MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

clinical trial

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The ‘Dr Rath Foundation’ just published a truly wonderful (full of wonders) article about me. I want to publicly congratulate the author: he got my name right [but sadly not much more]. Here is the opening passage of the article which I encourage everyone to read in full [the numbers in square brackets refer to my comments below].

Professor Edzard Ernst: A Career Built On Discrediting Natural Health Science? [1]

Professor Edzard Ernst, a retired German [2] physician and academic, has recently [3] become a prominent advocate of plans that could potentially outlaw [4] the entire profession of naturopathic doctors [5] in Germany. Promoting the nonsensical idea that naturopathic medicine somehow poses a risk to public health, Ernst attacks its practitioners as supposedly having been educated in “nonsense” [6]. Tellingly, however, given that he himself has seemingly not published even so much as one completely original scientific trial of his own [7], Ernst’s apparent attempts to discredit natural healthcare approaches are largely reliant instead on his analysis or review of handpicked negative studies carried out by others [8].

  1. When I was appointed at Exeter to research alternative medicine in 1993, I had already been a full professor at Hannover, Germany and subsequently at Vienna, Austria. If anything, coming to Exeter was a big step down in terms of ‘career’, salary, number of co-workers etc. (full details in my memoir)
  2. I am German-born, became an Austrian citizen in 1990, and since 2000 I am a British national.
  3. I have been critical about the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ for more than 20 years.
  4. This refers to the recent ‘Muensteraner Memorandum’ which is the work of an entire team of multidisciplinary experts and advocates reforming this profession.
  5. ‘Heilpraktiker’ are certainly not doctors; they have no academic or medical background.
  6. This is correct, and I stand by my statement that educating people in vitalism and other long-obsolete concepts is pure nonsense.
  7. Since I am researching alternative medicine, I have conducted and published about 40 ‘scientific trials’, and before that time (1993) I have published about the same number again in various other fields.
  8. This refers to systematic reviews which, by definition, include all the studies available on a defines research question, regardless of their conclusion (their aim is to minimise random and selection biases)  .

I hope you agree that these are a lot of mistakes (or are these even lies?) in just a short paragraph.

Now you probably ask: who is Dr Rath?

Many reader of this blog will have heard of him. This is what the Guardian had to say about this man:

Matthias Rath, the vitamin campaigner accused of endangering thousands of lives in South Africa by promoting his pills while denouncing conventional medicines as toxic and dangerous, has dropped a year-long libel action against the Guardian and been ordered to pay costs.

A qualified doctor who is thought to have made millions selling nutritional supplements around the globe through his website empire, Rath claimed his pills could reverse the course of Aids and distributed them free in South Africa, where campaigners, who have won a hard-fought battle to persuade the government to roll out free Aids drugs to keep millions alive, believe Rath’s activities led to deaths.

The Dr Rath Foundation focuses its promotional activities on eight countries – the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, France and Russia – claiming that his micronutrient products will cure not just Aids, but cancer, heart disease, strokes and other illnesses…

I am sure you now understand why I am rather proud of being defamed by this source!

 

 

This randomized controlled trial was aimed to investigate the effect of aromatherapy massage on anxiety, depression, and physiologic parameters in older patients with acute coronary syndrome. It was conducted on 90 older women with acute coronary syndrome. The participants were randomly assigned into the intervention and control groups. The intervention group received reflexology with lavender essential oil plus routine care and the control group only received routine care. Physiologic parameters, the levels of anxiety and depression in the hospital were evaluated using a checklist and the Hospital’s Anxiety and Depression Scale, respectively, before and immediately after the intervention.

Significant differences in the levels of anxiety and depression were reported between the groups after the intervention. The analysis of physiological parameters revealed a statistically significant reduction in systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial pressure, and heart rate. However, no significant difference was observed in the respiratory rate.

The authors concluded that aromatherapy massage can be considered by clinical nurses an efficient therapy for alleviating psychological and physiological responses among older women suffering from acute coronary syndrome.

WRONG!

