MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

prevention

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I just came across a new article entitled ” Vaccinated children four times more likely to suffer from ADHD, autism“. It was published in WDDTY, my favourite source of misleading information. Here it is:

Vaccinated children are nearly four times more likely to suffer from learning disabilities, ADHD and autism, a major new study has discovered—and they are six times more likely to suffer from one of these neuro-developmental problems if they were also born prematurely.

The vaccinated child is also more likely to suffer from otitis media, the ear infection, and nearly six times more likely to contract pneumonia.

But the standard childhood vaccines do at least do their job: the vaccinated child is nearly eight times less likely than the unvaccinated to develop chicken pox, and also less likely to suffer from whooping cough (pertussis).

Researchers from Jackson State University are some of the first to look at the long-term effects of vaccination. They monitored the health of 666 children for six years from the time they were six—when the full vaccination programme had been completed—until they were 12. All the children were being home-schooled because it was one of the few communities where researchers could find enough unvaccinated children for comparison; 261 of the children hadn’t been vaccinated and 208 hadn’t had all their vaccinations, while 197 had received the full 48-dose course.

The vaccinated were more likely to suffer from allergic rhinitis, such as hay fever, eczema and atopic dermatitis, learning disability, ADHD (attention-deficit, hyperactive disorder), and autism. The risk was lower among the children who had been partially vaccinated.

Vaccinated children were also more likely to have taken medication, such as an antibiotic, or treatment for allergies or for a fever, than the unvaccinated.

END OF QUOTE

I looked up the original study to check and found several surprises.

The first surprise was that the study was called a ‘pilot’ by its authors, even in the title of the paper: “Pilot comparative study on the health of vaccinated and unvaccinated 6- to 12-year-old U.S. children.”

The second surprise was that even the authors admit to important limitations of their research:

We did not set out to test a specific hypothesis about the association between vaccination and health. The aim of the study was to determine whether the health outcomes of vaccinated children differed from those of unvaccinated homeschool children, given that vaccines have nonspecific effects on morbidity and mortality in addition to protecting against targeted pathogens [11]. Comparisons were based on mothers’ reports of pregnancy-related factors, birth histories, vaccinations, physician-diagnosed illnesses, medications, and the use of health services. We tested the null hypothesis of no difference in outcomes using chi-square tests, and then used Odds Ratios and 96% Confidence Intervals to determine the strength and significance of the association…

What credence can be given to the findings? This study was not intended to be based on a representative sample of homeschool children but on a convenience sample of sufficient size to test for significant differences in outcomes. Homeschoolers were targeted for the study because their vaccination completion rates are lower than those of children in the general population. In this respect our pilot survey was successful, since data were available on 261 unvaccinated children…

Mothers’ reports could not be validated by clinical records because the survey was designed to be anonymous. However, self-reports about significant events provide a valid proxy for official records when medical records and administrative data are unavailable [70]. Had mothers been asked to provide copies of their children’s medical records it would no longer have been an anonymous study and would have resulted in few completed questionnaires. We were advised by homeschool leaders that recruitment efforts would have been unsuccessful had we insisted on obtaining the children’s medical records as a requirement for participating in the study.

A further potential limitation is under-ascertainment of disease in unvaccinated children. Could the unvaccinated have artificially reduced rates of illness because they are seen less often by physicians and would therefore have been less likely to be diagnosed with a disease? The vaccinated were indeed more likely to have seen a doctor for a routine checkup in the past 12 months (57.5% vs. 37.1%, p < 0.001; OR 2.3, 95% CI: 1.7, 3.1). Such visits usually involve vaccinations, which nonvaccinating families would be expected to refuse. However, fewer visits to physicians would not necessarily mean that unvaccinated children are less likely to be seen by a physician if their condition warranted it. In fact, since unvaccinated children were more likely to be diagnosed with chickenpox and whooping cough, which would have involved a visit to the pediatrician, differences in health outcomes are unlikely to be due to under-ascertainment.

The third surprise was that the authors were not at all as certain as WDDTY in their conclusions: “the study findings should be interpreted with caution. First, additional research is needed to replicate the findings in studies with larger samples and stronger research designs. Second, subject to replication, potentially detrimental factors associated with the vaccination schedule should be identified and addressed and underlying mechanisms better understood. Such studies are essential in order to optimize the impact of vaccination of children’s health.”

