MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

conflict of interest

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Guest post by Frank Van der Kooy

Something happened in 2008. Something, or a number of things, triggered an exponential rise in the number of rhinos being killed in South Africa. Poaching numbers remained quite low and was stable for a decade with only 13 being killed in 2007. But then suddenly it jumped to 83 in 2008 and it reached a total of 1 175 in 2015. To explain this will be difficult and it will be due to a number of factors or events coinciding in 2008. One possible contributing factor, which I will discuss here, is the growing acceptance of TCM in western countries! For example: Phynova recently advertised a new product as being the first traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) being registered in the UK. By directing customers to a separate site for more information regarding their product they ‘accidently’ linked to a site which ‘advertised’ rhino horn (this link has since been removed). Another example is a University in Australia who published a thesis in 2008, in which they described the current use of Rhino horn as a highly effective medicine, just like you would describe any other real medicine. Surely this will have an impact!

But first a bit of background, so please bear with me. There are two ‘opposing’ aspects regarding TCM that most members of the public do not seem to understand well. Not their fault, because the TCM lobby groups are spending a huge amount of effort to keep the lines between these two aspects as blurred as possible. The first aspect is the underlying pseudoscientific TCM principles; the yin and yang and the vitalistic “energy” flow through “meridians” and much more. Science has relegated this to the pseudosciences, just like bloodletting, which was seen as a cure-all hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, the pseudoscientific TCM principles are still with us and based on these principles almost every single TCM modality works! From acupuncture to herbs to animal matter (including rhino horn) – everything is efficacious, safe and cost effective. Evidence for this is that close to a 100% of clinical trials done on TCM in China give positive results. Strange isn’t it! People in China should thus no die of any disease – they have ‘effective’ medicine for everything! This is the world of TCM in a nutshell.

The second aspect of TCM is the application of the modern scientific method to test which of the thousands of TCM modalities are really active, which ones are useless and which ones are dangerous. Decades of investigation have come up empty-handed with one or two exceptions. One notable exception is Artemisia annua which contain a single compound that is highly effective for the treatment of malaria, and once identified and intensely studied, it was taken up into conventional medicine – not the herb, but the compound. If you investigate all the plants in the world you are bound to find some compounds that can be used as medicine – it has nothing to do with TCM principles and it can most definitely not be used as evidence that the TCM principles are correct or that it based on science.

These two aspects are therefore quite different.

In the TCM world just about everything works, but it is not backed up by science. It is huge market ($170 billion) and it creates employment for many – something that make politicians smile. In the modern scientific world, almost nothing in TCM works, but it is based on science. It is however not profitable at all – you have to investigate thousands of plants in order to find one useful compound.

Many TCM practitioners and researchers are avidly trying to combine the positives of these two worlds. They focus mainly on the money and employment aspect of the TCM world and try and combine this with the modern scientific approach. They tend to focus on the one example where modern science discovered a useful compound (artemisinin) in the medicinal plant Artemisia annua, which was also coincidently used as an herb in TCM – as evidence that TCM works! Here are some examples:

“To stigmatise all traditional medicine would be unfair. After all, a Chinese medicine practitioner last year won a Nobel prize.” No, a Chinese scientist using the modern scientific method identified artemisinin after testing hundreds or even thousands of different plants.

This year, Chinese medicine practitioners will be registered in Australia. ….. Chinese herbal medicine is administered routinely in hospitals for many chronic diseases. …… This has led to recognising herbs such as Artemisia as a proven anti-malarial ……” No, the compound artemisinin is a proven anti-malarial!

There has been enormous progress in the last 20 years or so. I am sure you are familiar with the use of one of the Chinese herbs in managing resistant malaria.” No, very little progress and no, the compound artemisinin!

So this is a game that is being played with the simple intention to blur the lines between these two aspects regarding TCM – but the real reason might simply be “A new research-led Chinese medicine clinic in Sydney, better patient outcomes and the potential for Australia to tap into the $170 billion global traditional Chinese medicine market”

Prof Alan Bensoussan the director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) and registered in Australia as a TCM and acupuncture practitioner is a champion in blurring this line. Alan has been instrumental in lobbying the Australian regulatory agency that a long tradition of use is all you need to be able to register new products. He was also influential in establishing the Chinese medicine practitioner registry in Australia, in 2012, and thereby legitimising TCM in Australia. He has been actively chipping away at the resistance that the Australian public have against these pseudoscientific healthcare systems such as TCM – one can argue that he has done so quite successfully because they are expanding their operations into the Westmead precinct of Sydney with a new TCM clinic/hospital.

