Hoax Museum Blog: Health/Medicine

Bottle Caps For Charity — The latest victims of the decades-old trash-for-charity hoax are the students of PS 46 in Staten Island. They were collecting plastic bottle caps in the belief that for every 1000 caps collected a child with cancer would get chemotherapy. Finally one of the students did an online search for "bottle caps" and "charity" and figured out it was a hoax. [silive.com]
Posted: Mon Apr 13, 2009.   Comments (7)

Long Hair — A Chinese doctor hasn't cut his hair in more than 60 years. He says doing so is responsible for the health of his patients. I'm sure there's a name for this logical fallacy, but I'm not sure what it is. [Daily Express (with pic of long-haired doc)]
Posted: Mon Apr 06, 2009.   Comments (5)

Is it healthy to pick your nose? — If you do a search on the web for information about rhinotillexis (aka nose picking) you'll soon run across references to Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, described as an Austrian lung specialist, who is quoted as saying that nose-picking combined with nasal mucus eating is a healthy habit:

"With the finger you can get to places you just can't reach with a handkerchief, keeping your nose far cleaner.
"And eating the dry remains of what you pull out is a great way of strengthening the body's immune system.
"Medically it makes great sense and is a perfectly natural thing to do. In terms of the immune system the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine.
"Modern medicine is constantly trying to do the same thing through far more complicated methods, people who pick their nose and eat it get a natural boost to their immune system for free."

Bischinger is referenced in the Wikipedia article about nose-picking as well as in a Damn Interesting article on the same subject.

The problem is that this quotation from Dr. Bischinger doesn't come from a medical journal article. Instead, it traces back to an Ananova article (never a good sign), and before that to a news wire article that did the rounds in March 2004.

I had to wonder, does Dr. Bischinger even exist, or was he the creation of a bored journalist?

Well, he does exist. I couldn't find any medical articles authored by him, but after some searching I did find his contact details listed at the arztverzeichnis website. He is an Austrian lung specialist. Based on a posting on the Improbable Research site, it looks like Bischinger was first interviewed by a German-language magazine, Tirol, and then the quotation was noticed and circulated by a news wire reporter.

To conclude: I don't know if nose-picking and booger-eating is good for you. All we can say is that in the opinion of one Austrian doctor it is healthy. However, Dr. Bischinger doesn't appear to have conducted an actual medical study of the habit.
Posted: Fri Dec 05, 2008.   Comments (7)

The Hypoallergenic Dog Myth — When the Obamas recently announced they were searching for a dog to have in the White House, they noted that one of the criteria was that it would need to be hypoallergenic, since Malia is allergic to dogs. The media quickly raised the possibility of a White House poodle, since poodles are supposedly a hypoallergenic breed.

Skeptics have quickly pointed out that the idea of a hypoallergenic dog breed is a myth. Individuals dogs may produce less of the protein that causes the allergic reaction (and this protein can be found in the dander, urine, saliva, and fur of dogs). However, there is no dog breed as a whole that produces less of the protein. And if someone is very allergic to dogs, they're going to react to all dogs.

So, assuming that Malia's allergies are relatively mild and manageable, instead of focusing on certain breeds, the Obamas should test individual dogs for their compatibility with Malia. However, it is true they should avoid long-haired dogs because such dogs trap more allergens in their fur, in the same way that a shag carpet traps more allergens than a hardwood floor.

Links: Yahoo! News video, How Stuff Works. (Thanks, Big Gary!)
Posted: Mon Nov 17, 2008.   Comments (9)

Fake caterpillar fungus — Chinese food inspectors have issued a warning to those planning to buy caterpillar fungus: Many samples of caterpillar fungus have been replaced by fakes. These fakes "not only miss their medicinal function, but could even be poisonous."

According to Wikipedia, caterpillar fungus is one of the most prized ingredients in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine:

it is used as an aphrodisiac and as a treatment for a variety of ailments from fatigue to cancer. It is regarded as having an excellent balance of yin and yang as it is apparently both animal and vegetable (though it is in actuality not vegetable, but fungal).

So my guess is that the "real" stuff does basically nothing.
Posted: Wed Sep 24, 2008.   Comments (1)

Caps for Charity — Another case of the Collecting Junk for Charity hoax. Aleta Brace of Parkersburg, West Virginia collected 20,000 bottle caps, believing that the caps could be redeemed for money which would aid cancer patients. And she wasn't alone. Churches, schools, businesses, and individuals throughout West Virginia have been collecting the bottle caps all summer.

