Proponents of alternative medicine regularly stress the notion that their treatments are either risk-free or much safer than conventional medicine. This assumption may be excellent for marketing bogus treatments, however, it neglects that even a relatively harmless therapy can become dangerous, if it is ineffective. Here is yet again a tragic reminder of this undeniable fact.
Japanese doctors reported the case of 2-year-old girl who died of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common cancer in children.
She had no remarkable medical history. She was transferred to a hospital because of respiratory distress and died 4 hours after arrival. Two weeks before her death, she had developed a fever of 39 degrees C, which subsided after the administration of a naturopathic herbal remedy. One week before death, she developed jaundice, and her condition worsened on the day of death.
Laboratory test results on admission to hospital showed a markedly elevated white blood cell count. Accordingly, the cause of death was suspected to be acute leukaemia. Forensic autopsy revealed the cause of death to be precursor B-cell ALL.
With the current advancements in medical technology, the 5-year survival rate of children with ALL is nearly 90%. However, in this case, the child’s parents had opted for naturopathy instead of evidence-based medicine. They had not taken her to a hospital for a medical check-up or immunisation since she was an infant. If the child had received routine medical care, she would have a more than 60% chance of being alive 5 years after diagnosis of ALL.
The authors of this case-report concluded that the parents should be accused of medical neglect regardless of their motives.
Such cases are tragic and infuriating in equal measure. There is no way of knowing how often this sort of thing happens; we rely entirely on anecdotes because systematic research is hardly feasible.
While anecdotes of this nature have their obvious limitations, they are nevertheless important. They can serve as poignant reminders that alternative remedies might be relatively harmless, but this does not necessarily apply to all alternative practitioners. Moreover, they should make us redouble our efforts to inform the public responsibly about the all too often trivialized risks of alternative medicine.
This post is dedicated to all homeopathic character assassins.
Some ardent homeopathy fans have reminded me that, some 25 years ago, I published (OH, WHAT A SCANDAL!!!) a positive trial of homeopathy; I even found a website that proudly announces this fact. Homeopaths seem jubilant about this discovery (not because they now need to revise their allegations that I never did any trials; or the other, equally popular claim, that I have always been squarely against their trade but) because the implication is that even I have to concede that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo. In their view, this seems to beg the following important and embarrassing questions:
- Why did I change my mind?
- Am I not contradicting myself?
- Who has bribed me?
- Am I in the pocket of Big Pharma?
- Does this ‘skeleton in my closet’ discredit me for all times?
I remember the trial in question quite well. We conducted it during my time in Vienna, and I am proud of several innovative ideas that went into it. Here is the abstract in full:
The aim of this study was to test the effectiveness of a combined homeopathic medication in primary varicosity. A well-defined population of 61 patients was randomized into active medication (Poikiven®) or placebo. Both were given for 24 d. At the start of the trial, after 12 d medication and at the end of the study, objective and subjective parameters were recorded: venous filling time, leg volume, calf circumference, haemorheological measurements and patients’ symptoms such as cramps, itching, leg heaviness, pain during standing and the need to elevate the legs. The results show that venous filling time is changed by 44% towards normal in the actively-treated group. The average leg volume fell significantly more in this group, but calf circumferences did not change significantly and blood rheology was not altered in any relevant way. None of the patients reported side-effects. Subjective complaints were relieved significantly more by Poikiven than by placebo. These results suggest that the oral treatment of primary varicosity using Poikiven is feasible.
So, there we have it: a homeopathic remedy (as tested by me) is clearly better than placebo normalising important objective parameters as well as subjective symptoms of varicose veins. Is that not a contradiction of what I keep saying today, namely that homeopathy is a placebo therapy?
YES AND NO! (But much more NO than YES)
Yes, because that was clearly our result, and I never tried to deny it.