Enough background; so what does all of this have to do with Rhino horn? (and for that matter other endangered species). We have to remember that in the TCM world just about everything works and that includes rhino horn! Searching Western Sydney University’s theses portal for Xijiao (Chinese for Rhino horn) I found a thesis published in 2008 from the NICM and co-supervised by Alan; “Development of an evidence-based Chinese herbal medicine for the management of vascular dementia”

On page 45-46: “Recently, with fast developing science and technologies being applied in the pharmaceutical manufacturing area, more and more herbs or herbal mixtures have been extracted or made into medicinal injections. These have not only largely facilitated improved application to patients, but also increased the therapeutic effectiveness and accordingly reduced the therapeutic courses …… lists the most common Chinese herbal medicine injections used for the treatment of VaD. “

“Xing Nao Jing Injection (for clearing heat toxin and opening brain, removing phlegm) contains ….. Rhinoceros unicornis (Xijiao), …… Moschus berezovskii (Shexiang), …..”

“…. Xing Nao Jing injection has been widely applied in China for stroke and vascular dementia. …. After 1-month treatment intervention, they found the scores in the treatment group increased remarkably, as compared with the control group …… “

They list two endangered species; the Rhino and the Chinese forest musk deer (Moschus berezovskii). But what is truly worrying is that they don’t even mention the endangered status or at least recommend that the non-endangered substitutes, which do exist in the TCM world, should be used instead – or maybe use fingernails as a substitute? It is not discussed at all. Clearly they are stating that using these endangered animals are way more effective than western medicine (the control group) for the treatment of vascular dementia! This is deplorable to say the least. Statements like this fuels the decimation of this species. But this shows that they truly believe and support the underlying pseudoscientific principles of TCM – they have to, their ability to tap into the TCM market depends on it!

As a scientist you are entitled to discuss historic healthcare treatments such as bloodletting. But make sure to also state that this practice has been shown to be ineffective, and quite dangerous, and that modern science has since come up with many other effective treatments. If it is stated that bloodletting is currently being used and it is effective – then you will simply be promoting bloodletting! The same goes for Rhino horn and this is exactly what they have done here. But then again they live in a world where all TCM modalities are active!

How to solve this problem of growing acceptance of TCM in western countries? A simple step could be that people like Alan publicly denounce the underlying pseudoscientific TCM principles and make the ‘difficult’ switch to real science! Admittedly, he will have to part with lots of money from the CM industry and his Chinese partners, and maybe not built his new TCM hospital! But for some reason I strongly doubt that this will happen. The NICM have successfully applied a very thin, but beautiful, veneer of political correctness and modernity over the surface of complementary medicine. Anyone who cares to look underneath this veneer will find a rotten ancient pseudoscientific TCM world – in this case the promotion and the use of endangered animals.

After reading chapter two of this thesis one cannot believe that this is from an Australian University and paid for by the Australian taxpayer! The main question though: Can I directly link this thesis with the increase in rhino poaching? This will be very difficult if not impossible to do. But that is not the problem. Promoting the pseudoscientific principles of TCM in Australia expands the export market for TCM, and hence will lead to an increased need for raw materials, including the banned Rhino horn. That Rhino horn has been a banned substance since the 1980’s clearly does not seem to have any impact looking at the poaching statistics. In an unrelated paper published in 2010 the ingredients in the Xingnaojing injection is listed as “…. consisting of Chinese herbs such as Moschus, Borneol, Radix Curcumae, Fructus Gardeniae, ….” No full list is given in the paper – dare I say because it contains Rhino horn as well? The drug Ice is also banned, but if you are going to promote it at a ‘trusted’ university, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Ice production increases and more of it flows into Australia – even if it is illegal. The same goes for Rhino horn!

On this blog, I have discussed the lamentable quality of TCM products before (e. g. here, here and here). In a nutshell, far too high percentages of them are contaminated with toxic substances or adulterated with prescription drugs. It is no question: these deficits put many consumers at risk. Equally, there is no question that the problem has been known for decades.

For the Chinese exporters, such issues are a great embarrassment, not least because TCM-products are amongst the most profitable of all the Chinese exports. In the past, Chinese officials have tried to ignore or suppress the subject as much as possible. I presume they fear that their profits might be endangered by being open about the dubious quality of their TCM-exports.

Recently, however, I came across a website where unusually frank and honest statements of Chinese officials appeared about TCM-products. Here is the quote:

China is to unroll the fourth national survey of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) resources to ensure a better development of the industry, said a senior health official…

With the public need for TCM therapies growing, the number of medicine resources has decreased and people have turned to the cultivated ones. However, due to a lack of standards, the cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use, said Wang Guoqiang, director of the State Administration of TCM, at a TCM seminar held in Kunming, Yunnan Province in southwest China.

There is a pressing need to protect TCM resources, Wang said. “I’ve heard people saying that medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry, which I must admit, is no exaggeration,” he said.