The fourth surprise was to find the sponsors of this research:

Generation Rescue is, according to Wikipedia, a nonprofit organization that advocates the incorrect view that autism and related disorders are primarily caused by environmental factors, particularly vaccines. These claims are biologically implausible and are disproven by scientific evidence. The organization was established in 2005 by Lisa and J.B. Handley. They have gained attention through use of a media campaign, including full page ads in the New York Times and USA Today. Today, Generation Rescue is known as a platform for Jenny McCarthy‘s autism and anti-vaccine advocacy.

The Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI) was, according to Vaxopedia, created by and is funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation. It provides grants to folks who will do research on “vaccine induced brain and immune dysfunction” and on what they believe are other “gaps in our knowledge about vaccines and vaccine safety”, including:

While they claim that they are not an anti-vaccine organization, it should be noted that  Claire Dwoskin once said that “Vaccines are a holocaust of poison on our children’s brains and immune systems.”

Did I say SURPRISE?

I take it back!

When it comes to WDDTY, nothing does surprise me.

We have repeatedly discussed on this blog the fact that many alternative practitioners are advising their patients against vaccinations, e. g.:

There is little doubt that this phenomenon contributes to low immunisation rates. This, in turn, is a contributing factor to outbreaks of measles and other infectious diseases. The website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recently published data on measles outbreaks in Europe:

Bulgaria: There is an increase by three cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 16 July, Bulgaria reported 166 cases. During the same time period in 2016 Bulgaria reported one case.

France: On 27 July 2017 media quoting the French Minister of Health reported the death of a 16-year-old unvaccinated girl. She had fallen sick in Nice and died on 27 June 2017 in Marseille.

Germany: There is an increase by four cases since the last report on 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 26 July, Germany reported 801 cases. During the same time period in 2016 Germany reported 187 cases.

Italy: There is an increase by 170 cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 25 July, Italy reported 3 842 cases, including three deaths. Among the cases, 271 are healthcare workers. The median age is 27 years, 89% of the cases were not vaccinated and 6% received only one dose of vaccine.

Romania: There is an increase by 229 cases, including one additional death, since 21 July 2017. Since 1 January 2016 and as of 21 July 2017, Romania reported 8 246 cases, including 32 deaths. Cases are either laboratory-confirmed or have an epidemiological link to a laboratory-confirmed case. Infants and young children are the most affected groups. Timis, in the western part of the country closest to the border with Serbia, is the most affected district with 1 215 cases. Vaccination activities are ongoing in order to cover communities with suboptimal vaccination coverage.

Spain: There is an increase by seven cases since 14 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 25 July, Spain reported 145  measles cases.

United Kingdom: Public Health Wales reported two additional cases related to the outbreak in Newport and Torfaen, bringing the total to ten cases related to this outbreak. In England and Wales there is an increase by 76 cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 23 July 2017, England and Wales reported 922 cases. In the same time period in 2016, they reported 946 cases.

In addition to the updates listed above ECDC produces a monthly measles and rubella monitoring report with surveillance data provided by the member states through TESSy. The last report was published on 11 July 2017 with data up to 31 May 2017.

Measles outbreaks continue to occur in EU/EEA countries. There is a risk of spread and sustained transmission in areas with susceptible populations. The national vaccination coverage remains less than 95% for the second dose of MMR in the majority of EU/EEA countries. The progress towards elimination of measles in the WHO European Region is assessed by the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC). Member States of the WHO European Region are making steady progress towards the elimination of measles. At the fifth meeting of the RVC for Measles and Rubella in October 2016, of 53 countries in the WHO European Region, 24 (15 of which are in the EU/EEA) were declared to have reached the elimination goal for measles, and 13 countries (nine in the EU/EEA) were deemed to have interrupted endemic transmission for between 12 and 36 months, meaning they are on their way to achieving the elimination goal. However, six EU/EEA countries were judged to still have endemic transmission: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania. More information on strain sequences would allow further insight into the epidemiological investigation.