This trial does not show remotely what the authors think. It demonstrates that A+B is always more than B. We have discussed this phenomenon so often that I hesitate to mention it again. Any study with the ‘A+B versus B’ design can only produce a positive result. The danger that this result is false-positive is so high that it is best to forget about such investigations altogether.

Ethics committees should not accept such protocols.

Researchers should stop running such studies.

Reviewers should not pass them for publication.

Editors should not publish such trials.

THEY MISLEAD ALL OF US AND GIVE CLINICAL RESEARCH A BAD NAME.

Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) is a common, benign condition. It can be treated by changing eating habits or drugs. Many alternative therapies are also on offer, for instance, acupuncture. But does it work? Let’s find out.

The objective of this meta-analysis was to explore the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). Four English and four Chinese databases were searched through June 2016. Randomised controlled trials investigating the effectiveness of manual acupuncture or electroacupuncture (MA/EA) for GORD versus or as an adjunct to Western medicine (WM) were selected.

A total of 12 trials involving 1235 patients were included. The results demonstrated that patients receiving MA/EA combined with WM had a superior global symptom improvement compared with those receiving WM alone  with no significant heterogeneity. Recurrence rates of those receiving MA/EA alone were lower than those receiving WM  with low heterogeneity, while global symptom improvement (six studies) and symptom scores (three studies) were similar. Descriptive analyses suggested that acupuncture also improves quality of life in patients with GORD.

The authors concluded that this meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture is an effective and safe treatment for GORD. However, due to the small sample size and poor methodological quality of the included trials, further studies are required to validate our conclusions.

I am glad the authors used the verb ‘suggest’ in their conclusions. In fact, even this cautious terminology is too strong, in my view. Here are 9 reasons why:

  1. The hypothesis that acupuncture is effective for GORD lacks plausibility.
  2. All the studies were of poor or very poor methodological quality.
  3. All but one were from China, and we know that all acupuncture trials from this country are positive, thus casting serious doubt on their validity.
  4. Six trials had the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design which never generates a negative result.
  5. There was evidence of publication bias, i. e. negative trials had disappeared and were thus not included in the meta-analysis.
  6. None of the trials made an attempt to control for placebo effects by using a sham-control procedure.
  7. None used patient-blinding.
  8. The safety of a therapy cannot be assessed on the basis of 12 trials
  9. Seven studies failed to report adverse effects, thus violating research ethics.

Considering these facts, I think that a different conclusion would have been more appropriate:  this meta-analysis provides no good evidence for the assumption that acupuncture is an effective and safe treatment for GORD.

Insomnia is a ‘gold standard’ indication for alternative therapies of all types. In fact, it is difficult to find a single of these treatments that are not being touted for this indication. Consequently, it has become a nice little earner for alternative therapists (hence ‘gold standard’).

But how good is the evidence suggesting that any alternative therapy is effective for insomnia?

Whenever I have discussed this issue on my blog, the conclusion was that the evidence is less than convincing or even negative. Similarly, whenever I conducted proper systematic reviews in this area, the evidence turned out to be weak or negative. Here are four of the conclusions we drew at the time:

“But this ERNST fellow cannot be trusted, he is not objective!”, I hear some of my detractors shout.

But is he really?

Would an independent, high-level panel of experts arrive at more positive conclusions?

Let’s find out!

This European guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of insomnia recently provided recommendations for the management of adult patients with insomnia. The guideline is based on a systematic review of relevant meta-analyses published till June 2016. The GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) system was used to grade the evidence and guide recommendations.

The findings and recommendations are as follows:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is recommended as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia in adults of any age (strong recommendation, high-quality evidence).
  • A pharmacological intervention can be offered if cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is not sufficiently effective or not available. Benzodiazepines, benzodiazepine receptor agonists and some antidepressants are effective in the short-term treatment of insomnia (≤4 weeks; weak recommendation, moderate-quality evidence). Antihistamines, antipsychotics, melatonin and phytotherapeutics are not recommended for insomnia treatment (strong to weak recommendations, low- to very-low-quality evidence).
  • Light therapy and exercise need to be further evaluated to judge their usefulness in the treatment of insomnia (weak recommendation, low-quality evidence).
  • Complementary and alternative treatments (e.g. homeopathy, acupuncture) are not recommended for insomnia treatment (weak recommendation, very-low-quality evidence).

