Thursday, December 10, 2009

COLUMN: Oscillo

I like to think that, at least occasionally, I can be a smart guy. Sure, there are times when it's doubtful -- like when I play in trivia events and my teammates look at me in sad wonder when I don't know the answers to history and geography questions that they consider common knowledge. And yes, it's true that I'm the only person I know of who can routinely explode a Hot Pocket in an innocent attempt at lunch. But on the whole of life, I'd like to think that I'm somewhat with-it.

But occasionally, I find that the rational and pragmatic side of my brain takes a holiday. Never is this more true than when I get sick. Personally, I blame these moments on over-medication.

I have trust in science. And if science says I can take a pill and feel decongested, I'm taking that pill without hesitation. If I get a cold, I'll have my mobile medicine cabinet in my pockets: a travel pack of Kleenex, ibuprofen, decongestants, antihistamines, nasal inhalers, hand sanitizer, cough suppressants, expectorants, and, if I'm feeling particularly peckish, a nightcap or two of Pepto-Bismol.

This is not to say that I'm some kind of weirdo pill popper who abuses over-the-counter drugs. I only take what's necessary to relieve symptoms, and I follow all directions and mind all potential drug interactions. I just like to be pro-active in my cold battles.

But then there's the flipside of science. The science that's not handed out by medical professionals in white coats. The science that's usually dispensed by aging, long-haired ex-hippies in sun dresses who seems genuinely concerned about my chakras. The "science" you have to put quotes around. And if I'm sick enough, this "science" begins to make sense.

Just as I'm a sucker for over-the-counter medicine, so am I for herbal wonder cure-alls. This, I firmly believe, is a genetic trait I've inherited from my mother. Ma Brown reads a whole lot of Prevention magazine, and Prevention is awesome if you're a crazed germophobe such as we members of Clan Brown. If there's ever a study that proves gargling with pureed asparagus prevents spleen cancer, you're gonna read about it first in the pages of Prevention. It's the mothership for herbal remedy hocum-pocum.

As a result, over the years I've tried nearly every herbal miracle fix-it for colds and flu. They come and go, and they all have the same cycle: (1) An "incredible new breakthrough" is reported by the herbivore press. (2) Everyone tries it and claims varying degrees of success. (3) Modern science does a test and finds out that it's absolutely, positively, incredibly rubbish. (4) We wait for the next miraculous wonder herb to be plucked off a mountainside in Nepal so that the cycle can begin again. Time and again, I fall for it.

I used to think echinacea helped me every time I had a cold... until I read a story attempting to prove its worthlessness. Same thing happened to me with those effervescent herbal vitamin tablets. Those little things were initially touted to make you invincible. Now studies are saying that not only is it a fairly lousy way to get Vitamin C, but some brands may contain dangerous levels of Vitamin A. Plus ANOTHER new study claims that mega-dosing on Vitamin C may contribute to kidney stones, and frankly, I'd rather be sick for a month than deal with that again. I tried zinc supplements when they were all the rage and found out quickly that I prefer having a cold to having every meal for the next week taste oddly zinc-y.

In fact, in all my experiments with herbal medicine, I've only found one that I swear to you actually works: Elderberry syrup. If you take a few spoons of elderberry early enough, it CAN knock out a cold before it starts. Plus it tastes kinda nummy, so double bonus.

The point is, I'll try anything at least once. And when I was whining on Facebook the other day that everyone around me was coming down with H1N1, several folks recommended I try a product that had escaped my radar thus far: Oscillococcinum. Their testimonials were impressive, so I picked up a box.

And an impressive box it is: Right there on the front, it says "Flu-Like Symptoms: Feeling Run-Down, Headache, Body Aches, Chills, Fever." I should note that it doesn't say that it CURES or ALLEVIATES any of these symptoms - it just lists them. Hmm. Each packet of Oscillococcinum contains a handful of little pellets that you pour under your tongue while they dissolve. Presto, flu go bye-bye. Or does it?