All EU/EEA countries report measles cases on a monthly basis to ECDC and these data are published every month. Since 10 March 2017, ECDC has been reporting measles outbreaks in Europe on a weekly basis and monitoring worldwide outbreaks on a monthly basis through epidemic intelligence activities. ECDC published a rapid risk assessment on 6 March.

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Personally, I believe that it is high time to stop the rhetoric and actions of the anti-vaccination movements. This includes educating alternative practitioners and their patients. If necessary, we need regulation that prohibits their dangerous and unethical activities.

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.

 

The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.

A recent article is a case in point, I think.

START OF QUOTE

Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.

Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK,  although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.

The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.

Key findings  

Herbs for high blood pressure

The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.

Herbs for diabetes

The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.

Herbs for cholesterol 

The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.

Herbs for heart disease

Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.

Limitations with trials

But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.

END OF QUOTE

Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.

None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.

With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.

In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.

As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:

START OF QUOTE

…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.

First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…

Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.

END OF QUOTE

Sound advice indeed.

Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!

Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.

Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
  • What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
  • Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’  someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
  • Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.”   *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
  • Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.

A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.

 

*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.

Since more than 20 years, I have been writing about the risks of alternative therapies. One of my first papers on this issue was published in 1995 and focussed on acupuncture. Here is its abstract:

The use of acupuncture is widespread. The procedure is often claimed to be totally, or at least reasonably, safe. The published evidence regarding its potential risks is reviewed. The repeated and/or inappropriate use of an acupuncture needle carries the risk of infections. Amongst others, AIDS and hepatitis have been transmitted. Acupuncture needles may also traumatise tissues and organs. Pneumothorax is the most frequent complication caused in this way. Finally, needles may break and fragments can be dislodged into distant organs. A serious and more general concern related to the safety of acupuncture is the competence of the therapist, whether or not medically qualified. The “philosophy” of acupuncture is not in line with orthodox diagnostic skills; therefore acupuncturists can be dangerously unconcerned with diagnostic categories. Thus indirect risks might add significantly to the direct risks of acupuncture. It is concluded that the true risk of acupuncture cannot be estimated. Whatever its extent, it could and probably should be lowered by enforcing educational and clinical standards.

My reason for banging on about the potential harms (direct and indirect risks) of alternative medicine is fairly obvious: I want to alert healthcare professionals and consumers to the fact that these treatments may not be as harmless as they are usually advertised to be. Yet, I have often be called an alarmist fear-monger. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thinking about fear-mongering, I began to ask myself whether those who regularly accuse me are the ones guilty of the deed. Are alternative practitioners fear-mongers? Surely not all of them, but some clearly are. Here are a few of the strategies they use for their fear-mongering.

NON-EXISTING DIAGNOSES

Perhaps the most obvious way to instil fear into people is to tell them that they are affected by a disease or condition they do not have. Many alternative practitioners do exactly that!

  • A chiropractor might tell you that you have a subluxation in your spine.
  • A naturopath would inform you that your body is full of toxins.
  • An acupuncturist will tell you that your life energy is blocked.
  • A homeopath might warn you that your vital force is too low.

These diagnoses have one thing in common: they do not exist. They are figments of the therapist’s imagination. And they have another thing in common: the abnormalities need to be corrected, and – surprise, surprise – the very therapy that the practitioner specialises in happens to be just the ticket for that purpose.

  • The chiropractor will tell you that a simple spinal adjustment will solve the problem.
  • The naturopath will inform you that a bit of detox will eliminate the toxins.
  • The acupuncturist will tell you that his needles will de-block your chi.
  • The homeopath will persuade you that he can find the exact remedy to revive your vital force.

And there we have the third thing these diagnoses have in common: they are all treatable, will all result in a nice bill, and will all improve the cash-flow of the therapist.

MEDICALIZING TRIVIALITIES

But often, it is not even necessary for an alternative therapist to completely invent a diagnosis. Patients usually consult an alternative practitioner with some sort of symptom – frequently with what one might call a medical triviality that does not need any treatment at all but can be dealt with differently, for instance, by issuing some life-style advice or just simple re-assurance that nothing major is amiss. But for the fear-monger, this is not enough. He feels the need to administer his therapy, and for that purpose he needs to medicalize trivialities :

  • A low mood thus becomes a clinical depression.
  • A sore back is turned into a nasty lumbago.
  • A tummy upset morphs into a dangerous gastritis.
  • Abdominal unrest is diagnosed to be a leaky gut syndrome.
  • A food aversion turns into a food intolerance, etc., etc.