No, because our verum was far from being a homeopathic, highly diluted remedy. It contained Aesculus D1 12,5 ml, Arnica D1 2,5 ml, Carduus marianus D1 5 ml, Hamamelis D1 10 ml, Lachesis D6 5 ml, Lycopodium D4 5 ml, Melilotus officinalis D1 10 ml. Take just the first of these ingredients, Aesculus or horse chestnut. This is a herbal medicine that has been well documented (even via a Cochrane review) to be effective for the symptoms of varicose veins, and it contains Aesculus in the D1 potency. This means that it is diluted merely by a factor of 1:10. So, for all intents and purposes, our verum was herbal by nature, and there is no surprise at all that we found it to be effective.[Here is a little ‘aside’: Aesculus is a proven treatment for varicose veins. Homeopathy must always rely on the ‘like cures like’ principle. Therefore, if Aesculus had been used in the homeopathic way, would it not, according to homeopathic dogma, had to worsen the symptoms of our patients rather than alleviating them?]
All of this would be trivial to the extreme, if it did not touch upon an important and confusing point which is often used as an ‘escape route’ by homeopaths when they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some trials of homeopathy are positive because they use medications which are homeopathic only by name. This regularly creates considerable confusion. In the recent BMJ debate I tried to address this issue head on by stating at the outset: ” Nobody questions, of course, that some substances used in homeopathy, such as arsenic or strychnine, can be pharmacologically active, but homeopathic medicines are typically far too dilute to have any effect.”
And that’s the point: homeopathic remedies beyond a C12 potency contain nothing, less dilute ones contain little to very little, and D1 potencies are hardy diluted at all and thus contain substantial amounts of active ingredients. Such low potencies are rarely used by homeopaths and should be called PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC, in my view. Homeopaths tend to use this confusing complexity to wriggle out of difficult arguments, and often they rely on systematic reviews of homeopathic trials which can generate somewhat confusing overall findings because of such PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC remedies.
To make it perfectly clear: the typical homeopathic remedy is far too dilute to have any effect. When scientists or the public at large speak of homeopathic remedies, we don’t mean extracts of Aesculus or potent poisons like Arsenic D1 (has anyone heard of someone claiming to have killed rats with homeopathy?); we refer to the vast majority of remedies which are highly dilute and contain no or very few active molecules – even when we do not explain this somewhat complicated and rather tedious circumstance each and every time. I therefore declare once and for all that, unless I indicate otherwise, I do NOT mean potencies below C6 when I speak of a ‘homeopathic remedy’ (sorry homeopathy fans, perhaps I should have done this when I started this blog).
What if our Vienna study all those years ago had tested not the pseudo-homeopathic ‘Poikiven’ but a highly dilute, real homeopathic remedy and had still come up with a positive finding? Would that make me inconsistent, dishonest, untrustworthy or corrupt? Certainly not!
I have always urged people to not go by the results of single trials. There are numerous reasons why a single study can produce a misleading result. We should therefore, wherever possible, rely on systematic reviews that critically evaluate the totality of the evidence (I would always mistrust even my own trial data, if it contradicted the totality of the reliable evidence) – and such analyses clearly fail to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.
And even, if none of this had happened, and I had just changed my mind about homeopathy because
- the evidence changed,
- I had become wiser,
- I had learnt how to think like a scientist,
- I had managed to see behind the smokescreen many homeopaths put up to hide the truth?
Would that discredit me? I don’t think so! As someone once said, being able to change one’s mind is a sign of intelligence.
I am sure that the weird world of homeopathic character assassination will soon find something else to discredit me – but for now…
I REST MY CASE.
Lots of alternative therapies are advocated for migraine. Few of them are supported by good evidence. An exception could be the herbal remedy FEVERFEW.
This review is an update of a previously published review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews on ‘Feverfew for preventing migraine’. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.) extract is a herbal remedy, which has been used for preventing attacks of migraine. Our aim was to systematically review the evidence from double-blind, randomised, clinical trials (RCTs) assessing the clinical efficacy and safety of feverfew monopreparations versus placebo for preventing migraine.
For this updated version of the review we searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE and AMED to January 2015. We contacted manufacturers of feverfew and checked the bibliographies of identified articles for further trials.
We included randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind trials assessing the efficacy of feverfew monopreparations for preventing migraine in migraine sufferers of any age. We included trials using clinical outcome measures, while we excluded trials focusing exclusively on physiological parameters. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication.