I think, I can rest my case.

Shinrin-yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has, according to its proponents, become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest… there have been many scientific studies that are demonstrating the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in wild and natural areas. (some of this research is available here). For example, many trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.

The claimed benefits of Shinrin-yoku are remarkable:

  • Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep
  • Deeper and clearer intuition
  • Increased flow of energy
  • Increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species
  • Increased flow of eros/life force
  • Deepening of friendships
  • Overall increase in sense of happiness

But is any of this really true?

The aim of this state-of-the-art review was to summarise empirical research conducted on the physiological and psychological effects of Shinrin-Yoku. Research published from 2007 to 2017 was considered. A total of 64 studies met the inclusion criteria. According to the authors, they show that health benefits associated with the immersion in nature continue to be currently researched. Longitudinal research, conducted worldwide, is needed to produce new evidence of the relationships associated with Shinrin-Yoku and clinical therapeutic effects. Nature therapy as a health-promotion method and potential universal health model is implicated for the reduction of reported modern-day “stress-state” and “technostress.”

Odd?

Yes!

A look at the primary studies reveals that they are usually small and of poor quality.

Perhaps a brand new  review aimed more specifically at evaluating preventive or therapeutic effects of Shinrin-Yoku on blood pressure can tell us more. The authors considered all published, randomized, controlled trials, cohort studies, and comparative studies that evaluated the effects of the forest environment on changes in systolic blood pressure. Twenty trials involving 732 participants were reviewed. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure of patients submitted to the forest environment was significantly lower than that of controls. The authors concluded that this systematic review shows a significant effect of Shinrin-yoku on reduction of blood pressure.

I find this paper odd as well:

  • it lacks important methodological detail;
  • the authors included not just controlled clinical trials but all sorts of ‘studies’;
  • there is no assessment of the methodological rigor of the primary trials (from what I could see, they were mostly too poor to draw any conclusions from them).

What does all of this mean?

I have no problems in assuming that relaxation in a forest is beneficial in many ways and a nice experience.

But why call this a therapy?

It is relaxation!

Why make so many unsubstantiated claims?

And why study it in such obviously flawed ways?

All this does, I fear, is giving science a bad name.

The UK ‘Faculty of Homeopathy’ (FoH) is the professional body of British doctors who specialise in homeopathy. As doctors, FoH members have been to medical school and should know about evidence, science etc., I had always thought. But perhaps I was mistaken?

The FoH has a website with an interesting new post entitled ‘Scientific evidence and Homeopathy’. Here I have copied the section on CLINICAL TRIALS OF HOMEOPATHY. I have read it several times and must admit: it is a masterpiece, in my view – not a masterpiece in accurate reporting, but a masterpiece in misleading the public. The first and most obvious thing that struck me is the fact that is cites not a single clinical trial. But read for yourself (the numbers in round brackets were inserted by me and refer to my comments below):

START OF QUOTE

By August 2017 1,138 clinical trials of homeopathy had been published (1). Details can be found on the CORE-HOM database also maintained by the Carstens Foundation and accessible without charge: http://archiv.carstens-stiftung.de/core-hom

Four (2) systematic review/meta-analyses of homeopathy for all conditions have been published.[26],[27],[28]  Of these, three (3) reached a positive conclusion: that there is evidence that homeopathy is clinically effective (4). The exception is the review by Shang et al.46  This meta-analysis was controversial, particularly because its conclusions were based on only eight clinical trials whose identity was concealed until several months after the publication, precluding informed examination of its results (5) (6). The only undisputed conclusion (7) of this paper is that clinical trials of homeopathy are of higher quality than matched trials of conventional medicine: of 110 clinical trials each of homeopathy and conventional medicine, 21 trials of homeopathy but only 9 trials of conventional medicine were of ‘higher quality’.[29] [30]