The survey has been piloted in 922 counties in 31 provinces in China since 2011. According to its official website, it will draw a clear picture of the variety, distribution, storage and growth trends of TCM resources, including herbs, animals, minerals and synthetic materials.

TCM includes a range of traditional medical practices originating in China. It includes such treatments as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage (tuina), exercise (qigong) and dietary therapy.

Although well accepted in the mainstream of medical care throughout East Asia, TCM is considered an alternative medical system in much of the western world and has been a source of controversy. A milestone in the recognition of TCM came when Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her discovery of Artemisinin, a medicinal herb, to help treat malaria.

END OF QUOTE

Surely, these are remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented statements by Chinese officials:

…cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use…

…medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry…

Let’s hope that, after such words, there will be appropriate actions… finally.

Informed consent is a basic ethical principle and a precondition for any medical or surgical procedure (e. g. a therapeutic intervention or a diagnostic test). Essentially, there are 4 facets of informed consent:

  1. the patient must have decision-making capacity,
  2. the patient’s decision must be free from coercion or manipulation,
  3. all relevant information must be disclosed to the patient,
  4. the patient must not merely be told but must understand what he/she has been told.

It seems to me that points 1, 2 and 4 are more or less the same in alternative as in conventional medicine. Point 3, however, has fundamentally different implications in the two types of healthcare.

What is meant by ‘all relevant information’? There seems to be general agreement that this should include the following elements:

  1. the indication,
  2. the nature of the procedure,
  3. its potential benefits,
  4. its risks,
  5. other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all.

If we carefully consider these 5 elements of ‘all relevant information’, we soon realise why there might be profound differences between alternative and conventional medicine. These differences relate not so much to the nature of the procedures but to the competence of the clinicians.

At medical school, doctors-to-be learn the necessary facts that should enable them to adequately deal with the 5 elements listed above. (This does not necessarily mean that, in conventional medical or surgical practice, informed consent is always optimal. But there is little doubt that, in theory, it could be optimal.)

By contrast, alternative practitioners have not normally been to medical school and will have gone through an entirely different type of training. Therefore, the question arises whether – even in theory – they are able to transmit to their patients all essential information as outlined above.

Let’s try to address this question by looking at concrete cases: a patient with frequent headaches consults an alternative practitioner for help. For the sake of argument, the practitioner could be:

  • a chiropractor,
  • an acupuncturist,
  • a homeopath,
  • a naturopath,
  • a traditional herbalist.

Are these alternative practitioners able to convey all the relevant information to their patient before starting their respective treatments?

THE CHIROPRACTOR

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? In all likelihood he would treat the headache as though it was caused by a spinal subluxation. If our patient were suffering from a brain tumour, for instance, this might dangerously delay the diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Many chiropractors deny any risk of spinal manipulation.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? Probably yes for cervicogenic headache. No for most other differential diagnoses.

THE TRADITIONAL ACUPUNCTURIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? The patient might be treated for an assumed ‘energy blockage’; other diagnoses might not be given adequate consideration.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Perhaps.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No

THE CLASSICAL HOMEOPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No, for a classical homeopath, the totality of the symptoms is the only valid diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? Doubtful.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE NATUROPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? Doubtful.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE TRADITIONAL HERBALIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

The answers provided above are based on my experience of more than 20 years with alternative practitioners; I am aware of the degree of simplification required to give short, succinct replies. The answers are, of course, assumptions as well as generalisations. There may well be individual practitioners who would do better (or worse) than the fictitious average I had in mind when answering the questions. Moreover, one would expect important national differences.

If my experience-based assumptions are not totally incorrect, their implications could be most significant. In essence they suggest that, in alternative medicine, fully informed consent can rarely, if ever, be provided. In turn, this means that the current practice of alternative medicine cannot be in line with the most fundamental requirements of medical ethics.

There is very little research on any of these  issues, and thus hardly any reliable evidence. Therefore, this post is simply meant as a deliberately provocative essay to stimulate debate – debate which, in my view, is urgently required.

 

Medical ethics are central to any type of healthcare – and this includes, of course, alternative medicine. The American Medical Association (AMA) have just published their newly revised code of ethics, AMA Principles of Medical Ethics.

It has long been my impression that, in alternative medicine, ethics receive no or far too little attention. Some alternative practitioners thrive to be able to call themselves ‘physicians’. Therefore, it seems interesting to ask whether they would also be able to comply with the ethical duties of a physician as outlined by the AMA.

The following 9 points are taken without change from the new AMA code; in brackets I have put my own, very brief comments pertaining to alternative practitioners. There is much more to be said about each of these points, of course, and I encourage my readers to do so in the comments section.

