MPT airing deeply flawed film about Lyme disease

Dan Rodricks writes that despite film's serious problems, including lack of scientific evidence supporting its claims, 'Under Our Skin' gets PBS air time

June 19, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Maryland Public Television is set to air a polemical film about Lyme disease that is built on fear-provoking speculations and assertions while advancing a central message that has been discredited by experts in infectious diseases. Despite being apprised of the film's serious flaws, MPT has "Under Our Skin: A Health Care Nightmare" on its afternoon schedule for June 26.

Other stations throughout the Public Broadcasting Service also have "Under Our Skin: on their schedules; some already aired it. The program was distributed free to stations by the National Educational Telecommunications Association.

But one of the leading PBS stations in the country, WGBH in Boston, dropped it this month. "The decision was based on our own, internal editorial concerns that surfaced on closer review of the film," explained Jeanne Hopkins, a WGBH vice president.

One of the likely influences was Philip Baker, a longtime research scientist for the National Institutes of Health and executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation. He believes "Under Our Skin" is deceptive and potentially harmful to the public; he complained about its airing to PBS and to MPT.

"A partisan film such as this," Mr. Baker wrote, "can only undermine public health by encouraging naïve individuals to seek unproven remedies to relieve symptoms that, though deserving of appropriate medical treatment and care, may well have nothing to do with Lyme disease."

"Under Our Skin" is visually arresting, smartly produced and superbly edited; its plaudits for cinematic achievement are understandable. But it is by no means a documentary. It is a one-sided and emotionally charged attack on science.

Though there are more cases of chicken pox annually in the U.S. than confirmed cases of Lyme, the film suggests the tick-borne disease is epidemic. (Indeed, one memorable graphic shows a black cloud spreading over continents like a plague.) Without the benefit of narration, the film moves from one victim after another, each convinced they suffer from "chronic Lyme disease" and that they need long-course antibiotic treatment — exactly the opposite of what mainstream science says and recommends.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, the prime target of "Under Our Skin," put out treatment guidelines for Lyme bites in 2006. It said that long-term antibiotic treatment is unproven and unwarranted and may lead to deadly infections and serious drug reactions, as well as the creation of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."

In what Mr. Baker called "an example of anti-science denialism," Lyme patient advocates and the makers of "Under Our Skin" dismissed all of that and accused the IDSA of having conflicts of interest, presumably because some of its members had connections to pharmaceutical companies.

Under pressure from a grandstanding attorney general in Connecticut, the state where Lyme disease was first identified, the IDSA agreed to a review of its guidelines by an independent panel of experts.

The panel's 2010 report found no evidence that chronic Lyme infection exists. It concluded that the IDSA had been correct about Lyme treatment — a short course of oral antibiotics is the standard. The report also said allegations that those who wrote the 2006 guidelines stood to gain from the recommendations were unfounded. (This never made sense. If a research scientist worked for Big Pharma, why would he or she oppose long-term antibiotic treatment?)

So "Under Our Skin's" central complaint — that mainstream science is out of touch, unethical and even corrupt on Lyme disease — has been discredited.

But that doesn't keep the film's producers and supporters from pushing hard for "Under Our Skin's" distribution through PBS stations, including Maryland Public Television. Open Eye Pictures calls its film the "first televised documentary dedicated to educating the public about the plight of Lyme disease patients, who have been abandoned by the medical establishment, in part, because of the IDSA's flawed Lyme guidelines development process."

MPT apparently has been hearing from the film's supporters.

"We generally hear audience response to a program after it airs, but we have received calls from viewers about this title already," Joe Krushinsky, an MPT vice president, wrote me in an email. "Some are pleased; others are not. So far, the larger numbers of comments have been on the positive side of that split." Mr. Krushinsky says, "no single program claims to be, or can be, a comprehensive look at all perspectives."

Which is nonsense. Ever heard of, say, Ken Burns? Legions of documentary filmmakers and television journalists have made the attempt at comprehensiveness, fairness and balance. It's particularly important when the subject is public health.

"I believe in providing equal time to those with evidence to support their claims," says Mr. Baker. "But in this case, there is none. One may have differing opinions on matters related to religion, philosophy and politics. However, when it comes to science, peer-reviewed evidence is the gold standard. The producers and advocates of this slick film have no such proof that merits public viewing."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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