Yesterday, I had the honour and pleasure to present to the UK press my new book entitled ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF 150 MODALITIES’ (see also my previous post). The SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE had invited me to do a ‘media briefing’ on the occasion of its publication. I did this by outlining the background around so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and explaining the concept of the new book which essentially is – as its title indicates – to provide concise and critical assessments of 150 modalities.
In the course of my short presentation, I mentioned the following exotic modalities in order to show that my book goes beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of acupuncture, chiropractic, etc.:
- BERLIN WALL
- COLLOIDAL SILVER
- PALEO DIET
- URINE THERAPY
- GUA SHA
- LYMPH DRAINAGE
- SLAPPING THERAPY
- VISCERAL OSTEOPATHY
- JOHREI HEALING
- LEECH THERAPY
- NEURAL THERAPY
- ZERO BALANCE
- APPLIED KINESIOLOGY
- LIVE BLOOD ANALYSIS
- PULSE DIAGNOSIS
As it turned out, the journalists present found the BERLIN WALL remedy the most fascinating aspect of my talk. And this is clearly reflected in today’s articles covering the event:
The DAILY TELEGRAPH published an article much in the same vein, and so did THE SUN and the EXPRESS (not available on line). The only UK newspaper I have seen so far going beyond the Berlin Wall topic is THE DAILY MAIL. The paper mentions several other so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) that consumers need to be protected from, in my view.
Interestingly, none of the articles mentioned that my new book is not an exercise in debunking. During my presentation, I made the point that several of my assessments of 150 modalities do arrive at positive conclusions for therapies that demonstrably generate more good than harm.
I also tried to point out to the journalists that SCAM includes a range of diagnostic techniques. None of them are valid which means that they present a real danger to consumers through false-positive and false-negative diagnoses. In particular the latter scenario can cost lives.
All in all, I did enjoy yesterday’s press briefing very much. I am aware of the fact that, in the realm of SCAM, the press have a most important role to play. Consumers rarely consult their doctor when deciding to use SCAM; frequently they go by what they read in the papers.
In this context, I find it noteworthy that, during the last years, the UK press have become considerably more sceptical. Not so long ago, most UK journalists used to praise SCAM like the best thing since sliced bread; today this attitude has laudably shifted towards a more rational stance. I am sure that the excellent work of the SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE has played a crucial part in this positive development.
An article in the ‘Chronicle of Chiropractic’ defends the currently much debated chiropractic care for children. It is authored by ‘ChiroFuture‘, a Risk Purchasing Group founded by chiropractors. Here is the unabridged article (the references were added by me and refer to my comments below):
The chiropractic care of children has been the subject of increased media attention and scrutiny following decisions by chiropractic regulatory boards in Europe, Australia and Canada. These decisions were not based on science, research or data but rather a purposeful misrepresentation of the concept of evidence informed practice (1) and its application coupled with compelled speech.
As with the chiropractic care of adults, an evidence informed perspective (2) respects the needs and wants of parents for the care of their child, the published research evidence and the clinical expertise of chiropractors in the care of children.
ChiroFutures Malpractice Program does not base its malpractice insurance rates on the age of the patients a chiropractor sees. In fact, we are not aware of any actuarial data showing an increase in adverse events from the tens of millions of pediatric chiropractic visits per year (3). The vast majority of claims or incidents alleging chiropractic negligence involve adult patients (4).
What chiropractors do is minimally invasive and typically nothing else but their hands are used to gently ease any obstruction to the functioning of the patient’s nervous system (5). Since the nervous system controls and coordinates all functions of the body it is important to be sure it is functioning as best it can with no obstructions and no matter the disease afflicting the patient.
State and provincial laws, federal governments, international, national and state chiropractic organizations and chiropractic educational institutions all support the role and responsibility of chiropractors in the management of children’s health (6). The rationale for chiropractic care of children is supported by published protocols that are safe, efficacious, and valid (7). The scientific literature is sufficiently supportive of the usefulness of these protocols in regard to the chiropractic care of children (8).
Those contending that there is no evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of the chiropractic care of children demonstrate a complete disregard for the evidence and scientific facts related to the chiropractic care of children (9).