A leading Swedish medical researcher (8) remarked: To conclude that homeopathy lacks clinical effect, more than 90% of the available clinical trials had to be dis­regarded.  Alternatively, flawed statistical methods had to be applied.”[31] Higher quality equates to less risk of bias, Mathie et al analysed randomized clinical trials of individualized homeopathy, showing that the highest quality trials yielded positive results (9).[32]

Systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials of homeopathy in specific clinical situations have also yielded positive results, including: allergies and upper respiratory tract infections (2 systematic reviews),[33],[34] (10) (11) Arnica in knee surgery,[35] (12) Childhood diarrhoea,[36] Post-operative ileus,[37] (13) Rheumatic diseases,[38] (14) Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) (2 systematic reviews),[39] [40] (15) (16) and vertigo.[41] (17)

END OF QUOTE

MY COMMENTS:

  1. This is a wild exaggeration which was made possible by counting all sorts of clinical reports as ‘clinical trials’. A clinical trial  “follows a pre-defined plan or protocol to evaluate the effects of a medical or behavioral intervention on health outcomes.” This would exclude most observational studies, case series, case reports. However, the figure cited here includes such reports.
  2. The author cites only three!
  3. Does the author mean ‘two’?
  4. This is not quite true! I have dedicated an entire post to this issue.
  5. True, the Shang meta-analysis has been criticised – but exclusively by homeopaths who, for obvious reasons, were unable to accept its negative findings. In fact, it is a solid piece of research.
  6. Why does the author not mention the most recent systematic review of homeopathy?  Perhaps because it concluded: Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.
  7. Really? Undisputed? Even by the logic of the author’s last sentence, this would be disputed.
  8. The ‘leading researcher’ is Prof Hahn who has featured many times on my blog. He seems to be more than a little unhinged when it comes to the topic of homeopathy.
  9. The author forgot to mention that Mathie – who was sponsored by the British Homeopathic Association – included this little caveat in his conclusions: The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings.
  10. Reference 33 is the infamous ‘Swiss report’ that has been shown to be fatally flawed over and over again.
  11. Reference 34 refers to a review that fails to adhere to almost all the criteria of a systematic review.
  12. This review concluded: In all three trials, patients receiving homeopathic arnica showed a trend towards less postoperative swelling compared to patients receiving placebo. However, a significant difference in favour of homeopathic arnica was only found in the CLR trial. Only a deluded homeopath can call this a ‘positive result’.
  13. This is a systematic review by my team. It showed that several flawed trials produced a false positive result, while the only large multicentre trial was negative. Our conclusions therefore include the statement that  several caveats preclude a definitive judgment. Only a deluded homeopath can call this a ‘positive result’.
  14. This reference refers to the following abstract: Despite a growing interest in uncovering the basic mechanisms of arthritis, medical treatment remains symptomatic. Current medical treatments do not consistently halt the long-term progression of these diseases, and surgery may still be needed to restore mechanical function in large joints. Patients with rheumatic syndromes often seek alternative therapies, with homeopathy being one of the most frequent. Homeopathy is one of the most frequently used complementary therapies worldwide. Only a deluded homeopath can call this a ‘positive result’.
  15. The first reference refers to a paper where the author analysed three of his own studies.
  16. Reference 40 refers to a review that fails to adhere to almost all the criteria of a systematic review.
  17. This reference refers to a review of Vertigoheel@ that includes observational studies. One of its authors was an employee of the manufacturer of the product. Vertigoheel is not a homeopathic remedy (it does not adhere to the ‘like cures like’ principle) but a homotoxicologic product. Homotoxicology is a method inspired by homeopathy which was developed by Hans Heinrich Reckeweg (1905 – 1985). He believed that all or most illness is caused by an overload of toxins in the body. The toxins originate, according to Reckeweg, both from the environment and from the malfunction of physiological processes within the body. His treatment consists mainly in applying homeopathic remedies which usually consist of combinations of single remedies, because health cannot be achieved without ridding the body of toxins. The largest manufacturer and promoter of remedies used in homotoxicology is the German firm Heel. Our own systematic review of RCTs of homotoxicology included 7 trials which were mostly of a high methodological standard, according to the Jadad score. The trials tested the efficacy of seven different medicines for seven different indications. The results were positive in all but one study. Important flaws were found in all trials. These render the results of the primary studies less reliable than their high Jadad scores might suggest. Despite mostly positive findings and high ratings on the Jadad score, the placebo-controlled, randomised clinical trials of homotoxicology fail to demonstrate the efficacy of this therapeutic approach.