  1. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights. [Most alternative practitioners use unproven treatments; I doubt whether this can be called ‘competent medical care’.]
  2. A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence, or engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities. [Treating patients with unproven therapies in the absence of fully informed consent is arguably unprofessional, dishonest and deceptive. Crucially, alternative practitioners never object to even the worst excesses of quackery that occur in their realm.]
  3. A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient. [Treatment with unproven therapies can hardly be in the best interest of the patient.]
  4. A physician shall respect the rights of patients, colleagues, and other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences and privacy within the constraints of the law. [The right of patients includes full informed consent which is, according to my impression, rare in alternative medicine.]
  5. A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated. [Alternative medicine is frequently out of line with or even opposed to medical knowledge.]
  6. A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care.
  7. A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health. [Some activities of some alternative practitioners are directly opposed to public health, for instance when they advise against immunising children.]
  8. A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount. [Arguably this is not possible when using unproven therapies.]
  9. A physician shall support access to medical care for all people. [Some alternative practitioners advise their patients against accessing conventional healthcare.]

As I stated above, medical ethics are neglected in alternative medicine. The 9 points of the AMA together with my comments go some way towards explaining why this is so. If ethical principles were applied to alternative medicine, much of it would have to stop instantly.

The UK petition to ban homeopathy for animals has so far achieved well over 3 000 signatures. Remarkably, it also prompted a reaction from the Faculty of Homeopathy which I reproduce here in full:

Response to petition calling on the RCVS to ban homeopathy

Homeopathy has a long history of being used successfully in veterinary practice for both domestic and farm animals. The EU recommends its use in its regulations on organic farms and is funding research into veterinary homeopathy as a way of reducing antibiotic use in livestock. It is nonsense to suggest that responsible pet owners and farmers are unable to distinguish between effective and ineffective medicines; they continue to use homeopathy because they see its benefits.

Membership of the Faculty of  Homeopathy (VetMFHom) is bestowed on qualified veterinary surgeons who have completed a minimum of three years study of homeopathy and after a rigorous examination procedure. It differentiates the qualified veterinary homeopath from an unlicensed healer.

In a statement, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said “… homeopathy is currently accepted by society and recognised by UK medicines legislation, and does not, in itself, cause harm to animals”. Before going on to say it could see no justification for banning veterinary surgeons from practising homeopathy.

In an age when antibiotic resistance is such an important issue, veterinary surgeons and farmers who have found they can limit the use of these drugs by using homeopathy should be applauded and not attacked.


Peter Gregory
BVSc MRCVS VetFFHom
Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy

 

Such sentiments resonate with those of the UK’s most influential supporter of homeopathy, Prince Charles. Speaking at a global leaders summit on antimicrobial resistance, Prince Charles  recently warned that Britain faced a “potentially disastrous scenario” because of the “overuse and abuse” of antibiotics. The Prince explained that he had switched to organic farming on his estates because of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance and now treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication. “As some of you may be aware, this issue has been a long-standing and acute concern to me,” he told delegates from 20 countries at The Royal Society in London. “I have enormous sympathy for those engaged in the vital task of ensuring that, as the world population continues to increase unsustainably and travel becomes easier, antibiotics retain their availability to overcome disease… It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.”

It seems that both Prince Charles and Peter Gregory believe that homeopathy can be employed to reduce the use of antibiotics in animals. So, let’s analyse this hypothesis a little closer.

The way I see it, the belief must be based on one of two assumptions:

  1. Homeopathic remedies are effective in treating or preventing bacterial infections.
  2. If farmers administer homeopathic remedies to their life-stock, they are less likely to administer unnecessary antibiotics.

Assumption No 1 can be rejected without much further debate; there is no evidence whatsoever that homeopathic remedies have antibiotic efficacy. In fact, the consensus today is that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.

Assumption No 2, however, might be more plausible and therefore deserves further scrutiny.  If we do not tell the farmers nor the vets that homeopathic remedies are placebos, if, in other words, we mislead them to think they are efficacious medicines, they might give them to their animals instead of antibiotics. Consequently, the usage of antibiotics in animals would decrease. This strategy sounds plausible but, on second thought, it has many serious drawbacks:

  1. The truth has a high value in itself which we would disregard at our peril.
  2. One might not be able to keep the truth from the farmers and even less able to hide it from vets.
  3. If we mislead farmers and vets, we must also mislead the rest of the population; this means lots of people might start using homeopathic placebos even for serious conditions.
  4. Misleading farmers, vets and the rest of the population is clearly unethical.
  5. Misleading farmers and vets in this way might not be necessary; if there is abuse of antibiotics in farming, we ought to tackle this phenomenon directly.
  6. Misleading farmers and vets might be dangerous for at least two reasons: firstly, animals who truly need antibiotics would not receive adequate treatment; secondly, farmers and vets might eventually become convinced that homeopathy is efficacious and would therefore use it in all sorts of situations, even for serious diseases of humans.

