Dr. David Stukus: “I think we need to start educating school children on how to spot “Fake News” and think independently”

Nationwide Children’s Hospital was founded in 1892, today it’s one of the largest children’s hospital in the USA. Only in 2017 Nationwide Children’s Hospital had more than 1.4 million patient visits from all around the USA and the world. 1  Dr. David Stukus is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Section of Allergy/Immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Director of the Hospital’s Complex Asthma Clinic, his focus is on asthma and food allergies.2  He was more than willing to answer a few questions, but if you want to stay updated…you better go and follow him at @AllergyKidsDoc

I would like to start the interview with an important question for the Balkan region regarding the anti-vaccination movement.  In 2018 the WFSJ published the article “ When the media gets science wrong: the deadly measles epidemic in Serbia“, so in your opinion how much the anti-vaccination movement is dangerous in a long term period?

Dr. David Stukus: This is a great place to start! Any movement that is based on pseudoscience and fear mongering is dangerous to society. The false beliefs and misconceptions perpetutated throughout the anti-vaccine movement have sowed doubt into the minds of well intentioned and concerned parents across the world. We are seeing a resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases such as measles after achieving complete eradication in some countries. Vaccine hesitancy was named a Top 10 Global Health Threat by the World Health Organization for 2019 – if that doesn’t demonstrate how dangerous this is, I don’t know what does.

Every day we can read about detoxification and how to clean our body from heavy metals, but what do you think about detoxification for kids? Do kids really need detoxification and body cleanse?

Dr.David Stukus: I’ll reply for both children and adults: No one needs detoxification or cleanses! Our bodies are extremely effective at removing harmful substances and rely on our kidneys, liver, and lungs for that exact purpose. This is another area filled with misinformation and fear mongering, all in the name of profit and empty promises. Harm occurs from people spending their hard earned money on unnecessary treatment programs, or worse, avoiding proven medical treatments for their underlying conditions in lieu of these unproven and unnecessary options. It’s ironic that the extreme versions of these detoxes and cleanses can actually create unnatural imbalances inside the body and deficiencies in necessary vitamins and minerals.

What do you think about the state of science and health journalism in the US, what would you like to be changed?

Dr. David Stukus: Like most things, there are really great examples and really bad examples. It all depends on what outlets you use. I would like to see stories on science and health reported by journalists who have received training and have an understanding of the nuances involved in research studies. Too many headlines are formatted to generate clicks and shares and miss the mark on what a study actually demonstrated. There is also a major imbalance in favour of the eye catching rare stories that generate interest but then falsely represent an issue. For instance, to achieve true journalistic balance, for every story about a person who experienced a rare complication from receiving a vaccine, there should be a million other stories that report on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. THAT is an accurate representation.

I like the way you are using Twitter, it’s very educational and interesting. A few months ago you wrote:  “Making decisions about your health or wellness based upon information from unqualified individuals – especially those who are also trying to sell you products or services. That’s called advertising.” We can see so many advertisements and advices like “Take Zinc every day, you need to take higher doses of vitamin C for your immunity…” , people can get scared sometimes and they would buy whatever it takes for their health, so how do we find balance and do we really need to take daily doses of supplements?

Dr. David Stukus: I think we need to start educating school children on how to spot “Fake News” and think independently. Science literacy is declining and too many people mistake the information they receive on social media, through online articles, or from celebrities as credible. Medical experts and scientists are no longer seen as the experts – partly due to our collective inability to communicate in a manner that is received and understood by others. It’s much more powerful to hear an emotional testimonial from someone who looks like you than a stuffy educated doctor or scientist that very few people relate towards.

People also fail to recognize the difference between an advertisement and an unbiased evidence-based recommendation. A simple thing every single person can start doing immediately to help with this is to ask themselves one question: Is the source of information I just received also trying to sell me something (products, books, services, etc)? If yes – that is a conflict of interest and that information is biased. This happens all the time with supplements, vitamins, homeopathic remedies, etc. There are a few medical conditions that would benefit from treatment with the right supplement but unless someone has been evaluated by a qualified medical professional and been diagnosed with one of those conditions, there is no medical indication to use supplements. People should focus on eating an overall healthy diet and receive their nutrition from actual food instead of pills.