We systematically extracted data on patients, interventions, methods, outcome measures, results and adverse events. We assessed risk of bias using the Cochrane ‘Risk of bias’ tool and evaluated methodological quality using the Oxford Quality Scale developed by Jadad and colleagues. Two review authors independently selected studies, assessed methodological quality and extracted data. We resolved disagreements concerning evaluation of individual trials through discussion.
We identified one new study for this update, resulting in a total of 6 trials (561 patients) meeting the inclusion criteria. Five of the 6 trials reported on the main outcome measure which was migraine frequency. Although 5 of the trials were generally of good methodological quality, all studies were either of unclear or high risk of bias with regards to sample size. Pooled analysis of the results was not possible due to the lack of common outcome measures and heterogeneity between studies in terms of participants, interventions and designs. The most recent trial added to this update was rigorous and larger (n = 218) than previous studies. It used a stable feverfew extract at a dose determined by a previous dose-finding trial. It reported that feverfew reduced migraine frequency by 1.9 attacks from 4.8 to 2.9 and placebo by 1.3 from to 4.8 to 3.5 per month. This difference in effect between feverfew and placebo was thus 0.6 attacks per month. For the secondary outcome measures such as intensity and duration of migraine attacks, incidence and severity of nausea and vomiting, and global assessment no statistically significant differences between feverfew and placebo were reported.
The results of previous trials were not convincing: three trials reporting positive effects of feverfew were all of small sample size (17 to 60 participants), while two rigorous trials (n = 50, 147) did not find significant differences between feverfew and placebo.
Only mild and transient adverse events of feverfew, most commonly gastrointestinal complaints and mouth ulcers, were reported in the included trials.
We concluded that, since the last version of this review, one larger rigorous study has been included, reporting a difference in effect between feverfew and placebo of 0.6 attacks per month. This adds some positive evidence to the mixed and inconclusive findings of the previous review. However, this constitutes low quality evidence, which needs to be confirmed in larger rigorous trials with stable feverfew extracts and clearly defined migraine populations before firm conclusions can be drawn. It appears from the data reviewed that feverfew is not associated with any major safety concerns.
So, good or bad news for migraine sufferers? I suppose it depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. I would say that, considering the mostly bad news about alternative medicine for migraine, it is relative good news: patients who want to try something ‘natural’ could do so, particularly in view of the lack of serious risks.
I have repeatedly stressed that herbal remedies can cause harm in a range of ways. Indian rheumatologists recently enforced this point by publishing a case-report of adrenal suppression caused by herbal remedies.
A 49-year-old male presented with polyarthritis from which he had suffered for more than 10 years. His serum cortisol levels were extremely low, he had vitamin D deficiency, and his rheumatoid factor was negative. He revealed symptoms of adrenal suppression, mainly muscle weakness and suicidal tendency, and few other psychiatric disturbances.
The patient eventually discontinued his herbal medicine. Then, he was put on deflazacort for 12 weeks at 12 mg twice daily and later the dose was tapered to 6 mg/day. Deflazocort, an intermediate-acting corticosteroid, was prescribed to minimize the probable withdrawal symptoms due to the probable presence of dexamethasone or betamethasone (long-acting steroids) presumably from the herbal medication.
The herbal samples of used by the patient was analysed by mass spectrometry. It showed the presence of steroidal compounds by the mass 393.81, which may be dexamethasone or betamethasone.
The authors of this paper believe that the symptoms of adrenal suppression could have precipitated or exacerbated the neuropsychiatric disturbances due to Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) suppression. In their view, adrenal suppression following ingestion of herbal remedies is of major concern. Abrupt withdrawal of such products could precipitate adrenal failure which can be fatal.
It should be added, I think, that such illegal adulterations of herbal remedies have been reported with some regularity, particularly in Indian (and Chinese) preparations. Our systematic review showed that this problem has caused serious harm. The most severe documented adverse effects include agranulocytosis, meningitis, multi-organ failure, perinatal stroke, arsenic, lead or mercury poisoning, malignancies or carcinomas, hepatic encephalopathy, hepatorenal syndrome, nephrotoxicity, rhabdomyolysis, metabolic acidosis, renal or liver failure, cerebral edema, coma, intracerebral haemorrhage, and death.
As under-reporting can be suspected to be huge, we do currently not know how frequent these events are.