Whichever way I twist and turn the assumption No 2, I fail to arrive at anything remotely sensible. But this leaves me with a huge problem: I would have to conclude that both the Veterinary Dean, Faculty of Homeopathy and the heir to the throne are bonkers… and, surely, this cannot be right either!!!

 

It would be easy to continue this series on ‘tricks of the trade’ for quite a while. But this might get boring, and I have therefore decided to call it a day. So here is the last instalment (feel free to post further tricks that you may know of [in the comments section below]):

CRITICS DON’T UNDERSTAND

It is almost inevitable that, sooner or later, someone will object to some aspect of alternative medicine. In all likelihood, his or her arguments are rational and based on evidence. If that happens, the practitioner has several options to save his bacon (and income). One of the easiest and most popular is to claim that “of course, you cannot agree with me because you do not understand!”

The practitioner now needs to explain that, in order to achieve the level of expertise he has acquired, one has to do much more than to rationalise or know about science. In fact, one has to understand the subject on a much deeper level. One has to immerse oneself into it, open one’s mind completely and become a different human being altogether. This cannot be achieved by scientific study alone; it requires years of meditative work. And not everyone has the ability to go down this difficult path. It takes a lot of energy, insight and vision to become a true healer. A true Deepak Chopra is not born but trained through hard work, dedication and concentration.

Critics who disagree are really to be pitied. They fail to exist on quite the same level as those who ‘are in the know’. Therefore one must not get annoyed with those who disagree, they cannot understand because they have not seen the light.

My advice is to start thinking critically and read up about the NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY; this will quickly enable you to look beyond the charisma of these gurus and expose their charlatanry to the full.

RESEARCH IS BEING SUPRESSED

Some critics stubbornly insist on evidence for the therapeutic claims made by quacks. That attitude can be awkward for the alternative practitioner – because usually there is no good evidence.

Cornered in this way, quacks often come up with a simple but effective conspiracy theory: the research has been done and it has produced fabulous results, but it has been supressed by… well, by whoever comes to mind. Usually BIG PHARMA or ‘the scientific establishment’ have to be dragged out into the frame again.

According to this theory, the pharmaceutical industry (or whoever comes in handy) was so shaken by the findings of the research that they decided to make it disappear. They had no choice, really; the alternative therapy in question was so very effective that it would have put BIG PHARMA straight out of business for ever. As we all know BIG PHARMA to be evil to the core, they had no ethical or moral qualms about committing such a crime to humanity. Profits must come before charity!

My advice is to explain to such charlatans that such conspiracy theories do, in fact, merely prove is that the quack’s treatment is not effective against their prosecution complex.

CRITICS ARE BOUGHT AND CORRUPT

If  critics of alternative medicine become threatening to the quackery trade, an easy and much-used method is to discredit them by spreading lies about them. If the above-mentioned ploy “they cannot understand” fails to silence the nasty critics, the next step must be to claim they are corrupt. Why else would they spend their time exposing quackery?

Many people – alternative practitioners included – can only think of financial motivations; the possibility that someone might do a job for altruistic reasons does not occur to them. Therefore, it sounds most plausible that the critics of alternative medicine are doing it for money – after all, the quacks also quack for money.

My advice to potential users of alternative medicine who are confused by such allegations: do your own research and find out for yourself who is bought by whom and who has a financial interest in quackery selling well.

EVEN NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS AGREE WITH US

It is true, there are some Nobel Prize winners who defend homeopathy or other bogus treatments. Whenever this happens, the apologists of alternative medicine have a field day. They then cite the Nobel laureate ad nauseam and imply that his or her views prove their quackery to be correct.

Little do they know that they are merely milking yet another classical fallacy and that such regrettable events merely demonstrate that even bright people can make mistakes.

My advice is to check what the Nobel laureate actually said – more often than not, it turns out that a much-publicised quote is, in fact, a misquote – and what his or her qualifications are for making such a statement; a Nobel Prize in literature, for instance, is not a sufficient qualification for commenting on healthcare issues.

AS I ALRADY SAID: IF YOU KNOW OF MORE ‘TRICKS OF THE QUACKARY TRADE’, PLEASE POST THEM BELOW.

Homeopathy must be effective! It is used extensively throughout the world, not least India! If it were ineffective, as all these nasty sceptics insist, Indians would not use it in such large numbers.

How often have we heard this argument?

