. We are facing major resource problems, not just in the provision of health care, but also in the funding for research. So should we be diverting resources into these kinds of problems while every 30 seconds another child dies of malaria?
  4. There has been a great deal of discussion about what is often called the “hygiene hypothesis:” the idea that the increasing rates of some allergic illnesses and asthma are a result of children having avoided minor infections early in life, that would have stimulated their immune systems. The hypothesis is not proven, but there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence.
  5. If successful, would the vaccine create a host of secondary problems ten or twenty years from now?

Beer to Alleviate Allergies?

Web Mistress Carol Kirshner sent me this article, with the comment, "This is indeed good news!"

It seems that Sapporo Breweries Ltd., and Sapporo Beverages Co., Ltd. have proven that Sapporo beer is effective in mitigating hay fever symptoms. They are saying that hop flavonol glycoside extracted from the beer prevents the actions of histamine, an allergy-inducing substance.

Sapporo Group conducted a clinical trial of 20 patients with hay fever symptoms and found that 60% them noted less sneezing and 55% noted less runny nose with significant improvements on their symptom-medication scores.

According to the report, Sapporo has filed a patent application based on the effect of beer on hay fever symptoms. Going forward, the Group will explore the affect of beer on atopy and allergy symptoms related to house dust.

None of this is a far-fetched as it may sound. Hops have been used in Europe since the Middle Ages for their medicinal properties. We usually think of hops as a sedative, but one of my old herbals also talks about their value in allergic conditions.

A new study, also form Japan, showed that allergic mice don’t sneeze or rub their noses as much when given hops.

Parkinson’s Disease, Allergies and Inflammation

The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease have been reported throughout history, but it was first described in the modern era by the great Scottish neurologist James Parkinson in 1817. Even after all these years, we still do not know all that much about what causes it. There’s an interesting study in the August issue of the journal Neurology, which is the official publication of the American Academy of Neurology.

Investigators from the Mayo Clinic used what is known as a case-control design (196 cases and 196 matched controls). What they found was that people who suffered from hay fever or allergic rhinitis, are 2.9 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease over a 20-year period.

The researchers did not find any association with autoimmune illnesses such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, pernicious anemia or vitiligo. They also did not find any association with asthma.

In addition, people who developed Parkinson’s disease used anti-inflammatory agents less frequently than controls, although this result was not statistically significant. The results may support the hypothesis that there is an inflammatory component in the causation of Parkinson’s disease.

You may ask, “Why on earth would anyone even look at a link like this?” The answer is that there have been previous reports of an association between the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and lower rates of Parkinson’s disease in men but not in women and Alzheimer’s diseases.

This study does not suggest that hay fever causes Parkinson’s disease: it provides evidence for an association between the two. Parkinson’s is probably a group of illnesses with different causes. However, if chronic inflammation around the upper airways could produce inflammation in the brain, we might have a whole new way of preventing a degenerative brain disease.

In a future posting I’ll talk about some natural methods for reducing the burden of inflammation in your body.


Fibromyalgia can be one of the most difficult of clinical problems. Sadly this illness or group of illnesses is often dismissed as no more than a series of symptoms caused by depression, and people then do not get the treatment that they need. Fortunately we are now seeing the emergence of consensus guidelines on how to diagnose the problem.

Fibromyalgia is a common syndrome of chronic pain and fatigue, but it is a great deal more than just pain. It may affect many systems of the body, and depression and cognitive symptoms are common.

One of the key difficulties in people with fibromyalgia is a disturbance in pain thresholds. There has also been a lot of interest in the idea that people with fibromyalgia are “hypervigilant,” as a result of disturbance in the serotonin pathways in the brain. Something similar happens in many people with other types of chronic pain, particularly low back pain. The problem with all of this research has always been the chicken and egg problem: how many of these abnormalities are due to having chronic pain, and how many might be the cause of the problem?

As an example, I was treating someone with fibromyalgia, and as part of the package of treatments, she was to have acupuncture. If practiced by a professional, acupuncture is usually painless. I had not seen anyone experience pain from the treatment in many years; however, this person was so sensitive that even gentle tapping was excruciatingly painful for her. I have colleagues who take this to be evidence that the whole thing is psychological. But I am sure that they are not correct. To a neurologist this is wrong on three counts:
1.    There is a lot of data indicating metabolic disturbances in people with fibromyalgia that is quite different from anything seen in anxiety or depression. These include reductions in the activity of the cellular powerhouses – the mitochondria – as well as subtle effects in blood flow.

2.    A number of other illnesses, like migraine, are associated with changes in pain threshold, indicating a disturbance in the mechanisms that control pain sensation, either in the brain stem on the thalamus.

3.    This notion that “it’s psychological rather than physical,” harks back to the kind of dualism that is not very helpful.

Recent research  indicates that although fibromyalgia is a little more common in women, the old view that it is predominantly a female illness is not correct. There are also some strong associations with other illnesses, including depression, anxiety, headache, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

In the days that I treated a great many individuals myself, I always found that fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome were amongst the most difficult.

