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Health and Science

Behind the repeated pronouncements, from the CDC and elsewhere, that there is no known link between thimerosal and autism (which is widely understood to be a genetic disorder), the Mercury Moms see manipulation designed to protect against liability. The battle rages on, and while Evidence of Harm offers no prospect of a truce, it does provide crystal clarity on an often misunderstood side of the argument.

-- Gregory Mott

Head Case

At age 24, Paula Kamen put in a contact lens and, with that commonplace act, triggered a violent and unremitting headache that changed her life. The headache, detailed in All in My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache (Da Capo, $24.95), launched her on a desperate -- and epic -- search for relief. Before it ended nearly 10 years later, the journey took her to seven neurologists, five acupuncturists, four shrinks, four physical therapists, three osteopaths, three ear-nose-throat specialists, one brain surgeon, "countless massage and 'body work' therapists" . . . and the list goes on.

What she found en route was how very little medical science really knows about the origin and treatment of headaches, and how many practitioners of both mainstream and alternative medicine are willing to take advantage of that gap. That could be the setup for a pity party were it not for her two trusty companions: a lively curiosity and a grim sense of humor. The former helps her mine medicine's long rich history of blaming the patient -- particularly the female patient -- for conditions doctors are at a loss to explain or treat. The latter makes her cherish an exchange with a therapist who in late 1994 had never heard of the Internet. "So," the therapist asked. "You turn on your computer and talk to people? What do these voices say to you?"

Still, it's not an entirely pain-free ride. There are footnotes to each chapter placed at the end of the book, but no index to terms like "gate theory" -- a conjecture that could have used more elaboration about how some treatments block pain signals from the spinal cord. All names of doctors and clinics -- even big, influential ones -- are changed so that none is singled out for more blame than others. High-minded, maybe, but less service to the reader. And while the humor and good storytelling take you well beyond the normal reaches of patience with someone else's malady, well, there are limits.

--Susan Morse

Don't Drink Up

Today pregnant mothers-to-be know full well about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant. It's hard to imagine a time when those risks weren't known. Janet Golden's Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard Univ., $25.95) explores the fascinating history of the discovery of alcohol's damaging effects on fetuses. The author, a Rutgers University professor, does a solid job of delivering the science that backed the diagnosis, as well as the social context that shaped America's view of the condition.

In the first chapter, Golden promises to provide a comprehensive look at the discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as the scientific, historical and social context that framed the debate over the condition. She delivers on all counts. Most interestingly, the book explains how laypeople and doctors alike were hesitant to accept that alcohol might be dangerous.

Indeed, not until 1973 did researchers first note fetal alcohol syndrome's characteristics in children -- small size, developmental deficiencies and particular facial characteristics. And a warning on alcoholic beverages advising pregnant women not to drink didn't exist until 1989.

The reasons for the delay in accepting this diagnosis are complicated, but Golden does a thorough job of delivering a rather complex explanation in a way easily understood by generalists. Many people, during and before the 1970s had a "perception of the womb as a protective barrier not easily breached," so they found it hard to believe that alcohol could do any damage; research into the dangers of alcohol and other substances soon revealed that the womb was actually not as tough a shield as they once believed. The book details the chronology of changing medical knowledge and delivers its information remarkably well.

-- January W. Payne

The writers are health and science reporters for The Washington Post.

Don't Drink Up

Today pregnant mothers-to-be know full well about the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant. It's hard to imagine a time when those risks weren't known. Janet Golden's Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard Univ., $25.95) explores the fascinating history of the discovery of alcohol's damaging effects on fetuses. The author, a Rutgers University professor, does a solid job of delivering the science that backed the diagnosis, as well as the social context that shaped America's view of the condition.

In the first chapter, Golden promises to provide a comprehensive look at the discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as the scientific, historical and social context that framed the debate over the condition. She delivers on all counts. Most interestingly, the book explains how laypeople and doctors alike were hesitant to accept that alcohol might be dangerous.

Indeed, not until 1973 did researchers first note fetal alcohol syndrome's characteristics in children -- small size, developmental deficiencies and particular facial characteristics. And a warning on alcoholic beverages advising pregnant women not to drink didn't exist until 1989.

The reasons for the delay in accepting this diagnosis are complicated, but Golden does a thorough job of delivering a rather complex explanation in a way easily understood by generalists. Many people, during and before the 1970s had a "perception of the womb as a protective barrier not easily breached," so they found it hard to believe that alcohol could do any damage; research into the dangers of alcohol and other substances soon revealed that the womb was actually not as tough a shield as they once believed. The book details the chronology of changing medical knowledge and delivers its information remarkably well.

-- January W. Payne

The writers are health and science reporters for The Washington Post.


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