Take, for instance, statements from the ‘peer-reviewed’ literature such as this one: “At present, in India, homeopathy is the third most popular method of medical treatment after allopathy and Ayurveda. There are over 200,000 registered homeopathic doctors currently, with approximately 12,000 more being added every year.” Or take statements from UK homeopaths like this one: “It seems clear that homeopathy is there to stay in India. So next time you see or read some condescending and patronising rubbish about homeopathy in the media, know that in India, a country with a population of 1.2 billion people (that’s more than 20x the population of the UK) homeopathy is an integral part of the healthcare system and deeply respected by the people of that country.”

Yes, homeopaths have always loved to mislead the public with fallacies!

The appeal to popularity is, of course, a classic fallacy – but, in the case of homeopathy’s popularity in India, it is not just that; here is an intriguing aspect to the use of homeopathy in that country that shines a different light on the whole story.

Epidemiologists from Canada conducted semi-structured interviews of 175 Mumbai slum-based practitioners holding degrees in Ayurveda, homeopathy and Unani. Most providers gave multiple interviews. The researchers also observed 10 providers in clinical interactions, documenting clinical examinations, symptoms, history taking, prescriptions and diagnostic tests.

No practitioners exclusively used his or her system of training. The practice of biomedicine was frequent, with practitioners often using biomedical disease categories and diagnostics. The use of homeopathy was rare; only 4% of consultations with homeopaths resulted in the prescription of homeopathic remedies.

The authors concluded that important sources of health care in Mumbai’s slums, AYUSH physicians frequently use biomedical therapies and most refer patients with TB to chest physicians or the public sector. They are integral to TB care and control.

These data seem to suggest that the use of homeopathic remedies in India is far, far less than often claimed by apologists. Indian homeopaths seem to have much more sense than to use homeopathy for serious conditions. This is good news for Indian public health, in my view.

The story also shows how the ‘appeal to popularity’ is being misused for the promotion of homeopathy: not only is it based on poor logic but often also on false information.

I am sure that most of us have had enough of the endless discussions, information and foremost disinformation about Brexit; we truly had to endure them ad nauseam. And here I come with a post about the very subject.

Have I lost my senses?

Bear with me and find out for yourself.

There has been little mention of alternative medicine in the debates about last week’s referendum. For the Remain campaigners, there was perhaps no reason to go into this divisive topic because, in their view, all would stay as it is. And the ‘Brexiters’ obviously had other things on their minds. It seemed almost as though they were too busy inventing new lies on a daily basis. To me, it seems fairly obvious though that, in the realm of alternative medicine, quite a lot could change after disastrous vote to leave the EU .

My main fears are twofold;

  1. Politicians who are short-sighted enough to campaign for Brexit might also be sufficiently stupid to go for unproven medicine. This fear seems to be confirmed by Nigel Farage who once claimed that BIG HARMA was lobbying in Brussels to put alternative medicine producers out of business. But we should take that with a pinch of salt, of course; anything this man says is hardly worth taking any notice of, in my view.
  2. Consumers who are gullible enough to believe the false arguments of the Brexiters might also be sufficiently naïve to believe the fallacies and falsehoods of alternative medicine promoters.

So, are there reasonable predictions as to how Brexit might impact on the alternative medicine scene in Britain? I searched for some evidence on this question and was surprised how little there was to be found.

Dr Jan Knight from Knight Scientific, a medical research company, was quoted saying: “A lot of the complementary/alternative medicine lobby are rubbing their hands because they think they’ll be able to do anything, but I don’t think the regulations will change.”

The excellent QUACKOMETER published an entire article on the subject which is well worth reading and essentially agrees with this view. Here are its conclusions: “EU laws about alternative medicine are not that great in number. The UK is free to choose who it licenses as a medical practitioner. It can allow chiropractors and osteopaths to have statutory regulation and does so. It can fund any such treatment publicly if it so wished without EU interference. It can police the sale of products on the High Street by funding Trading Standards and training them (but it chooses not to.) The UK government can come up with its own schemes to register herbalists and homeopaths and in doing so misleads the public about them. In short, it is possible to suggest that the UK governments do indeed exercise sovereignty over how alternative medicine manifests itself, how well the public is protected and how much public money is spent on it. Leaving the EU is not going to make much difference that way. Although I do suspect that staying might indeed over the years steadily increase the level of regulation around the matter. Successive UK governments have not done a lot. The EU just a little more.”

Perhaps the regulatory framework might not change a lot. But what about the prevalence of alternative medicine usage? It seems difficult to predict in which direction it will go. The reason is that I see influences in both directions.

FACTORS THAT COULD INCREASE THE USE OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

The Brexiters managed to style themselves as the anti-establishment. It is obvious that much of alternative medicine understands itself as an anti-establishment movement within healthcare. This means there could be a natural affinity between the two. On second thought, however, I think we can reject this possibility. The reason is that the Brexiters’ anti-establishment stance was nothing but a campaign ploy; in truth it is as genuine as a 4£ note.