I’ve long been interested in the links between sleep disturbances and fibromyalgia as well as the modest improvement in people with a meditation program.  There is also another factor that is often not much talked about: people with chronic pain, from whatever cause can develop pain cycles: pain begins in some part of the body, but is then maintained by neurological circuits in the spinal cord and brain. Interfering with these pain cycles for even a day or two can sometimes be very helpful.

Fibromyalgia is one of the groups of conditions in which combinations are key. Trying just to use a medicine or just a diet is rarely likely to be crowned with success. The most helpful strategies that we have found have been combinations of:

  1. Physical care:
    1. Appropriate medications to help with pain transmission and symptoms of depression
    2. Sleep hygiene, and some of the other approaches that I’ve suggested for dealing with disrupted sleep.
    3. Low intensity exercise
    4. Nutrition: this one of the clinical conditions that first persuaded  me that there are some people who have genuine food and environmental sensitivities, and, in some rare cases Candida overgrowth. There are quite a number of foods that may be very helpful, depending upon the individual’s likes and dislikes.   
    5. I’ve had colleagues who’ve had some great results with herbal remedies and supplements, but there is little published  evidence that these work.      
    6. Some people seem to have biochemical disturbances that can be  helped with some of the Schussler tissue salts.
  2. Psychological support: there is some good evidence that some personality types and temperaments may be at increase risk of developing fibromyalgia, so any thing that helps build resilience and cope with negative cognitions can be very helpful. Some of the  tapping therapies can be very helpful adjunctive treatments, as can music therapy.
  3. People with fibromyalgia are often very sensitive to the people around them, and their nearest and dearest often need help in understanding how best to support the person with the illness.
  4. The subtle systems of the body are invariably compromised in people with fibromyalgia, and acupuncture – if people can tolerate it – as well as homeopathy can be very helpful. We have often used both together, though this is anathema to many classical homeopaths or acupuncturists. Perhaps they could not have been used in combination 50 years ago, but people have changed physically, psychologically, socially and energetically, and the rules have changed.
  5. As with most people struggling with chronic illness, many people with fibromyalgia lose contact with their Source. And this is why – in my books and recordings – I spend so much time helping people  re-establish meaning and purpose in their lives, and help them use the illness not simply  as a barrier to be overcome, but as a stimulus for internal growth. I have also seen a number of indivudals in whom fibromyalgia was symptommatic of a spiritual awakening.       

One of my biggest worries with fibromyalgia, as with so many chronic illnesses, is that many desperate sufferers and their families can become victims of the unscrupulous. I have seen countless people selling advice and treatments that have no basis in fact.

Not everything that I have discussed here is evidence based: there is so little research on things like acupuncture and homeopathy. But those are treatments to be used in combination with more conventional approaches. Using all together is usually the best way forward. And everything that I’ve discussed here has been used in working with hundreds of people around the world.

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Attention Deficit Disorder, Allergies and Membranes

There has been a long-running debate about the relationship – if any – between allergies and attention deficit disorder (ADD).

As long ago as 1991 a paper seemed to indicate that there were higher rates of hyperactivity in the parents of children with allergies as well as increased rates of allergies in children with ADD. Recently a study from New York seemed to show higher rates of allergic rhinitis in children with ADD. The problem with all this is that we are looking at two common problems and trying to sort out a genuine connection can be tricky.

I started thinking about this problem again, after a recent report that some children had symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and excessive daytime sleepiness as a result of sleep-disordered breathing. But what was remarkable was the number who improved after they had their tonsils taken out. The tonsils are one of the first lines of defense in the immune system, which is why they so often become enlarged with infections, or for that matter in any kind of immunological reaction. Now I’m not much of one to take out tonsils unless there’s a really good reason, but it is certainly an important observation for anyone who has a child with behavioral or cognitive difficulties: he or she may not be sleeping properly.

I have seen quite a number of people who had physical and psychological problems, including headaches, depression and attentional problems, who turned out to have either allergies or environmental sensitivities, and when those were addressed, the symptoms resolved. I have also seen some people who followed the notoriously difficult Feingold diet with some success, even though the research doesn’t seem to be very supportive of elimination diets. And I’ve seen just as many people who got no relief at all from elimination diets.

I have just done a detailed literature review on the topics of allergy and attention, and I don’t think that we have enough evidence to suggest that everybody with attention deficit needs to see an allergist. But what this highlights is that not all people with attentional problems or hyperactivity have ADD. They may have attentional problems because of sleep disturbance, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and a range of other problems.

There is some exciting research indicating that one of the problems in many cases of ADD is a disturbance in the normal functioning of cell membranes. If that is correct, it may be that there are disturbances in the membranes of both neurons in the brain and membranes of cells in the immune system. That link is not entirely proven. But it has received further credence by the finding that some children and adults with ADD seem to show improvements of both attention and immune function when they take omega-3 fatty acids. I have recently been hearing some encouraging reports from people who have used the Omega-3 Formula made by Omegabrite (And no, I have no link with the company!)

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Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome (SBS) was first recognized in 1982, and is a combination of symptoms associated with an individual’s place of work – most often an office building -though there have also been instances of SBS in residential buildings. A 1984 World Health Organization report into the syndrome suggested up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings around the world might be linked to symptoms of SBS.