There are things that cannot be said too often. In medicine, these are often related to issues that can save lives. In alternative medicine, it is worth remembering that there is nothing that can save more lives than the following rule: EVEN AN APPARENTLY HARMLESS REMEDY WILL BECOME LIFE-THREATENING, IF IT IS USED AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AN EFFECTIVE THERAPY FOR A SERIOUS CONDITION.
Here is a publication that serves as a very sad reminder of this important axiom.
Japanese physicians recently published a case-report of 2-year-old girl who died of precursor B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common cancer in children. She had no remarkable medical history. She was transferred to a hospital because of respiratory distress and died 4 hours after arrival.
Two weeks before her death, she had developed a fever of 39°C, which subsided after the administration of a naturopathic herbal remedy. Subsequently, she developed jaundice one week before death, and her condition worsened on the day of death.
Laboratory test results on admission showed a markedly elevated white blood cell count. Accordingly, the cause of death was suspected to be acute leukaemia. Forensic autopsy revealed the cause of death to be precursor B-cell ALL.
With advancements in medical technology, the 5-year survival rate of children with ALL is nearly 90%. However, in this case, the deceased’s parents preferred alternative medicine to evidence-based medicine and had not taken her to a hospital for a medical check-up or immunisation since she was an infant. The authors state that, if she had received routine medical care, she would have a more than 60% chance of being alive 5 years after diagnosis. Therefore, we conclude that the parents should be accused of medical neglect regardless of their motives.
Alternative practitioners who treat their patients in this way, are in my experience often full of good intentions. They remind me of something Bert Brecht one wrote: THE OPPOSITE OF GOOD IS NOT EVIL, IT IS GOOD INTENTIONS.
A new study of homeopathic arnica suggests efficacy. How come?
Subjects scheduled for rhinoplasty surgery with nasal bone osteotomies by a single surgeon were prospectively randomized to receive either oral perioperative arnica or placebo in a double-blinded fashion. A commercially available preparation was used which contained 12 capsules: one 500 mg capsule with arnica 1M is given preoperatively on the morning of surgery and two more later that day after surgery. Thereafter, arnica was administered in the 12C potency three times daily for the next 3 days (“C” indicates a 100-fold serial dilution; and M, a 1000-fold dilution)
Ecchymosis was measured in digital “three-quarter”-view photographs at three postoperative time points. Each bruise was outlined with Adobe Photoshop and the extent was scaled to a standardized reference card. Cyan, magenta, yellow, black, and luminosity were analyzed in the bruised and control areas to calculate change in intensity.
Compared with 13 subjects receiving placebo, 9 taking arnica had 16.2%, 32.9%, and 20.4% less extent on postoperative days 2/3, 7, and 9/10, a statistically significant difference on day 7. Color change initially showed 13.1% increase in intensity with arnica, but 10.9% and 36.3% decreases on days 7 and 9/10, a statistically significant difference on day 9/10. One subject experienced mild itching and rash with the study drug that resolved during the study period.
The authors concluded that Arnica montana seems to accelerate postoperative healing, with quicker resolution of the extent and the intensity of ecchymosis after osteotomies in rhinoplasty surgery, which may dramatically affect patient satisfaction.
Why are the results positive? Pervious systematic reviews confirm that homeopathic arnica is a pure placebo. First, I thought the answer lies in the 1M potency. It could well still contain active molecules. But then I realised that the answer is much more simple: if we apply the conventional level of statistical significance, there are no statistically significant differences to placebo at all! I had not noticed the little sentence by the authors: a P value of 0.1 was set as a meaningful difference with statistical significance. In fact, none of the effects called significant by the authors pass the conventionally used probability level of 5%.
So, what so the results of this new study truly mean? In my view, they show what was known all along: HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES ARE PLACEBOS.
Ayurvedic medicine has become highly popular in Western countries; it originates, of course, from India, and is considered to be one of the world’s oldest health care systems. Its adherents claim to create harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, maintaining that this balance prevents illness, treats acute conditions, and contributes to a long and healthy life. In India Ayurveda is mainstream and more than 90% of the population are said to use it. Outside India, Ayurveda is usually classified as an alternative therapy.