So!

What do we make of all this?

To say that it is disappointing would, I think, be an understatement. The FoH is not supposed to be a lobby group of amateurs ignorant of science and evidence; it is a recognised professional organisation who must behave ethically. Patients and consumers should be able to trust the FoH. The fact that the FoH publish misinformation on such a scale should, in my view, be a matter for the General Medical Council.

This new RCT by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia was aimed at ‘examining the effect of changing treatment timing and the use of manual, electro acupuncture on the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea’. It had four arms:

  1. low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
  2. high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
  3. low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
  4. and high frequency electro acupuncture (HF-EA).

A total of 74 women were given 12 treatments over three menstrual cycles, either once per week (LF groups) or three times in the week prior to menses (HF groups). All groups received a treatment in the first 48 hours of menses. The primary outcome was the reduction in peak menstrual pain at 12 months from trial entry.

During the treatment period and 9 month follow-up all groups showed statistically significant reductions in peak and average menstrual pain compared to baseline. However, there were no differences between groups. Health related quality of life increased significantly in 6 domains in groups having high frequency of treatment compared to two domains in low frequency groups. Manual acupuncture groups required less analgesic medication than electro-acupuncture groups. HF-MA was most effective in reducing secondary menstrual symptoms compared to both–EA groups.

The authors concluded that acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity and duration after three months of treatment and this was sustained for up to one year after trial entry. The effect of changing mode of stimulation or frequency of treatment on menstrual pain was not significant. This may be due to a lack of power. The role of acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials.

If I were not used to reading rubbish research of alternative medicine in general and acupuncture in particular, this RCT would amaze me – not so much because of its design, execution, or write-up, but primarily because of its conclusion (why, oh why, I ask myself, did PLOS ONE publish this paper?). They are, I think, utterly barmy.

Let me explain:

  • acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity” – oh no, it didn’t; at least this is not what the study proves; the fact that pain was perceived as less could be due to a host of factors, for instance regression towards the mean, or social desirability; as there was no proper control group, nobody can tell;
  • the lack of difference between treatments “may be due to a lack of power”. Yes, but more likely it is due to the fact that all versions of a placebo therapy generate similar outcomes.
  • acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials”. Why? Because the authors have a quasi-religious belief in acupuncture? And if they have, why did they not design their study ‘appropriately’?

The best conclusion I can suggest for this daft trial is this: IN THIS STUDY, THE PRIMARY ENDPOINT SHOWED NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 4 TREATMENT GROUPS. THE RESULTS ARE THEREFORE FULLY COMPATIBLE WITH THE NOTION THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS A PLACEBO THERAPY.

Something along these lines would, in my view, have been honest and scientific. Sadly, in acupuncture research, we very rarely get such honest science and the ‘National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia’ has no track record of being the laudable exception to this rule.

I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:

  • is on alternative medicine,
  • focusses on acupuncture,
  • is authored by Chinese researchers,
  • was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?

The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!

As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.

The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.

And what is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING!

  • The review is of very poor quality.
  • The primary studies are even worse.
  • The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
  • The conclusions are misleading.

Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.

And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.

In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:

56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.

Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!

And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.

Many garlic supplements are heavily marketed as a treatment of infections.

But are they really effective?