The caps would all have gone to waste, but now the Aveda skin care company has announced it'll take the caps and recycle them into new caps for its products.
Posted: Wed Sep 03, 2008.   Comments (7)

Fake Patients — The Associated Press reports that the FBI has started cracking down on a widespread insurance scam in which hospitals fill up their beds with homeless people posing as patients, and then charge government programs for the costs.

Hospitals in Los Angeles and Orange counties submitted phony Medicare and Medi-Cal bills for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless patients — including drug addicts and the mentally ill — recruited from downtown's Skid Row, state and federal authorities allege.
While treating minor problems that did not require hospitalization, such as dehydration, exhaustion or yeast infections, the hospitals allegedly kept homeless patients in beds for as long as three days and charged the government for the stays.

Put that together with this report from Jan 2008 which described how hospitals frequently employ fake patients in order to spy on doctors and check out whether they're doing what they should be. The problem is that sometimes the real patients in the emergency room are stuck in line behind the fake patients.

And let's not forget the 2006 case of the Norwegian doctor who invented case studies of 900 fake patients to pad out his study of whether aspirin could reduce the risk of oral cancer.

The conclusion: Fake patients are obviously an important, under-appreciated part of the modern health-care industry. (Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Fri Aug 08, 2008.   Comments (2)

An Unfortunate Accident — This news clipping has been doing the rounds:

Is it true? It does have urban-legend qualities to it, but a search of LexisNexis reveals that it was widely reported in April 2002. English-language papers credited the story to the Danish newspaper BT. The surgeon was identified as Jorn Kristensen. The Sun had this line:

Surgeon Jorn Kristensen said of the chain reaction: "No-one considered the possibility."

So, given the specific details, I'm going to say that it appears to be true my hunch is that it's true, but I'll list it as undetermined.
Posted: Sun Jul 13, 2008.   Comments (20)

A Degloving Injury — Warning: Don't look at these pictures if you're squeamish. Picture 1, Picture 2. They're the latest stomach-turners circulating around the internet. You've been warned! But if you think you can handle it, the pictures are interesting from an anatomical perspective.

They show a "degloved" finger. A woman, while drunk, snagged her ring on a spiked fence, thereby peeling the skin off her finger. Her friends had the presence of mind to put the 'finger glove' in a glass of water and take her to a hospital.

The images are strange, but real. They come from a recent article in The Internet Journal of Orthopedic Surgery. I'm sure the images wouldn't seem strange to someone who's used to seeing this kind of stuff. But I'm not, and they look very strange to me.

The good news is that, should your finger ever be degloved, the skin can be reattached. But after seeing these pictures, I'm thinking maybe it would be safer not to wear my ring anymore. (via Marianas Eye)
Posted: Thu Jun 19, 2008.   Comments (8)

Woman discovers husband isn’t a doctor — Tammi Parteet was worried since she hadn't heard from her husband. So she decided to call him at Piedmont Hospital, where he worked as a doctor. WSBTV.com relates what happened next:

She called him on his Piedmont cell phone, the one he told her was for emergencies. A staff member picked up. "I said, 'I'm trying to locate my husband, Dr. Perteet.' And she said, 'Dr. who? We don't have a Dr. Perteet.' And she says, 'Are you talking about the guy that had this cell phone?' And I said 'yes.' And she says, 'Oh, he was arrested last night for impersonating a doctor,'" Tammi Perteet said.

Although her husband is now in jail, he still maintains he really is a doctor... and an electrical engineer as well. Sounds like he's also a skilled actor. (Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Mon Jun 02, 2008.   Comments (9)

FairDeal Homeopathy — FairDeal Homeopathy promises it won't lie to its customers. They only guarantee that their remedies are "as effective as all other homeopathic remedies."

They also won't promise that their products can help you if you're ill. Although they do note that if you believe in their remedies they might help, because of the placebo effect. But they caution that if you're "actually ill" you shouldn't expect their products to cure you. "Homeopathy of any sort," they note, "is not a medical treatment, neither is it a substitute for evidence-based medicine and proper medical opinion."

On the testimonials page you find comments from "Miss Emily B. Leiver" and "Mr C. Lumsey." At which point it becomes obvious that the entire site is a parody. (Thanks, Terry!)

Update: I just received this email.

Dear Sir,
I just happened across your website entry on FairDeal Homeopathy.
I actually developed the site for the guys at FairDeal, and can assure you
that while the site is very unlike all other homeopathy websites, the firm
itself is anything but a hoax, and does sell homeopathic remedies* (payment
by PayPal only, dispatch to UK only) to anyone who wishes to buy one.
I'm sure the guys will be grateful if you could clarify this in your entry.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need any more information, or
if you wish to get information "from the horse's mouth" as it were, you can
contact FairDeal direct on info@fdhom.co.uk
Best regards,
Richard Lockwood.