ChiroFutures encourages and supports a shared decision making process between doctors (10) and patients regarding health needs. As a part of that process, patients have a right to be informed about the state of their health as well as the risks, benefits and alternatives related to care. Any restriction on that dialogue or compelled statements inconsistent with the doctrine of informed consent present a threat to public health (11).
Here are my comments:
- Why ‘evidence informed’ and not evidence-based’? The term ‘evidence informed’ is popular with SCAM practitioners. Barratt and Hodson noted, “The evidence-informed practitioner carefully considers what research evidence tells them in the context of a particular child, family or service, and then weighs this up alongside knowledge drawn from professional experience and the views of service users to inform decisions about the way forward.” This seems to imply that the two terms are synonymous. However, in reality they are not.
- Does that mean that ‘evidence-informed’ is defined as the practice wanted by patients, regardless of the evidence?
- There is no post-marketing surveillance in chiropractic. Therefore we do not have reliable data on adverse events.
- That might be true but it is unclear what it tells us. It might simply mean that chiropractors treat more adults than children.
- There is no good evidence to show that the function of the nervous system can be enhanced by manual therapy.
- Provincial laws and federal governments might tolerate but I don’t think they ‘support’ the role and responsibility of chiropractors. That chiropractic organisations support it surprises nobody.
- This sentence does not make sense to me. The facts, however, are clear: there is no sound rational for chiropractic manipulations and they are neither efficacious nor totally safe for children.
- The scientific evidence does not show that chiropractic care is effective for any paediatric condition.
- I think the complete disregard is shown not by critics but by the authors of these lines.
- Calling chiropractors ‘doctors’ gives the impression they have been to medical school and is therefore misleading the public.
- The threat to public health are those chiropractors who advise parents not to immunise their children.
Perhaps ChiroFuture need to brush up on their knowledge of the evidence. Chiropractic has no place in the healthcare of children. Parents should be warned!
Chiropractors often claim that they are working tirelessly towards increasing public health. But how seriously should we take such claims?
The purpose of this study was to investigate weight-loss interventions offered by Canadian chiropractors. It is a secondary analysis of data from the Ontario Chiropractic Observation and Analysis STudy (Nc = 42 chiropractors, Np = 2162 patient encounters). Its results show that around two-thirds (61.3%) of patients who sought chiropractic care were either overweight or had obesity. Very few patients had weight loss managed by their chiropractor. Among patients with body mass index equal to or greater than 18.5 kg/m2, guideline recommended weight management was initiated or continued by Ontario chiropractors in only 5.4% of encounters. Chiropractors did not offer weight management interventions at different rates among patients who were of normal weight, overweight, or obese (P value = 0.23). Chiropractors who graduated after 2005 who may have been exposed to reforms in chiropractic education to include public health were significantly more likely to offer weight management than chiropractors who graduated between 1995 and 2005.
The authors concluded that the prevalence of weight management interventions offered to patients by Canadian chiropractors in Ontario was low. Health care policy and continued chiropractic educational reforms may provide further direction to improve weight-loss interventions offered by doctors of chiropractic to their patients.
This paper seems to confirm my suspicion that the claim of chiropractors working for public heath is little more than an advertising gimmick. If we also consider the often negative attitude of chiropractors towards vaccination, the claim even deteriorates into a sick joke. Chiropractors, I have previously argued, are undermining public health and are being educated to become a danger to public health.
A new paper reminds us that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has been increasing in the United States and around the world, particularly at medical institutions known for providing rigorous evidence-based care. The use of SCAM may cause harm to patients through interactions with prescribed medications or by patients choosing to forego evidence-based care. SCAM may also put financial strain on patients as most SCAM expenditures are paid out-of-pocket.
Despite these drawbacks, patients continue to use SCAM due to a range of reasons, e.g. media promotion of SCAM therapies, dissatisfaction with conventional healthcare, a desire for more holistic care. Given the increasing demand for SCAM, many medical institutions now offer SCAM services. Several leaders of SCAM centres based at a highly respected academic medical institution have publicly expressed anti-vaccination views, and non-evidence-based philosophies run deep within SCAM.