To answer this question, we clearly need clinical trials.

The aim of this RCT was to examine the impact of garlic tablets on nosocomial infections in hospitalized patients in intensive care units. It was carried out on 94 patients, admitted to the intensive care units in Kashani and Al-Zahra hospitals. Patients were randomised into case and control groups. The case group administered one 400 mg garlic tablet (Garlic tablets 400 mg, Gol Darou Company) daily for 6 days and the control group received placebo. During the study, inflammatory blood factors and infection occurrence in the two groups were compared. During the study period, 78 intravenous catheter tips were sent to laboratory for culture of which 37 cases were in the intervention group and 41 in the control group. Culture results of Catheter tips was positive in 5 cases all of which were in the control group. Frequency distribution of catheter tip culture was significantly higher in the control group than that of the intervention group. The authors concluded that garlic supplementation has shown to be effective in patients admitted to ICU, who are highly susceptible to nosocomial infection, and it can be used for the prevention of septicemia and urinary tract infections. However, further research with larger sample size is needed.

The trouble is not just that this trial was less than rigorous, but that there are so very few similar investigations to confirm or refute the anti-infectious activities of garlic.

In this study, healthy human participants (n = 120), between 21 and 50 y of age, were recruited for a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel-intervention study to consume 2.56 g aged garlic extract (AGE)/d or placebo supplements for 90 d during the cold and flu season. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated before and after consumption, and γδ-T and NK cell function was assessed by flow cytometry. The effect on cold and flu symptoms was determined by using daily diary records of self-reported illnesses. After 45 d of AGE consumption, γδ-T and NK cells proliferated better and were more activated than cells from the placebo group. After 90 d, although the number of illnesses was not significantly different, the AGE group showed reduced cold and flu severity, with a reduction in the number of symptoms, the number of days participants functioned suboptimally, and the number of work/school days missed. The authors concluded that AGE supplementation may enhance immune cell function and may be partly responsible for the reduced severity of colds and flu reported. The results also suggest that the immune system functions well with AGE supplementation, perhaps with less accompanying inflammation.

There is plenty of in vitro evidence to suggest that garlic and its compounds have anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal effects. Yet, for a range of reasons, this may not translate into clinical effects. To find out, we need clinical trials. So far, such investigations were almost entirely missing.

The two recent studies above are, I think, a good start. They are far from perfect but their findings are nevertheless mildly encouraging. For once, I do agree with the standard conclusion in alternative medicine:

More and better clinical trials are justified.

I was surprised to receive this email yesterday: “Hello Edzard Ernst, You may remember I got in touch last week regarding losing a loved one to the ravages of drugs or alcohol. I just wanted to remind you that Narconon is here to help. For over fifty years Narconon drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres have been successfully reversing the tide of addiction for men and woman from all walks of life. The Narconon programme has saved them from the misery of addiction, and the potential of an early grave. We not only address the cause of the addiction, we resolve them…”

The email was signed by a man from ‘Narconon International’. First I thought someone has been counting the empty bottles in my bin, then I read it again and noticed the word ‘NARCONON’ and remembered that I once wrote about it. A quick search located my article from THE GUARDIAN 2012:

Imagine a therapy that “enables an individual to rid himself of the harmful effects of drugs, toxins and other chemicals that lodge in the body and create a biochemical barrier to spiritual well-being“. If you were told that the treatment was entirely natural and had already “enabled hundreds of thousands to free themselves from the harmful effects of drugs and toxins and so achieve spiritual gains”, wouldn’t you be tempted to try it?

Who doesn’t want a body free of nasty chemicals? And who wouldn’t be delighted at the chance to counter a growing threat to an “advancement in mental … wellbeing”?

These claims are being made for the “Purification Rundown” (“Purif” for short) and the closely related Narconon detox programmes, which mainly consist of regular exercise, sauna and nutrition, with industrial doses of vitamins and minerals added for good measure. Some of the claims are quite specific: the Purif programme is supposed to increase your IQ, reduce the level of cancer-causing agents in your body, and even enable you to lose weight easily and quickly. The Narconon programme is more specifically targeted at drug and alcohol dependency and is claimed to have an impressive success rate of 75%.