The common denominator is again the fact that fear is instilled into the patient. And again, a useless therapy is administered, if at all possible in the form of a lengthy series of treatments. This, of course, generates significant benefit – not therapeutic, but financial!

DEMONIZING CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE

But there is always the risk that the patient is wiser than expected. She might be so scared learning of her condition that she decides to see her doctor. That would mean a loss of income which has to be avoided! The trick to achieve this is usually not difficult: conventional healthcare professionals must be demonized.

  • They are not treating the root cause of the problem.
  • They are in the pocket of BIG PHARMA.
  • They prescribe medicines with terrible side-effects.
  • They have no idea about holism.
  • They never have enough time to listen, etc., etc.

I know, some of these criticisms are not entirely incorrect (for instance, many conventional medicines do have serious side-effects but, as I try to point out ad nauseam, we need to consider their risk/benefit balance). But that is hardly the point here; the point is to scare the patient off conventional medicine. Only a person who is convinced that the ‘medical mafia’ is out to get her, will prove to be a loyal customer of all things alternative.

DISEASE PREVENTION

And a loyal customer is someone who comes not just once or twice but regularly, ideally from cradle to grave. The way to achieve this ultimate stimulus of the practitioners cash flow is to convince the patient that she needs regular treatments, even when she feels perfectly alright. The magic word here is PREVENTION! The masters here are the chiropractors, I guess; they promote what they call ‘maintenance care’, i.e. the regular treatment of healthy individuals to keep their spines subluxation-free. It goes without saying that maintenance care is a money-making scam.

The strategy requires two little lies, but that’s forgivable considering the good cause, boosting the income of the practitioner:

  1. Conventional doctors don’t do prevention.
  2. The alternative treatment is an effective preventative.

The first statement can be shown to be an obvious lie. All we know about effective disease prevention today comes from conventional medicine and science; nothing originates from the realm of alternative medicine. Remarkably, the most efficacious preventative measure of all times, immunisation, is frequently defamed and neglected by alternative practitioners.

The second statement is a necessary lie; how else would a patient agree to pay regularly for the practitioner’s services? I am not aware of any alternative therapy that can effectively prevent any disease.

CONCLUSIONS

  • Some alternative practitioners regularly instil fear into consumers.
  • Several strategies are being used for this purpose.
  • They have the aim of maximising the therapists’ income.
  • Fear-mongering is unethical and despicable.
  • Pointing out that a certain therapy might fail to generate more good than harm is not fear-mongering.

In 2006, the World Health Organization and UNICEF created the ‘Global Immunization Vision and Strategy’, a 10-year strategy with 4 main goals:

  1. to immunize more people against more diseases,
  2. to introduce a range of newly available vaccines and technologies,
  3. to integrate other critical health interventions with immunization,
  4. to manage vaccination programmes within the context of global interdependence.

More than a decade later, we have to realise that this vision has been frustrated, not least by fans of alternative medicine (FAMs). They are almost by definition more negative about the value and achievements of conventional medicine and science. This shows in all sorts of ways; the clearest this phenomenon is documented must be the FAMs’ attitude towards immunisations. Few rational thinkers would doubt that vaccinations are amongst the most important achievement in the history of medicine.

Vaccination is a miracle of modern medicine. In the past 50 years, it’s saved more lives worldwide than any other medical product or procedure.”

Yet FAMs are not impressed by such statements and often refuse to have their kids vaccinated according to the recommended schedule. This trend has significantly contributed to vaccination rates that, in some parts of the world, are now dropping so low that our ‘herd immunity’ is jeopardised.

One such place is Germany, and the German government is now making a controversial move against parents who choose to refrain from vaccinating their children. Germany is presently passing a law that will force kindergartens to inform the authorities, if parents don’t provide evidence that they have gotten advice from their doctor on vaccinations for their children.