Although there are financial incentives for institutions to provide SCAM, it is important to recognize that this legitimizes SCAM and may cause harm to patients. The poor regulation of SCAM allows for the continued distribution of products and services that have not been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy.
As I have tried to point out many times, the potential for harm caused by the increasing integration of SCAM can thus be summarised as follows:
- direct harm due to adverse effects such as toxicity of an herbal remedy, stroke after chiropractic manipulation, pneumothorax after acupuncture;
- direct harm through the use of bogus diagnostic techniques;
- direct harm by using materials from endangered species;
- indirect harm through incompetent advice such as recommendation not to immunize or discontinue prescribed medications;
- neglect due to using SCAM instead of an effective therapy for a serious condition;
- harm due to medicalising trivial states of reduced well-being;
- financial harm due to the costs of SCAM;
- harm through making a mockery of evidence-based medicine;
- harm caused by undermining rational thinking in the society at large;
- harm caused by inhibiting medical progress and research.
In case you see other ways in which SCAM can cause harm, please let me know by posting a comment.
A series of article in The Times yesterday (to which I had made several minor contributions) focussed on the dangers of homeoprophylaxis/homeopathic vaccinations. Sadly, the paper is behind a paywall. I therefore will try to summarise some of the relevant points.
A courageous Times-reporter went under cover to extract some of the anti-vaccination views from a lay homeopath. This particular homeopath happened to charge £330 from customers who want to protect themselves or their family from infectious diseases (£130 for a homeopathic remedy kit, plus £200 for the compulsory instructions via skype that automatically come with the kit). Here are some of the most obvious porkies uttered by that homeopath:
- Only 30% of healthcare professionals get vaccinated.
- Rubella is a very mild disease.
- Cancer patients don’t get fever.
- Measles mainly kills children with severe disease.
- Anything which messes with natural immunity could contribute to autism.
- Health officials devised a seven-step recipe to scare consumers into vaccinating their kids.
- Fevers should be celebrated.
This new undercover research by the Times is reminiscent of our own investigation of 2002. At the time, we contacted 168 homoeopaths, of whom 104 (72%) responded, 27 (26%) withdrawing their answers after debriefing. We also contacted 63 chiropractors, of whom 22 (44%) responded, six (27%) withdrawing their responses after debriefing. Only 3% of professional homoeopaths and 25% of the chiropractors advised in favour of the MMR vaccination. Almost half of the homoeopaths and nearly a fifth of the chiropractors advised against it. (This tiny and seemingly insignificant study almost cost me my job: some homeopaths complained to my peers at Exeter University who then, in their infinite wisdom, conducted a most unpleasant investigation into my allegedly ‘unethical’ research; full details of this amazing story are provided in my memoir.)
But perhaps you think that homeoprophylaxis might be effective after all? In this case, you would be mistaken! As discussed a couple of weeks ago, a recent study demonstrated that such treatments are ineffective. Its authors concluded that homeopathic vaccines do not evoke antibody responses and produce a response that is similar to placebo. In contrast, conventional vaccines provide a robust antibody response in the majority of those vaccinated.
The Times article stated that about half of all new parents have been exposed to anti-vaxx propaganda. Consequently, global measles cases have risen by 300% in the first three months of this year compared to last year. Faced with measles outbreaks across the world, it is hard to deny that homeopaths who promote homeopathic vaccinations are a significant risk to public health.
The Times considered the issue sufficiently important to add an editorial. Its opening sentence sums up the issue well, I think: The evidence supporting claims that homeopathic remedies offer an effective alternative to the measles vaccine can be summarised in one word: zero. And its concluding sentences are even clearer: Tobacco companies are obliged to carry prominent public health warnings on their products. Homeopaths should too.
If one agrees with this sentiment, I suggest, we also consider the same for some:
- doctors of anthroposophical medicine;
- doctors practising integrative medicine.
And furthermore I suggest we disregard the many pro-vaccination statements by the professional organisations of these clinicians – they are nothing but semi-transparent fig-leaves and a politically-correct lip services which they neither enforce nor even truly mean.