What is much more real, in my view, is the well-documented inability of the Brexiters to correctly interpret the evidence (one could put this more simply by pointing out their ability to twist and turn the truth such that it suits their aims). These are qualities which I have often observed in promoters of alternative medicine, and it is this type of affinity that eventually might stimulate a general upwards trend of alternative medicine in the UK.

In a similar vein, we have to account for the influence of our future king. Prince Charles clearly has an alternative bee under his bonnet. Once we are outside the EU, it is likely that his influence on health politicians and other decision makers will be felt more powerfully. The Prince of Wales might even revive the ‘Smallwood Report’ which he commissioned to convince politicians that money could be saved by using more alternative therapies in the NHS. Charles and his views usually generate bewilderment on the EU-level, while here in the UK we still have many who take him seriously. His influence in a post-Brexit Britain is likely to be strengthened and will therefore be a factor that has the potential to boost alternative medicine in the UK.

FACTORS THAT COULD DECREASE THE USE OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

It has been reported that our suicidal move out of the EU has led to a contraction of wealth in Britain which is bigger than anything seen since 1921. Apparently, £ 120 billion have been wiped off the value of the stock market within just a few hours. To assume that this will hit only those who are rich enough to own shares, is more than naïve. It will hit all Brits and might even drive us into another recession.

Such developments are, of course, most unwelcome but nevertheless important in relation to alternative medicine usage. Those who employ alternative treatments usually pay for them out of their own pocket. Alternative medicine has always been a bit of a luxury item for those who had more money than sense. The consequence is that financially hard times are almost automatically associated with a reduction of alternative medicine use.

CONCLUSION

All of this is, of course, akin to an exercise in reading tea leafs. But if I am correct, we will now see a significant decrease in the demand for alternative medicine in the ‘Disunited Kingdom’. Once the financial misery is over – and that could take many years – Prince Charles and other ‘irrationalists’ might succeed in bringing about a moderate increase in the use of unproven treatments.

It has been reported that ‘Boots the Chemist’ have filed several legal complaints against The Guardian in relation to articles published by the paper in relation to its April 2016 investigation. The Guardian articles in question alleged that Boots, the UK’s largest pharmacy chain, had placed undue pressure on its pharmacists to perform medicines use reviews so that it could claim the maximum payments possible from the NHS. In other words, The Guardian implied that Boots was trying to get more money from our NHS than might have been due.

Personally, I am always uneasy when I hear that someone takes legal action on such matters. I think that legal complaints of such a nature can turn out to be counter-productive, both in general and in this particular instance.

Why?

There could be several reasons. For instance, such actions might give someone the idea of filing complaints against Boots. I am sure it is not difficult to find reasons for that.

In the realm of alternative medicine, for example, someone might question whether selling homeopathic remedies in Boot’s section ‘pharmacy and health’ is not misleading. These remedies might be seen by a naïve customer as masquerading as medicines. As readers of this blog know all too well, they do not, in fact, contain anything (other than lactose) that has any pharmacological activity. Therefore Boots should best market them in the category of ‘confectionary’.

One might even suspect that Boots are fully aware of all this. After all, a spokesperson for the company stated years ago during a parliamentary inquiry: “I have no evidence to suggest that they [homeopathic remedies sold by Boots] are efficacious …”

And it is also not the first time that Boots have been challenged for selling products they know to be placebos. This is what The Guardian reported in 2008 about the issue: “Ernst accuses the company [Boots] of breaching ethical guidelines drawn up by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, by failing to tell customers that its homeopathic medicines contain no active ingredients and are ineffective in clinical trials.”

A similar void of evidence also applies to Boot’s wide range of Bach Flower Remedies and aromatherapy oils.

Or am I wrong?

Perhaps Boots want to post links to the evidence in the  comment section below?

I am always keen to learn and only too happy to change my mind in view of new, compelling evidence!

Boots also sell a very wide range of herbal medicines, and here the situation is quite different: herbal medicines actually contain molecules that might have pharmacological effects, i. e. they might heal or might harm you. And many of these products imply indications for which they should be taken. I will pick just one example to explain: HERBAL SLIM AID.

Yes, you are absolutely correct – this product is (according to its name) not for gaining weight, it’s for reducing it. Each coated tablet contains 45 mg of extract (as dry extract) from Bladderwrack thallus (Fucus vesiculosus L.) (5:1) (equivalent to 225 mg of Fucus) Extraction solvent: water, ,30 mg Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinale Weber ex Wigg), 27 mg of extract (as dry extract) from Boldo leaf (Peumus boldus Molina) (4-6:1) (equivalent to 108-162 mg of Boldo leaf) Extraction solvent: Methanol 70% v/v, 10 mg Butternut Bark (Juglans cinerea L.).