Many symptoms have been associated with SBS, including:

  • Headache
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritation of the eyes nose or throat, sometimes with a dry coughs
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulties in memory and concentration
  • Extreme sensitivity to smells or bright lights

For SBS to exist, these symptoms must disappear soon after the occupants go outside.

There have been many explanations for these symptoms, primarily related to environmental pollutants. But I have something to add to that list. Some time ago I spent a happy year working at the Charing Cross Hospital in London during which I made an odd observation. On days that I worked in the laboratory on the tenth floor, I would be exhausted by the middle of the day, while on days when I worked in the outpatient clinic in the basement, I could easily get through a 5 hour clinic without difficulty. I mentioned it to a neurophysiologist friend who told me something very interesting: it had been discovered that on days when the wind blew at 5-10 miles an hour, the building began to vibrate like a giant tuning fork, and that the vibration was at its worst between the tenth floor and the top of the hospital. The vibration was imperceptible to most people, but I clearly had the misfortune to be sensitive to it. Yet without this experience, I might never have known of the potential adverse effects of vibration of the human body.

I have been consulted by a number of corporations and government organizations that have had trouble with people getting sick in certain buildings. Until now we have thought that it was all environmental, and that it could be anything from vibration to poor ventilation, chemicals, molds and many things in between. So I was very surprised to see a report published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine from a first rate research group at University College London.

The British Inland Revenue Service demolished an entire 19-storey building in Bootle, Merseyside, after almost half of the employees had developed illnesses compatible with SBS. In a study published two and a half years ago, it was claimed that adding ultraviolet light to ventilation systems to kill microbes could vanquish the symptoms of SBS. But this new research suggests that the cure may actually be better management.

The new study included 4,052 civil service workers between the ages of 42 and 62 who were enrolled in a larger general health study. The men and women in the study worked at 44 different office buildings around London. The workers completed surveys designed to assess their general health and whether they had symptoms linked to SBS. They were also asked questions about the physical properties of the offices that they worked in and the stresses associated with their jobs.

As in earlier studies, women tended to have more symptoms associated with SBS than did men. Younger workers also had more of the symptoms than older workers. Almost one in five women and one in seven men reported five or more symptoms associated with sick building syndrome.

Now here was the surprise: the authors found little association between physical work environment and the symptoms. But there was a strong association between the symptoms and feelings of having high job demands and little support in the workplace. They also found that the more control people have over their workstation, the fewer symptoms were reported.

Though the findings fail to support "sick buildings" as a common cause of worker illness, the study should not be interpreted as meaning that the physical quality of the workplace is unimportant. It is most likely that we are dealing with a combination of physical and work related factors.

As I was reading the report and reviewing the rather vague but often quite severe symptoms, I was reminded of some recent work that I have been doing on burnout: I’ve just published an article about it. My interpretation of this study is that many cases of SBS are likely a form of burnout that is partially modulated by physical factors in the environment.

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Fungal Contamination of Pillows

I recently came across a study from colleagues at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, that was published in the journal Allergy.

Fungal contamination of bedding was first studied seventy years ago, but there have been no reports in the last seventy years. In this new study, researchers sampled ten pillows with between 1.5 and 20 years of regular use. Each pillow was found to contain a substantial fungal load, with four to 16 different species being identified per sample and even higher numbers found in synthetic pillows. One of the most worrying things was that the microscopic fungus Aspergillus fumigatus was particularly common in synthetic pillows. And fungi as diverse as bread and vine moulds and those usually found on damp walls and in showers were also found in the pillows. Aspergillus is a very common fungus, carried in the air as well as being found in cellars, household plant pots, compost, computers and ground pepper and spices. I have treated many people with invasive Aspergillosis, a sometimes nasty illness that occurs mainly in the lungs and sinuses, although it can spread to other organs including the brain. It can be very difficult to treat, and as many as 1 in 25 patients who die in modern European teaching hospitals have the disease. In France and Germany, this is one of the occasions when unorthodox medicine is often used at the same time as high doses of antibiotics: proper integrated medicine.

Aspergillosis is a particular problem in people with compromised immune systems. Hospital pillows have plastic covers and so are unlikely to cause problems, but patients being discharged home – where pillows may be old and fungus-infected – could be at risk of infection. Aspergillus can also worsen asthma, particularly in adults who have had asthma for many years, and it can cause allergic sinusitis in patients with allergic tendencies. Constant exposure to fungus in bed could be problematic.

The moral of this story is be extra aware that pillows may harbor fungi that can cause or exacerbate allergies and more serious problems in people with other illnesses. If you have allergies, it is best to use foam rather than feather pillows. If you have synthetic pillows, wash them regularly in warm water and with a non-allergenic detergent. Dip the pillow one small section at a time in the solution and squeeze through the pillow. Once the pillow is clean, rinse it out at least three times to remove all of the soap and residue. Then lie the pillow out flat to dry, and turn it frequently. To fluff the pillow, take a couple of tennis balls and put them in the dryer with the pillow and air dry for about 30 minutes.

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