Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Rush to Judgment: When Medical Science Gets it Wrong

The mysterious illnesses in Le Roy have prompted some interesting divisions among observers, myself included. While some are willing to dismiss the girls’ symptoms as nothing more than conversion disorder, others of us recall all too clearly other times when experts in the scientific community got it just plain wrong. Here are but a few of those instances:

Autism- Once thought of as extremely early-onset schizophrenia, this condition was believed to be caused by parental detachment. Professional literature recommended treating affected children with electroshock therapy and LSD well into the 1970s. It wasn't until 1989 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), the reference book health care professionals use to diagnose mental disorders, listed autism as a developmental disorder separate from schizophrenia.

Female hysteria – Most people think this diagnosis went out with the Victorian era, but it wasn’t removed as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association until 1952. At that time, it was apparently decided that women were responsible enough to use vibrators on their own (the standard treatment). That still didn’t stop ‘experts' from attributing everything from frigidity to “an unusual amount of sexual pleasure” to this so-called disease.

Lyme Disease – In the early 1970s, mother Polly Murray was very worried about what was going on in her Lyme, Connecticut neighborhood. People were getting sick at an alarming rate and no one really seemed to know why. Doctors first brushed off the complaints of excessive tiredness, skin rashes, swollen joints, and headaches. Polly, an artist who was no longer able to paint because of arthritis in her hands, was told by physicians that she was a hypochondriac. When her son also became sick, the diagnosis was that he was mimicking her “neurotic” behavior. (Is any of this sounding familiar?) He was eventually diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, but Mrs. Murray was convinced something more was going on. She teamed up with another mother of a sick child, Judith Mensch, and together the two women uncovered evidence of thirty-nine children and twelve adults in their area who’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis—100 times the normal rate of incidence. Armed with this information, Murray and Mensch pestered the Connecticut Department of Health until they agreed to send someone to investigate. A condition named “Lyme arthritis” was recognized two years later. It wasn’t until 1981 that Dr. Willy Burgdorfer discovered the spirochete responsible for the infection.

Moral of the story: Science is continually evolving. As a result sometimes even the experts are wrong. Question everything.

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