The fact that some alternative medicine (the authors use the abbreviation ‘CAM’) practitioners recommend against vaccination is well-known and often-documented. Specifically implicated are:

As a result, children consulting homeopaths, naturopaths or chiropractors are less likely to receive vaccines and more likely to get vaccine-preventable diseases. These effects have been noted for several childhood infections but little is known about how child CAM-usage affects influenza vaccination.

A new nationally representative study fills this gap; it analysed ∼9000 children from the Child Complementary and Alternative Medicine File of the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. Adjusting for health services use factors, it examined influenza vaccination odds by ever using major CAM domains: (1) alternative medical systems (AMS; eg, acupuncture); (2) biologically-based therapies, excluding multivitamins/multi-minerals (eg, herbal supplements); (3) multi-vitamins/multi-minerals; (4) manipulative and body-based therapies (MBBT; eg, chiropractic manipulation); and (5) mind-body therapies (eg, yoga).

Influenza vaccination uptake was lower among children ever (versus never) using AMS (33% vs 43%; P = .008) or MBBT (35% vs 43%; P = .002) but higher by using multivitamins/multiminerals (45% vs 39%; P < .001). In multivariate analyses, multivitamin/multimineral use lost significance, but children ever (versus never) using any AMS or MBBT had lower uptake (respective odds ratios: 0.61 [95% confidence interval: 0.44-0.85]; and 0.74 [0.58-0.94]).

The authors concluded that children who have ever used certain CAM domains that may require contact with vaccine-hesitant CAM practitioners are vulnerable to lower annual uptake of influenza vaccination. Opportunity exists for US public health, policy, and medical professionals to improve child health by better engaging parents of children using particular domains of CAM and CAM practitioners advising them.

There is hardly any need to point out that CAM-use is associated with low vaccination-uptake. We have discussed this on my blog ad nauseam – see for instance here, here, here and here. Too many CAM practitioners have an irrational view of vaccinations and advise against their patients against them. Anyone who needs more information might find it right here by searching this blog. Anyone claiming that this is all my exaggeration might look at these papers, for instance, which have nothing to do with me (there are plenty more for those who are willing to conduct a Medline search):

  • Lehrke P, Nuebling M, Hofmann F, Stoessel U. Attitudes of homeopathic physicians towards vaccination. Vaccine. 2001;19:4859–4864. doi: 10.1016/S0264-410X(01)00180-3. [PubMed]
  • Halper J, Berger LR. Naturopaths and childhood immunizations: Heterodoxy among the unorthodox. Pediatrics. 1981;68:407–410. [PubMed]
  • Colley F, Haas M. Attitudes on immunization: A survey of American chiropractors. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 1994;17:584–590. [PubMed]

One could, of course, argue about the value of influenza vaccination for kids, but the more important point is that CAM practitioners tend to be against ANY immunisation. And the even bigger point is that many of them issue advice that is against conventional treatments of proven efficacy.

In a previous post I asked the question ‘Alternative medicine for kids: when is it child-abuse?’ I think that evidence like the one reported here renders this question all the more acute.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether the use of CAM among newly diagnosed breast cancer patients was associated with delays in presentation, diagnosis or treatment of breast cancer. A multi-centre cross-sectional design was used and the time points of the individual breast cancer patients’ journey from first visit, resolution of diagnosis and treatments were evaluated in six public hospitals in Malaysia.

All newly diagnosed breast cancer patients from 1st January to 31st December 2012 were recruited. Data were collected through medical records review and patient interview by using a structured questionnaire. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) was defined as the use of any methods and products not included in conventional allopathic medicine before commencement of treatments. Presentation delay was defined as time taken from symptom discovery to first presentation of more than 3 months. The time points were categorised to diagnosis delay was defined as time taken from first presentation to diagnosis of more than 1 month and treatment delay was defined as time taken from diagnosis to initial treatment of more than 1 month. Multiple logistic regression was used for analysis.