Here's what I learned on the internet. Once upon a time, there was a doctor named Joseph Roy who was studying the Spanish flu. Under a microscope, he found a bacterium in the blood of victims that he called "oscillococci." The same bacteria was found in folks with cancer, syphilis, and eczema. Assuming this bacterium to be a disturbance of our life force, he worked on isolating it to use as a homeopathic vaccine that he hoped would cure cancer (and, presumably, eczema.) He theorized that the power of these bacterium could be imparted into an edible form by diluting it and pouring the dilution over milk sugar. And the best source of Oscillococci that Roy could find? Duck liver.

So when you're placing Oscillococcinum in your mouth, you're basically eating tiny duck-liver-flavored malted milk balls. The box claims the active ingredient in Oscillococcinum is "anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum 200CK HPUS," which in layman's terms means duck liver diluted 200 times over, which in sub-layman's terms means water served from a dirty glass. Imagine a glass full of duck liver. Then you dump that out and refill the glass with water. Then you dump it and refill it again. Then do it 198 more times. Your 200th glass of water is now "medicine," despite the odds that your glass doesn't contain one single molecule of duck liver by the time you've rinsed it out 200 times. Umm?

So it all sounds fairly hokey to me. I think I preferred oscillococcinum better when I thought they were magic curative balls of wonder. That said, I took the recommended dosage and am (knock on wood) thus far flu-free. So maybe oscillo IS magic. I know it magically caused $14 to disappear from my wallet.

NOTE: Two weeks after this column appeared in the Dispatch/Argus, I received the following letter:

December 2, 2009

Shane Brown
The Dispatch
1720 Fifth Avenue
Moline, IL 61265

Dear Mr. Brown,

I'm writing in regards to your Nov. 22, 2009 column "Help or hoax? Duck liver bacterium, elderberry syrup, Echinacea" in which you doubted your mother's advice and believed the Internet about our product Oscillococcinum.

Moms are always right. Please find enclosed two of the four studies supporting Oscillo's claim to "reduce the duration and severity of flu symptoms." This is unlike many that work by masking symptoms. The latest study published in a British scientific journal found that when patients took Oscillo within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, nearly 63 percent showed "clear improvement" or "complete resolution" within 48 hours.

Furthermore, Oscillococcinum has been on the market in France for 65 years and in the United States for 25 years with no reported side effects, and stands firmly on its reputation for reducing the duration and severity of flu symptoms. In fact, it is the best-selling (in Euros) over-the-counter product in the cough/cold/flu category and a top ten selling brand (in both Euros and unit volume) in French pharmacies. In the U.S., its success in natural product stores like Whole Foods Markets has led to it now being carried in CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, etc.

Regarding your question that the package does not actually state it "cures or alleviates" symptoms, please know that Oscillo is regulated as a drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As such, it adheres to the same labeling guidelines as other over-the-counter drugs. Please note that other OTC's do not use language such as "cures." For example, Tylenol label reads "temporarily relieves minor aches and pains due to the common cold, headache, backache, etc." Due to these regulations, only the symptoms that Oscillo works against as shows in studies are listed on the box label.

Regarding homeopathic medicine in general, six meta-analyses of high quality clinical studies have shown the efficacy of homeopathic medicines and have concluded that this efficacy can not be dismissed as merely a placebo effect. These results confirm 200 years of safe and efficacious use of homeopathic medicines, and explain why homeopathy is a growing choice among patients and healthcare professionals.

Please let me know if I can provide any other information for you or arrange an educational discussion for you with one of our medical experts. I'm available at 610/325-XXXX or by e-mailing alissa.gould@XXXXXXXXX.XXX.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter,
Alissa Gould
Boiron USA Public Relations Manager

P.S. It doesn't have a duck flavor. And I'm including samples that your co-workers, friends, or family can help you test with a product test. But you have to take it at the onset of symptoms.

Okay, so...

My column made it to Boiron HQ all the way out on the East Coast. Yikes. But it was cool of her to write, and cooler still to enclose a CASE of Oscillo-Coccinum. So I'm keeping some on-hand, and the next time I start to feel lousy, I'll give it a go and see what happens.

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