Ayurvedic treatments can consist of a range of modalities, including herbal remedies taken by mouth. These preparations have often been reported to be contaminated with toxic metals. Despite several case reports of poisoning from such contamination, the epidemiological evidence is still limited. A new paper on this important topic is therefore welcome. It reports on a cluster of lead and mercury toxicity cases which occurred 2011 among a community of users of Ayurvedic remedies in the US.
Following the identification of the index case, adherents of Ayurveda were offered heavy metals screening. The results showed that 46 of 115 participants (40%) had elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) of 10 μg/dl or above, with 9.6% of BLLs at or above 50 μg/dl.
The authors issued the following warning: this is the largest cluster of lead and mercury toxicity following use of Ayurvedic supplements described in the literature in the US. Contamination of herbal products is a public health issue of global significance. There are few regulations addressing contamination of “natural” products or supplements.
Rasa shastra, the practice of adding metals, minerals or gems to herbal preparations, is a well-documented part of Ayurveda. Adverse reactions to herbs are described in traditional Ayurvedic texts, but practitioners tend to be reluctant to admit that their remedies could be toxic and that reliable information on their risks is not readily available.
Already in 1990, a study on Ayurvedic medicines in India found that 41% of the products tested contained arsenic, and that 64% contained lead and mercury. A 2004 study found toxic levels of heavy metals in 20% of Ayurvedic preparations sold in the Boston area. A 2008 study of more than 230 products found that approximately 20% of remedies (and 40% of rasa shastra medicines) purchased over the Internet from U.S. and Indian suppliers contained lead, mercury or arsenic.
My 2002 systematic review summarised all the available evidence and concluded that heavy metals, particularly lead, have been a regular constituent of traditional Indian remedies. This has repeatedly caused serious harm to patients taking such remedies. The incidence of heavy metal contamination is not known, but one study shows that 64% of samples collected in India contained significant amounts of lead (64% mercury, 41% arsenic and 9% cadmium). These findings should alert us to the possibility of heavy metal content in traditional Indian remedies and motivate us to consider means of protecting consumers from such risks.
Despite these concerns, Ayurveda-fans continue to believe that the toxicity of these remedies is reduced through the purification processes of Ayurvedic remedy preparation. Bizarrely, they may involve prayers as well as physical pharmacy techniques.
The Indian government ruled that Ayurvedic products must be labelled with their metallic content. However, one Indian expert, has been quoted claiming that “the absence of post-market surveillance and the paucity of test laboratory facilities [in India] make the quality control of Ayurvedic medicines exceedingly difficult at this time”. In the US, most Ayurvedic products are marketed without having been approved by the FDA. Since 2007, the FDA has placed an import alert on some Ayurvedic products in order to prevent them from entering the US.
Protecting consumers from heavy metal poisoning by Ayurvedic remedies is certainly not easy – but, in the interest of public health, it is a task that we must tackle with some ungency.
One of the UK’s most ardent promoters of outright unproven and disproven therapies must be Dr Michael Dixon. He has repeatedly and deservedly received a mention on this blog. Steven Novella even called him once a ‘pyromaniac in a field of (integrative) straw men’. This is because Steven felt that Dixon uses phony arguments to promote dodgy therapies. If you find this hard to believe (after all Dixon is a GP who heads important organisations such as the NHS Alliance and the College of Medicine), just look at him dabbling in spiritual healing. Unusual, to say the least, I’d say. If you want to learn more about the strange Dr Dixon, you should read my memoir where he makes several remarkable appearances.
I always delight when I stumble over something that one of my former co-workers (yes, Dixon and I did collaborate for many years) has said to the press. This is why an otherwise silly article in the Daily Mail (yes, I know!) caught my attention; here is the relevant section: Dr Mike Dixon, a GP in Cullompton, Devon, and chairman of the College of Medicine, says he is a ‘fan’ of herbal medicines because they are ‘safe, help to encourage self-care by patients and, in cases such as mint and aloe vera, can be grown by the patients themselves, making them virtually free’.