We can see articles about how honey can treat allergies,  the truth is?

Dr. David Stukus: Not at all. Honey is made by bees who collect pollen from non-wind borne plants such as flowers. The pollen that causes allergy symptoms comes from wind borne plants such as tress, grass, and weeds. Not only does honey not contain the same pollen that causes allergy symptoms, but if it did, then people with pollen allergies would be having reactions from eating a big mouthful of exactly what they are allergic to!

What do you like the most about your job and what is not such a good side? We can see different movements, parents who are raising vegetarian kids and there are so many conspiracy theories, does this makes your job more challenging? Do kids need to be vegetarians?

Dr. David Stukus: I love forming long lasting connections with children and their families. They trust me with personal information and their deepest concerns. I can use my education, training, and 10+ years of clinical experience to listen to their concerns and offer suggestions as to what may be causing their symptoms, as well as some ideas on how to make them feel better. I have learned so much from the conversations that I have on social media and observing the conspiracy theorists and their falsely held beliefs. I know that most of my patients are also using social media to find information pertaining to their health. I also know that at times they may post my own recommendations from the appointment they had with me to see if their social networks agree or not. As challenging as that may be, and disruptive to our personal relationship, I acknowledge that is how our world operates and I openly discuss that aspect with families. I anticipate they will go online and tell them that not all information is credible or useful. I always offer to serve as a trusted source of evidence based information should they have questions.

What are the top five biggest myths (in your opinion) and can you tell us what is the truth?

Dr.David Stukus: Myth: Doctors make a ton of money from pushing vaccines or drugs. Truth: Not at all. Trust me, we’d make MUCH more money if we skipped proven medical treatment and instead allowed our patients to have bad outcomes and require treatment in the emergency department or hospital.

Myth: I have a hypoallergenic pet. Truth: “Hypoallergenic” dogs and cats do not exist. All of them release dander, which is what causes allergy symptoms, from their saliva, skin cells, and urine. Some breeds may cause more symptoms in some individuals compared with others, but this can only be determined through repeated direct exposure.

Myth: I’m allergic to penicillin. Truth: 10 % of people report having penicillin allergy but 95 % of those people are not actually allergic. Side effects, family history, and misunderstanding of what constitutes an allergic reaction are often misconstrued when the term ‘allergy’ is applied.

Myth: The flu shot gives you the flu. Truth: Influenza vaccines administered by injection contain small pieces of the influenza virus to help build immunity. There is no active virus and it is impossible for it to cause active influenza infection.

Myth: I read it online, it must be true. Truth: Not at all. There is zero regulation of any medical content online. It is important to learn how to navigate online resources when searching for health information.

What is the best advice you can give to parents?

Dr.David Stukus: Your child’s personal doctor is the best source of information pertaining to their care. If you have questions or concerns about their health, please ask their doctor. There are so many nuances and individual differences that make it impossible to take information from other people’s anecdotes or online sources to know whether any of it applies to each individual child. Your child’s doctor honestly cares about your family and wants you to have the best information to make decisions and ultimately for your child to have the best outcomes. The years of training and clinical experience that your child’s doctor can offer simply cannot be replaced by advice from well intentioned friends, family members, or social media contacts, ESPECIALLY if they themselves are not a qualified medical provider.

Source1 and 2: www.nationwidechildrens.org

About the author:  Maria Bolevich is a 29-year-old graduate of the Medical High School and of the Faculty of Metallurgy and Technology, Department of Environmental protection at the University of Montenegro. She wrote her first scientific article in 2009 which triggered her passion for science journalism.  She works as a freelance science and environmental journalist and she is based in Croatia.