*remedy is in no way meant to imply curative properties, guaranteed as
effective as all other homeopthic products

To which I replied:

Thanks for your email.
So let me see if I understand. FairDeal Homeopathy will sell people something. Customers will receive a product in the mail. But FairDeal tells their customers straight up that the product is basically a bottle of water.
Is that an accurate summary?

And received this response:

Hi Alex,
Almost.  Their remedies are in pill (lactose tablet) form sourced from the UK's biggest supplier of homeopathic products.  They are identical to any other homeopathic remedy you can buy; they're just a lot more honest about what they do. 
Best regards,

So I suppose FairDeal Homeopathy is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it is real, in so far as it will sell people something.
Posted: Fri May 09, 2008.   Comments (10)

Who authors drug studies? — A disturbing article in the most recent issue of JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) suggests that the practice of ghostwriting medical studies is widespread. How it works is that a big drug company writes a study touting the merits of its latest drug. Then the company hands off the study to a prestigious researcher who agrees to be listed as the author. This adds a veneer of scientific credibility to what is basically corporate propaganda.

The dupes in this entire process are the patients who are convinced to shell out big bucks for medicine that's either worthless or actually harmful (such as Vioxx).

The drug companies, of course, claim this isn't how it works at all. The International Herald Tribune notes:

Merck acknowledged Tuesday that it sometimes hired outside medical writers to draft research reports before handing them over to the doctors whose names eventually appear on the publication. But the company disputed the article's conclusion that the authors do little of the actual research or analysis.

I wonder, do the drug companies expect anyone to believe them anymore?

Posted: Thu Apr 17, 2008.   Comments (15)

Malawi Ousts Fake AIDS Healers — Lawmakers in Malawi have decided to crack dawn on quacks peddling phony cures for AIDS. The "cures" generally involve having sex with a virgin, an albino, or a disabled person. The legislation is only in draft form right now, but if passed it will require traditional healers to register with the health ministry.

I'll have to ask my sister what she knows about this, since she's been in Malawi for the past four years working on promoting AIDS education. That's why I visited Malawi last year. I had a great time there. I would definitely encourage anyone to visit, but if you plan on driving around the country, make sure you have a four-wheel drive. And if you're brave, you might even try the local specialty: mouse on a stick.
Posted: Sun Mar 09, 2008.   Comments (9)

Viagra-Inspired Food — Trifter.com has collected examples of foods that have either been made to look like Viagra, or have been renamed after it. The list includes Viagra Gelato, Viagra ice cream, Viagra spam mousse, Viagra cake, and Viagra musubi.

The Viagra spam mousse seems particularly appropriate, since the drug is such a favorite topic of spammers.

Posted: Wed Mar 05, 2008.   Comments (2)

Obay — Recently strange ads for a drug called "Obay" began appearing around Toronto. The ads were pretty obviously satirical, but who was responsible for them? The Church of Scientology was an early suspect, since they're well known for their anti-psychiatry stance. But it turned out they had nothing to do with the ad campaign.

The Torontoist tracked down the real culprit. It's an advocacy group called Colleges Ontario, which represents twenty-four colleges in Ontario. The Torontoist writes:

Rob Savage, Colleges Ontario's Director of Communications, called Torontoist moments ago to confirm that Colleges Ontario is indeed behind the ads, and the organization just sent out a press release with information about a media launch event next Monday at (fittingly) Centennial College that promises to reveal "the news behind Obay and its side effects on Ontario’s Post-secondary Education." Torontoist will be there.

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2008.   Comments (7)

Woman claims to be 120 — Mariam Amash, who lives in the village of Jisr a-Zarka in Israel, claims that she is 120 years old. Her claim recently surfaced when she applied for a new Israeli identity card.

She might be telling the truth. Apparently she has a birth certificate issued by Turkish authorities, who ruled Jisr a-Zarka back in 1888 when Amash says she was born. She also has eleven children, the eldest one being in her late 80s. So assuming that her children aren't lying about their ages, Amash would have to be at least over 100 years old.

If Amash really is 120, that would make her the oldest person in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the current record holder is 114-year-old Edna Parker of Indiana.

The reason to be skeptical about her claim is because of the phenomenon of age exaggeration. Elderly people often lie about their age, pretending to be older than they really are. They usually do this because claiming extreme age is a way to gain social status. In Amash's case, it seems kind of odd that she would have eleven children, if she only had her first child when she was in her mid 30s (which the age difference between her and her oldest daughter suggests).