Both programmes were developed by L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) and are currently marketed by the Church of Scientology. The CoS is not generally known to be an organisation that promotes healthcare programmes. Hubbard, the pulp-fiction writer who founded the CoS, portrayed himself somewhat over-optimistically as a pioneer, innovator and nuclear physicist.

He taught his followers that, at their core, humans contain a “thetan”. After creating the universe, thetans accidentally became trapped in physical bodies and, through scientology, we can restore the immortal, omnipotent, god-like powers of the “thetan” within us. Weird stuff that is the preserve of Hollywood eccentrics, you might think, but perhaps the CoS’s detox-ventures are an attempt to conquer new territory?

A typical course of treatment lasts several weeks and consists of many hours of exercise and sauna every day. This regimen is supplemented with megadoses of vitamins and minerals, which can cause problems. Niacin, one vitamin that is given in high doses as part of the regimen, can be particularly dangerous. The US National Institutes of Health warns that at high doses it can cause “liver problems, gout, ulcers of the digestive tract, loss of vision, high blood sugar, irregular heartbeat, and other serious problems.” It should not be taken by people who already have liver damage.

Seven fatalities of people undergoing the Narconon programme are currently being investigated in Oklahoma, although the CoS says these deaths are not connected with the treatment regimen itself.

Whatever the truth regarding these deaths, a review of the evidence about the treatment regimen’s effectiveness – carried out by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services in 2008 – found no good evidence that the Narconon programme works:

There is currently no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of Narconon as a primary or secondary drug prevention program. This is partly due to the insufficient research evidence about Narconon and partly due to the non-experimental nature of the few studies that exist.

The claim that such detox treatments eliminate toxins from the body is, of course, easily testable. All we would need to do is define what toxin we are talking about and measure the change in levels of that toxin compared with a control group of volunteers who did not receive the detox.

But such studies are not available. Why? Do the marketing men believe in their own claims? Maybe they feel that profits and evidence are like fire and water? Or possibly the thetans have an aversion to science?

If you think that the Purif, Narconon or any other form of alternative detox eliminates toxins, you might be mistaken. Most clients have lost some money, many have lost their ability to think straight, some may even have lost their lives. But there is no reliable evidence that they have actually lost any toxins.

END OF MY 2012 ARTICLE

In 2012, I found no evidence to suggest that NARCONON works. Now, I looked again and found this article reporting a non-randomised, controlled study:

“In 2004, Narconon International developed a multi-module, universal prevention curriculum for high school ages based on drug abuse etiology, program quality management data, prevention theory and best practices. We review the curriculum and its rationale and test its ability to change drug use behavior, perceptions of risk/benefits, and general knowledge. After informed parental consent, approximately 1000 Oklahoma and Hawai’i high school students completed a modified Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) Participant Outcome Measures for Discretionary Programs survey at three testing points: baseline, one month later, and six month follow-up. Schools assigned to experimental conditions scheduled the Narconon curriculum between the baseline and one-month follow-up test; schools in control conditions received drug education after the six-month follow-up. Student responses were analyzed controlling for baseline differences using analysis of covariance. At six month follow-up, youths who received the Narconon drug education curriculum showed reduced drug use compared with controls across all drug categories tested. The strongest effects were seen in all tobacco products and cigarette frequency followed by marijuana. There were also significant reductions measured for alcohol and amphetamines. The program also produced changes in knowledge, attitudes and perception of risk. The eight-module Narconon curriculum has thorough grounding in substance abuse etiology and prevention theory. Incorporating several historically successful prevention strategies this curriculum reduced drug use among youths.”

The question arises: would I send anyone to the NARCONON programme?

My answer is NO!

Not because the trial is lousy (which it is) and not because the programme is too expensive (which it is); I would not send anyone to any institution that has even the slightest links to Scientology.

 

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