As I already pointed out, Dixon does tend to promote bizarre concepts. The generalisation that herbal remedies are safe is not just bizarre, it also put the public at risk. One does not need to search long to find an article that makes this clear:
Various reports suggest a high contemporaneous prevalence of herb-drug use in both developed and developing countries. The World Health Organisation indicates that 80% of the Asian and African populations rely on traditional medicine as the primary method for their health care needs. Since time immemorial and despite the beneficial and traditional roles of herbs in different communities, the toxicity and herb-drug interactions that emanate from this practice have led to severe adverse effects and fatalities. As a result of the perception that herbal medicinal products have low risk, consumers usually disregard any association between their use and any adverse reactions hence leading to underreporting of adverse reactions. This is particularly common in developing countries and has led to a paucity of scientific data regarding the toxicity and interactions of locally used traditional herbal medicine. Other factors like general lack of compositional and toxicological information of herbs and poor quality of adverse reaction case reports present hurdles which are highly underestimated by the population in the developing world. This review paper addresses these toxicological challenges and calls for natural health product regulations as well as for protocols and guidance documents on safety and toxicity testing of herbal medicinal products.
Dixon once told me that GPs do not any longer read scientific papers. I think, however, that he should start doing so before the next time he misinform the public and endangers the health of vulnerable people.
The Telegraph today reports that, despite relentless lobbying from the Prince of Wales, UK herbalists will not, after all, be regulated by statute. Here are the most important statements from this article:
Prof David Walker, deputy chief medical officer, said he had taken the decision because there was insufficient evidence that the alternative therapy works, making it impossible to set standards of good practice. Three years ago ministers had pledged to bring in an official register of practitioners of herbal and Chinese medicines, which would see therapists regulated alongside other health workers, such as physiotherapists and speech therapists…But ministers blocked the proposals, instead setting up a new committee, led by the NHS deputy chief medical officer – which has now ruled against statutory regulation. The decision came despite lobbying from Prince Charles, a keen advocate of complementary medicines, and a supporter of regulation, who held a meeting with Jeremy Hunt in 2013 in which his concerns were raised…Prof Walker said that although most herbal practitioners were in favour of regulation, those opposed to it feared it would “confer an inappropriate level of legitimacy on herbal practice which was poorly supported by scientific evidence.” He said the decision to rule against regulation was “undoubtedly the most contentious area” addressed by the working party, which also looked at the safety of herbal medicine products. Instead, the report calls for a review of all ingredients sold in such medicines, to check their safety, with a “voluntary register” for practitioners who use them. It says there is too little evidence to show that herbal medicines improve health outcomes, making it “difficult to establish the boundaries of good practice” in regulating practitioners. It also says there is very little understanding of the risks posed to patients from current practices in herbal medicine…Prof Walker’s recommendation has triggered an immediate rift among the 26 members of his working party. Twelve members of the working party have written to Dr Dan Poulter, health minister, alleging that the decision will put the safety of the public at risk, because anyone will be able to promote themselves as an expert in herbal medicine, without any training. Research suggests around three million Britons a year consult herbal practitioners, operating in shops, online and in private clinics, with up to one in 12 of all adults using a herbal medicine at some stage. Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association, said the decision not to regulate practitioners could put the public at risk from rogue operators, with no training. The herbal practitioner, who was a member of the DoH working party, said: “We are deeply disappointed by this. We feared this issue was going to be kicked into the long grass, by quietly putting something out just before the election – and that is exactly what has happened.” He said the public needed the reassurance of statutory regulation, to know that any herbal doctor who is practising had received some training. The association disputed claims there was insufficient evidence to show that herbal medicines worked, saying that several trials had shown its impact for a number of conditions, but that the sector had less money than the pharmaceutical industry had to undertake mass research. The report says that although ministers promised “some form of regulation of herbal practitioners” this only committed the working party to consider the options, and that the introduction of regulation would require the sector to be “more science and evidence-based”.