Researchers have been fooled by the age exaggeration phenomenon before. The most famous case occurred in the Ecuadorian town of Vilcabamba, located high in the Andes. The town gained fame during the 1970s because it appeared to be the home of 23 centenarians, which statistically was unheard of. Even one centenarian among a population that small would have been extraordinary. It turned out that basically all the elderly people in the village were lying about their ages. When researchers carefully examined the birth records, they realized there wasn't a single person over 100 in the village. The average age of the people claiming to be over 100 was 86. The plans to build a longevity research center in the village had to be scrapped.
Posted: Mon Feb 18, 2008.   Comments (2)

Real-Life Kidney Thieves — A kidney transplant ring has been busted in India. Hundreds of poor people were forced into having their kidneys removed. ABC News reports that victims were promised a job, then taken to a private house and forced at gunpoint to sell their kidneys.

One victim's story sounds just like the kidney-transplant urban legend:

"I was approached by a stranger for a job. When I accepted, I was taken to a room with gunmen," Mohammed Salim told India's local NDTV television channel. "They tested my blood, gave me an injection and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I had pain in my lower abdomen and I was told that my kidney had been removed."

The kidney transplant ring was found out when suspicious neighbors "noticed blood running out of the house's gutters." Yeah, that would kind of be a giveaway. (Thanks, Stephen)
Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2008.   Comments (4)

Huffing Hand Sanitizer — A 14-year-old student at Killian Middle School in Lewisville picked up a bottle of hand sanitizer from the desk of his reading teacher, rubbed the gel on his hands, and then smelled it. According to the teacher, he "inhaled heavily."

The student said he sniffed it because it "smelled good." But the school authorities claimed he sniffed it because he was trying to get high. They gave him an in-school suspension, and then proceeded to file criminal charges against him. WFAA.com reports:

Joni Eddy, assistant police chief in Lewisville, said Friday that hand sanitizer has become a popular inhalant. "That is the latest thing to huff," she said.
She said officers felt they were acting properly when they pursued the case against Mr. Ortiz's son under a complex state statute governing volatile chemicals that could be abused.
"The charge said he was using the product other than its intended use," she said. "Huffing hand sanitizer is certainly using it for something other than its intended use."
Hand sanitizers usually contain a high percentage of ethyl alcohol, a flammable liquid used in a wide range of industrial products and alcoholic beverages.

Thankfully, common sense eventually prevailed and prosecutors dropped the charges. As far as I know, it's not possible to get high by "huffing hand sanitizer." Unless, perhaps, you were to do it to the point that it deprived you of enough oxygen. I'm not sure what strange rumors the police were believing when they pursued this case. The WFAA article includes a statement from the National Institute on Drug Abuse debunking the hand-sanitizer-huffing rumor:

Shirley Simson, a spokeswoman for the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington, said in an e-mail that the agency had no data about hand sanitizers being abused as inhalants. She noted, however, that there have been news reports of some people drinking hand sanitizers for their alcohol content.

It reminds me of the recent Jenkem scare, in which Florida police issued a bulletin warning that local kids were getting high by sniffing the fermenting gas from human sewage.
Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2008.   Comments (22)

Prank Call Leads to Electric Shock Treatment — Prank phone calls and electric-shock gadgets are perennial favorites of pranksters. So I guess what happened at the Judge Rotenberg Education Center was just a novel combination of the two: Call up and order electric-shock treatment for someone. It's actually kind of scary to think that it's that easy to order treatment for a patient. Boston Herald reports:
State officials are investigating complaints that staff at the Judge Rotenberg Education Center gave three people — including two teens — unnecessary electric shock treatments after receiving a prank phone call from someone pretending to be from the office of the school’s founder.

Initial investigations showed that a former student at the school allegedly called in orders for electric shock treatments on Aug. 26 and the Rotenberg center self-reported the prank call and unnecessary treatments the day after they occurred, Cindy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Early Education and Care, said Monday.

Posted: Mon Dec 17, 2007.   Comments (2)

Quick Links: Nov. 27, 2007 — Ocean's 11 Conman
"It was one of the most audacious jewel thefts in history. In the middle of a crowded room, the famed Star of the Empress Sisi was stolen from its high-security case and replaced with a replica." (Thanks, Joe)

Turkey Mystery
Turkeys mysteriously show up in a town, and then wander away. "After entertaining residents of Harborview Drive on Thanksgiving morning, 15 turkeys departed - in single file - about 1 p.m. Thursday and have not been seen since, residents said Friday."

FEMA not the only agency to hold fake press conferences
Apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement does it too. (Thanks, Gary)

The EPFX Quack Medicine Machine
Its inventor, William Nelson, claims it can diagnose and destroy disease. The FDA says it's a fraud. And it's just one example from the growing field of "energy medicine." (Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Tue Nov 27, 2007.   Comments (4)

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