The three-year old Noah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a blood cancer with a very good prognosis when treated (~85% of all children affected can be completely cured and expect to live a normal life). The child was admitted to hospital and, initially, chemotherapy was started. But the treatment was not finished, because the parents took their child home prematurely. The mother, a 22-year-old ‘holistic birth attendant’, had been against conventional treatments from the start. She nevertheless agreed to the first two rounds of chemotherapy — “because they can get a medical court order to force you to do it anyways for a child with his diagnosis”.
Noah’s parent treated their sons with a number of home remedies:
- colloidal silver,
- Reishi mushroom tea,
- Apricot seeds,
- and other forms of SCAM.
After the child had gone missing, the police issued an alert:
“On April 22, 2019 the parents failed to bring in the child to a medically necessary hospital procedure. The parents have further refused to follow up with the life saving medical care the child needs.”
In a matter of hours, the parents and their child were found. Noah was then taken from his parents and was “now being medically treated,” the sheriff’s office stated. The parents, meanwhile, were being investigated on suspicion of child neglect.
They insist that they were merely trying to give their son alternative medical care, accusing the police and medical officials of stripping them of the right to choose their own treatment plan for their son. Their supporters call the state’s decision to take custody of Noah a “medical kidnapping”. Medical kidnapping is defined as the State taking away children from their parents so that the children can receive medical or surgical care which the parents would otherwise not allow to be administered.
“We’re not trying to refuse any kind of treatment,” the parents told reporters. “They think we’re refusing treatment all around, putting him in danger, trying to kill him. But not at all. We’re trying to save him.” An organization fighting on behalf of the parents, the Florida Freedom Alliance, which also supports “vaccine freedom,” argues that the couple should be entitled to “medical freedom” and freedom from “medical kidnappings.”
Who is right and who is wrong?
Are medical kidnappings legal?
I am, of course, not sure about the legalities. But I am fairly certain about the evidence in the above case:
- Noah’s condition is treatable, and in all likelihood he would be cured, if treated according to current oncological standards. This view was also confirmed by the oncologist who is in charge of treating him in hospital.
- None of the treatments mentioned by the parents are effective. In fact, alternative cancer cures are a myth; they do not exist and they will never exist. Once a treatment shows promise, it would be scientifically investigated. And, if the results are positive, it would become mainstream quicker than I can climb a tree.
Ethically Noah’s case could not be clearer: the child’s life must be saved, whether with the support of his parents or not. However strongly parents might feel about their under-age kids’ care, they do not own their children and must not be allowed to cause them significant harm.
The purpose of this recently published survey was to obtain the demographic profile and educational background of chiropractors with paediatric patients on a multinational scale.
A multinational online cross-sectional demographic survey was conducted over a 15-day period in July 2010. The survey was electronically administered via chiropractic associations in 17 countries, using SurveyMonkey for data acquisition, transfer, and descriptive analysis.
The response rate was 10.1%, and 1498 responses were received from 17 countries on 6 continents. Of these, 90.4% accepted paediatric cases. The average practitioner was male (61.1%) and 41.4 years old, had 13.6 years in practice, and saw 107 patient visits per week. Regarding educational background, 63.4% had a bachelor’s degree or higher in addition to their chiropractic qualification, and 18.4% had a postgraduate certificate or higher in paediatric chiropractic.
The authors from the Anglo-European College of Chiropractic (AECC), Bournemouth University, United Kingdom, drew the following conclusion: this is the first study about chiropractors who treat children from the United Arab Emirates, Peru, Japan, South Africa, and Spain. Although the response rate was low, the results of this multinational survey suggest that pediatric chiropractic care may be a common component of usual chiropractic practice on a multinational level for these respondents.
A survey with a response rate of 10%?
An investigation published 9 years after it has been conducted?
Who at the AECC is responsible for controlling the quality of the research output?
Or is this paper perhaps an attempt to get the AECC into the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ for outstanding research incompetence?
But let’s just for a minute pretend that this paper is of acceptable quality. If the finding that ~90% of chiropractors tread kids is approximately correct, one has to be very concerned indeed.