A total number of 340 patients participated in this study. The prevalence of CAM use was 46.5% (n = 158). Malay ethnicity (OR 3.32; 95% CI: 1.85, 5.97) and not interpreting symptom as cancerous (OR 1.79; 95% CI: 1.10, 2.92) were significantly associated with CAM use. The use of CAM was associated with delays in presentation (OR 1.65; 95% CI: 1.05, 2.59), diagnosis (OR 2.42; 95% CI: 1.56, 3.77) and treatment of breast cancer (OR 1.74; 95% CI: 1.11, 2.72) on univariate analyses. However, after adjusting with other covariates, CAM use was associated with delays in presentation (OR 1.71; 95% CI: 1.05, 2.78) and diagnosis (OR 2.58; 95% CI: 1.59, 4.17) but not for treatment of breast cancer (OR 1.58; 95% CI: 0.98, 2.55).

The authors concluded that the prevalence of CAM use among the breast cancer patients is high. Women of Malay ethnicity and not interpreting symptom as cancerous were significantly associated with CAM use. The use of CAM had significantly associated with delay in presentation and resolution of diagnosis. Difficulty in obtaining all medical records may have excluded patients who experienced delays in presentation, diagnosis or treatment but every precaution and resources were utilized to obtain record. This study suggests further evaluation of access to breast cancer care is needed as poor access may promote the use of CAM. However, since public hospitals in Malaysia are heavily subsidized and readily available to the population, CAM use may impact delays in presentation and diagnosis.

We know from previous studies that

  • CAM-use is associated with poor adherence to cancer treatments,
  • using CAM as an alternative to conventional treatments results in shorter survival of cancer patients,

and now we also know that CAM-use is associated with delayed presentation and diagnosis of cancer. This latter effect can have consequences that are just as serious as the other two. The later cancer is diagnosed, the poorer the prognosis and the shorter the survival.

These findings indicate that all healthcare professionals should be vigilant and inform patients as well as the general public that CAM-users are exposed to considerable dangers.

To honour Hahnemann’s birthday, a National Convention was held yesterday on ‘World Homeopathy Day’ in New Delhi. The theme of the convention is “Enhancing Quality Research in Homeopathy through scientific evidence and rich clinical experiences”. They could have done with this new study of Influenzinum 9C, it seems to me. This is a homeopathic remedy made from the current influenza vaccine. Influenzinum 9C, also known as homeopathic flu nosode. It is claimed to:

  • strengthen the body and increase its resistance to the season’s flu viruses,
  • protect against cold & flu symptoms such as body aches, nausea, chills, fever, headaches, sore throat, coughs, and congestion,
  • enforce the flu vaccine’s action if you have opted for the flu shot,
  • deal with aftereffects of the flu, and
  • alleviate adverse effects of the flu shot.

As these are the claims made by homeopaths (here is but one example of many: “I’ve been using this for over 30 years for my family, and we have never had the flu!”), French researchers have tested whether Influenzinum works. They just published the results of the first study examining the effectiveness of Influenzinum against influenza-like illnesses.

They conducted a retrospective cohort study during winter 2014-2015. After influenza epidemic, a self-assessment questionnaire was offered to patients presenting for a consultation. The primary endpoint was the declaration of an influenza-like illness. The exposed patients (treated by Influenzinum) were matched to two non-exposed patients (untreated) with a propensity score. A conditional logistic model expressed influenza-like illness risk reduction provided by the Influenzinum.

The cohort included 3514 patients recruited from 46 general practitioners. After matching, the treated group (n=2041) and the untreated group (n=482) did not differ on variables collected. Thus Influenzinum preventive therapy did not significantly alter the likelihood of influenza-like illness.

The authors concluded that Influenzinum preventive therapy did not appear effective in preventing influenza-like illness.

This can be no surprise to anyone you knows what ‘C9’ means: it signifies a dilution of 1: 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 (plus 9 times vigorous shaking, of course).

I am sure that some homeopaths will now question whether Influenzinum is truly homeopathic. Is it based on the ‘like cures like’ principle? Before some clever Dick comments ‘THIS SHOWS THAT PROF ERNST HAS NOT GOT A CLUE ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’, please let me point out that it was not I but the homeopaths who insisted in labelling Influenzinum ‘homeopathic’ (see, for instance, here: “Influenzinum Dose is a homoeopathic medicine created by Laboratoire Boiron. Single dose to be consumed in one step. This homoeopathic medicine is generally used as a substitute for the flu vaccine”). AND WHO AM I TO QUESTION THE AUTHORITY OF BOIRON???

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