Perhaps I should first state that I was not involved in any way in this process. Furthermore, I must say that I do think it is the right decision. To understand it better, I need to refer to several previous posts: yes, some herbal medicines are demonstrably effective. But the regulation in question is NOT about herbal medicines; it is about herbal practitioners, and the two are not necessarily related. UK herbal practitioners practice within a range of traditions including traditional European herbalism, TCM, or other schools of thought. They differ vastly but have one characteristic in common: they individualise their prescriptions according to the specific characteristics of the patient. Thus they would rarely prescribe the evidence-based herbal medicines but mix up prescriptions composed of several herbal ingredients. The problems with this approach are numerous:
- there is no good evidence that this approach of individualised herbalism is effective;
- the safety of the herbs used by traditional herbalists is often unknown;
- traditional herbalists tend to use obsolete diagnostic techniques, false-positive and false-negative diagnoses are thus inevitable;
- some of the herbal mixtures have been shown to be contaminated with toxic ingredients;
- some mixtures are adulterated with powerful prescription drugs;
- the herbal ingredients could interact with each other in an unpredictable manner;
- the herbal mixtures might interact with prescribed drugs.
The long and short of it is that nobody knows whether the treatments of traditional herbalists generate more good than harm. Regulating these professions by statute would merely give them a level of credibility that they do not deserve. As with the regulation of chiropractors or osteopaths in the UK, the regulation of herbalists would simply misled the public about the value of traditional herbalism, and it most likely would have prompted the herbalists to happily rest on their assumed merits claiming that their effectiveness and safety has been officially acknowledged and is therefore no longer in doubt.
In a nutshell: THE ‘PROPER’ REGULATION OF NONSENSE GENERATES PROPER NONSENSE
Chinese proprietary herbal medicines (CPHMs) are a well-established and a hugely profitable part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with a long history in China and elsewhere; they are used for all sorts of conditions, not least for the treatment of common cold. Many CPHMs have been listed in the ‘China national essential drug list’ (CNEDL), the official reference published by the Chinese Ministry of Health. One would hope that such a document to be based on reliable evidence – but is it?
The aim of a recent review was to provide an assessment on the potential benefits and harms of CPHMs for common cold listed in the CNEDL.
The authors of this assessment were experts from the Chinese ‘Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine’ and one well-known researcher of alternative medicine from the UK. They searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, SinoMed, CNKI, VIP, China Important Conference Papers Database, China Dissertation Database, and online clinical trial registry websites from their inception to 31 March 2013 for clinical studies of CPHMs listed in the CNEDL for common cold.
Of the 33 CPHMs listed in the 2012 CNEDL for the treatment of common cold, only 7 had any type of clinical trial evidence at all. A total of 6 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and 7 case series (CSs) could be included in the assessments.
All these studies had been conducted in China and published in Chinese. All of them were burdened with poor study design and low methodological quality, and all had to be graded as being associated with a very high risk of bias.
The authors concluded that the use of CPHMs for common cold is not supported by robust evidence. Further rigorous well designed placebo-controlled, randomized trials are needed to substantiate the clinical claims made for CPHMs.
I should state that it is, in my view, most laudable that the authors draw such a relatively clear, negative conclusion. This does certainly not happen often with papers originating from China, and George Lewith, the UK collaborator in this article, is also not known for his critical attitude towards alternative medicine. But there are other, less encouraging issues here to mention.
In the discussion section of their paper, the authors mention that the CNEDL has been approved by the Chinese Ministry of Public Health and is currently regarded as the accepted reference point for the medicines used in China. They also explain that the CNEDL was officially launched and implemented in August 2009. The CNEDL is now up-dated every 3 years, and its 2012 edition contains 520 medicines, including 203 CPHMs. The CPHMs listed in CNEDL cover 137 herbal remedies for internal medicine, 11 for surgery, 20 for gynaecology, 7 for ophthalmology, 13 for otorhinolaryngology and 15 for orthopaedics and traumatology.
Moreover, the authors inform us that about 3,100 medical and clinical experts had been recruited to evaluate the safety, effectiveness and costs of CPHMs. The selection process of medicines into CNEDL was strictly in accordance with the principle that they ‘must be preventive and curative, safe and effective, affordable, easy to use, think highly of both Chinese and Western medicine’. A detailed procedure for evaluation is, however, not available because the files are confidential.
The authors finally state that their paper demonstrates that the selection of CPHMs into the CNEDL is less likely to be ‘evidence-based’ and revealed the sharp contrast between the policy and priority given to by the Chinese government to Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM).
This surely must be a benign judgement, if there ever was one! I would say that the facts disclosed in this review show that TCM seems to exist in a strange universe where commercial interests are officially allowed to reign supreme over patients’ interests and public health.