I am not aware of any good evidence that chiropractic care is effective for paediatric conditions. On the contrary, it can do quite a bit of direct harm! To this, we sadly also have to add the indirect harm many chiropractors cause, for instance, by advising parents against vaccinating their kids.
This clearly begs the question: is it not time to stop these charlatans?
What do you think?
There is much propaganda for homeopathic vaccinations or homeoprophylaxis (as homeopaths like to call it, in order to give it a veneer of respectability), and on this blog we have discussed it repeatedly. The concept is unproven and dangerous. Yet it is being promoted relentlessly. Currently, I get > 12 million websites when I google ‘homeopathic vaccination’, and there are hundreds of dangerously misleading books and newspaper articles on the subject.
One study that I therefore always wanted to conduct was a trial comparing homeopathic ‘vaccines’ to placebo in terms of immunological response in human volunteers. Somehow, I never managed to get it going. Thus, I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I received an article for peer-review (I hope I am allowed to disclose this fact here); it was almost exactly the trial I had dreamt of doing one day: the first ever study to test whether there is an antibody response to homeopathic vaccines. Now I am even more delighted to see that it has been published.
Its aim was to compare the antibody response of homeopathic and conventional vaccines and placebo in young adults. The authors hypothesized that there would be no significant difference between homeopathic vaccines and placebo, while there would be a significant increase in antibodies in those received conventional vaccines.
A placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT was conducted where 150 university students who had received childhood vaccinations were assigned to diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, mumps, measles homeopathic vaccine, placebo, or conventional diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (Tdap) and mumps, measles, rubella (MMR) vaccines. The primary outcome was a ≥ two-fold increase in antibodies from baseline following vaccination as measured by ELISA. Participants, investigators, study coordinator, data blood drawers, laboratory technician, and data analyst were blinded.
None of the participants in either the homeopathic vaccine or the placebo group showed a ≥ two-fold response to any of the antigens. In contrast, of those vaccinated with Tdap, 68% (33/48) had a ≥ two-fold response to diphtheria, 83% (40/48) to pertussis toxoid, 88% (42/48) to tetanus, and 35% (17/48) of those vaccinated with MMR had a response to measles or mumps antigens (p < 0.001 for each comparison of conventional vaccine to homeopathic vaccine or to placebo). There was a significant increase in geometric mean titres of antibody from baseline for conventional vaccine antigens (p < 0.001 for each), but none for the response to homeopathic antigens or placebo.
The authors concluded that homeopathic vaccines do not evoke antibody responses and produce a response that is similar to placebo. In contrast, conventional vaccines provide a robust antibody response in the majority of those vaccinated.
I think this is in every respect an excellent trial. It should once and for all get rid of what is arguably the homeopathy-cult’s most dangerous idea, namely that highly diluted homeopathic remedies can protect humans against infectious diseases. On this blog, I once called it ‘a danger for both the public and the individual who might believe in it … promoting HP is unethical, irresponsible and possibly even criminal.’
I said it ‘should’ get rid of this nonsense, but will it?
As homeopaths have, for now 200 years, showed themselves utterly impervious to evidence, I for one am not holding my breath. Yet, thanks to this excellent study, we can, when confronted with the notion of homeopathic vaccinations, henceforth point out that it is not just totally implausible but that, in addition, it has also been experimentally shown to be false.
My thanks to the Canadian investigators!
Oscillococcinum is by now well-known to readers of this blog, I am sure (see for instance here, here and here). It seems an important topic, not least because the infamous duck-placebo is the world’s best-selling homeopathic remedy. Just how popular it is was recently shown in a survey by the formidable ‘Office for Science and Society’ of the McGill University in Canada.
The researchers surveyed the five biggest pharmacy chains in Quebec: Jean-Coutu, Familiprix, Uniprix, Proxim, and Pharmaprix. For each chain, a sample of 30 pharmacies was chosen by a random number generator.
The calls started with the following script: “I would like to know if you carry a certain homeopathic remedy. It’s called Oscillococcinum, it’s a homeopathic remedy against the flu made by Boiron.” If they did not have it, the investigator asked if this was something they normally carried. He spoke to either a floor clerk or a member of the pharmacy staff behind the counter, depending on who knew the answer.