Now, I thought I know quite a bit about herbal slimming aids, after all, we had a research focus on this topic for several years and have published about a dozen papers on the subject. But oddly, I cannot remember that this mixture of herbs has been shown to reduce body weight.

Perhaps Boots want to post evidence for the efficacy and safety of this product as well?

I certainly hope so, and I would instantly withdraw any hint of a suspicion that Boots are selling unproven or disproven medicines.

Where is all this going?

I have to admit that am not entirely sure myself.

I suppose all I wanted to express was that it might be unwise to throw stones when one is sitting in a glass-house – a cliché, I know, but it’s true nevertheless.

 

 

 

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST:

None [except I don’t like those who easily take legal action against others]

Homeopaths assume lots of things; one of their main claims is, for instance, that the process of repeatedly diluting a remedy and vigorously shaking it at each step – they call this potentisation – renders it more potent. This is the famous MEMORY OF WATER’ theory of homeopathy. In Hahnemann’s own words: ‘…the power of a medicine in solution is much increased by intimate mixture with a large volume of fluid…’ And elsewhere he stated that ‘as the smallest quantity of medicine naturally disturbs the organism least, we should choose the very smallest doses, provided always that they are a match for the disease… hardly any dose of the homeopathically selected remedy can be so small as not to be stronger than the natural disease…’

Hahnemann’s explanation for this extraordinary assumption (which he claimed to have observed empirically) was that his remedies do not work through any material effects but via spirit-like energies. As this sounds a little silly in the light of modern science, homeopaths have been keen to find more rational support for their theories. Thus they have developed several ‘sciency’ concepts to explain the mode of action of their highly diluted homeopathic remedies. For instance that postulated that water can form secondary structures that hold some information of the original substance (stock), even if it has long been diluted out of the remedy. Alternatively, they claimed that the shaking of the remedy generates nano-particles or silicone-particles which, in turn, are the cause of the clinical effects.

Today, I want to assume for a minute, that one of these theories is correct – they cannot all be right, of course. Homeopaths regularly show us investigations that seem to support them, even though it only needs a real expert in the particular field of science to cast serious doubt on them. I will nevertheless assume that, after potentisation, the diluent retains information via nano-particles or some other phenomenon. For the purpose of this mind-experiment, I grant homeopaths that, in this respect, they are correct. In other words, let’s for a moment assume that the ‘memory of water’ theory is correct.

As I have been more than generous, I want homeopaths to return the favour and consider what this would really mean: information has been transferred from the stock to the diluent. Does that prove anything? Does it show that homeopathy is valid?

Could the homeopaths who make this assumption be equally generous and answer the following questions, please?

  1. How does a nano-particle of coffee, for instance, affect the sleep centre in the brain to make the patient sleep? Or how does a nano-particle of the Berlin Wall or a duck liver affect anything at all in the human body? The claim that information has been retained by the diluent is no where near to an explanation of a rational mode of action, isn’t it?
  2. Most homeopathic remedies are consumed not as liquids but as ‘globuli’, i. e.  tiny little pills made of lactose. They are prepared by dropping the liquid remedy on to them. The liquid subsequently evaporates. How is it that the information retained in the liquid does not evaporate with the diluent?
  3. The diluent usually is a water-alcohol mixture which inevitably contains impurities. In fact, a liquid C12 remedy most certainly contains dimensions more impurities than stock. These impurities have, of course, also been vigorously shaken, i. e. potentised. How can we explain that their ‘potency’ has not been beefed up at each dilution step? Would this not necessitate a process where only some molecules in the diluent are agitated, while all the rest remain absolutely still? How can we explain this fantastic concept?
  4. Some stock used in homeopathy is insoluble (for instance Berlin Wall). Such stock is not diluted but its concentration in the remedy is initially lowered by a process called ‘trituration’, a process which consists in grinding the source material in another solid material, usually lactose. I have granted you that potentisation works in the way you think. But how is information transferred from one solid material to another?
  5. Everything we drink is based on water containing molecules that have been inadvertently potentised in nature a million times and therefore should have hugely powerful effects on our bodies. How is it that we experience none of these effects each time we drink?

Now, homeopaths, let me propose a deal.

If you can answer these questions satisfactorily, I will no longer doubt your memory of water theory. If you cannot do this, I think you ought to admit that all your ‘sciency’ theories about the mode of action of highly diluted homeopathic remedies are really quite silly – more silly even than Hahnemann’s idea of a ‘spirit-like’ effect.

 

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