Out of the 150 pharmacies on the island of Montreal that were called for this investigation, 66% of them reported carrying Oscillococcinum (30% did not, while 4% could not be reached, often because the listed pharmacy had closed). Some chains were more likely to sell the product, with Jean-Coutu and Pharmaprix being the most likely (80% of their stores had it) and Proxim being the least likely (50% of their stores carried it).
The McGill researcher stated that the fact that two-thirds of Montreal-based pharmacies will sell us a pseudo-treatment for the flu that targets adults, children and infants alike is hard to square with the Quebec Order of Pharmacists’ mission statement. They describe said mission as “ensuring the protection of the public”, but how is the public protected when pharmacies are selling them placebo pills? The harm is partly financial: 30 doses of these worthless globules retail for CAD 36. It is also in the false sense of security parents will gain and the delay in proper treatment if needed. And, ultimately, it is in the legitimization of a pseudoscience the founding principle of which is that the more you add water to something (like alcohol), the more powerful it becomes.
I can only full-heartedly agree. One might even add a few more things, for instance that there are other dangers as well:
- If pharmacists put commercial gain before medical ethics, we might find it hard to trust this profession.
- If people take Oscillococcinum and their condition subsequently disappears (because of the self-limiting nature of the disease), they might believe that homeopathy is effective and consequently use it for much more serious conditions – with grave consequences, I hasten to add.
- If consumers thus start trusting homeopaths, they might also fall for some of their abominable health advice, e. g. that about not vaccinating their children.
- If a sufficiently large percentage of people believe in the magic of shaken water, our rationality will be undermined and we will encounter phenomena like Brexit or fascists as presidents (sorry, I has to get that off my chest).
I would warn every parent who thinks that taking their child to a chiropractor is a good idea. For this, I have three main reasons:
- Chiropractic has not been shown to be effective for any paediatric condition.
- Chiropractors often advise parents against vaccinating their children.
- Chiropractic spinal manipulations can cause harm to kids.
The latter point seems to be confirmed by a recent PhD thesis of which so far only one short report is available. Here are the relevant bits of information from it:
Katie Pohlman has successfully defended her PhD thesis, which focused on the assessment of safety in pediatric manual therapy. As a clinical research scientist at Parker University, Dallas, Texas, she identified a lack of prospective patient safety research within the chiropractic population in general and investigated this deficit in the paediatric population in particular.
Pohlman used a cross-sectional survey to assess the barriers and facilitators for participation in a patient safety reporting system. At the same time, she also conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing the quantity and quality of adverse event reports in children under 14 years receiving chiropractic care.
The RCT recruited 69 chiropractors and found adverse events reported in 8.8% and 0.1% of active and passive surveillance groups respectively. Of the adverse events reported, 56% were considered mild, 26% were moderate and 18% were severe. The frequency of adverse events was more common than previously thought.
This last sentence from the report is somewhat puzzling. Our systematic review of the risks of spinal manipulation showed that data from prospective studies suggest that minor, transient adverse events occur in approximately half of all patients receiving spinal manipulation. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome. Estimates of the incidence of serious complications range from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 1 per 400,000. Given the popularity of spinal manipulation, its safety requires rigorous investigation.
The 8.8% reported by Pohlman are therefore not even one fifth of the average incidence figure reported previously in all age groups.
What could be the explanation for this discrepancy?
There are, of course, several possibilities, including the fact that infants cannot tell the clinician when their pain has increased. However, the most likely one, in my view, lies in the fact that RCTs are wholly inadequate for investigating risks because they typically include far too few patients to generate reliable incidence figures about adverse events. More importantly, clinicians included in such studies are self-selected (and thus particularly responsible/cautious) and are bound to behave most carefully while being part of a clinical trial. Therefore it seems possible – I would speculate even likely – that the 8.8% reported by Pohlman is unrealistically low.
Having said that, I do feel that the research by Kathie Pohlman is a step in the right direction and I do applaud her initiative.