Many paediatric oncology patients report use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), and naturopathic ‘doctors’ (NDs) often provide supportive paediatric oncology care. However, little information exists to formally describe this clinical practice. This survey was aimed at filling the gap. It was conducted with members of the ‘Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians’ (OncANP.org) to describe recommendations across 4 therapeutic domains:
- natural health products (NHPs),
- physical medicine,
- mental/emotional support.
The researchers received 99 responses from practitioners with a wide variance of clinical experience and aptitude to treat children with cancer. 52.5% of respondents stated that they did, in fact, not treat such children. The three primary reasons for this decision were:
- lack of public demand (45.1%),
- institutional or clinic restrictions (21.6%),
- personal reasons/comfort (19.6%).
The 10 most frequently considered NHPs by those NDs who did treat childhood cancer patients were:
- fish-derived omega-3 fatty acid (83.3%),
- vitamin D (83.3%),
- probiotics (82.1%),
- melatonin (73.8%),
- vitamin C (72.6%),
- homeopathic Arnica (69.0%),
- turmeric/curcumin (67.9%),
- glutamine (66.7%),
- Astragalus membranaceus (64.3%),
- Coriolus versicolor/PSK (polysaccharide K) extracts (61.9%).
The top 5 nutritional recommendations were:
- anti-inflammatory diets (77.9%),
- dairy restriction (66.2%),
- Mediterranean diet (66.2%),
- gluten restriction (61.8%),
- and ketogenic diet (57.4%).
The top 5 physical interventions were
- exercise (94.1%),
- acupuncture (77.9%),
- acupressure (72.1%),
- craniosacral therapy (69.1%),
- and yoga (69.1%).
The top 5 mental/emotional interventions were:
- meditation (79.4%),
- art therapy (77.9%),
- mindfulness-based stress reduction (70.6%),
- music therapy (70.6%),
- and visualization therapy (67.6%).
The Canadian authors concluded that the results of our clinical practice survey highlight naturopathic interventions across four domains with a strong rationale for further inquiry in the care of children with cancer.
Personally, I don’t see a ‘strong rationale’ for anything here. I was, however, struck by the fact that about half of the naturopaths (they are NOT doctors!) dare to treat children with cancer. Equally, I was impressed by the list of treatments they use for this purpose; most are pure quackery! Finally, I was struck by the reasons given by those naturopaths who laudably abstained from treating cancer: they did not take this decision because of the lack of evidence that naturopaths and the treatments they like to employ fail to do more good than harm.
Altogether, this survey confirmed my view that naturopaths should not be allowed near children, especially those suffering from cancer.
Autologous whole blood (AWB) therapy is a treatment where a patients blood is first drawn from a vein and then (unmodified or treated in various bizarre ways) reinjected intra-muscularly. This sounds barmy, not least because there is no remotely plausible mode of action. Nonetheless, the therapy is popular in some countries (like Germany, where it is practised by many doctors and Heilpraktikers) and recommended for all sorts of illnesses, particularly for strengthening the immune system and fend off infections.
I have personally used it quite a bit and even conducted the first but very small double-blind, placebo-controlled RCT of AWB therapy which showed promising results. Now two systematic reviews of AWB therapy have become available almost simultaneously.
The first systematic review included our plus 7 more clinical studies. The authors included all prospective controlled trials concerning intra-muscular AWB therapy with the exception of trials using oxygenated, UV radiated or heated blood. Information was extracted on the indication, design, additions to AWB and outcome. Full texts were screened for information about the effector mechanisms.
Eight trials met their inclusion criteria. In three controlled trials with patients suffering from atopic dermatitis and urticaria, AWB therapy showed beneficial effects. In five randomized controlled trials (RCTs), two of which concerned respiratory tract infections, two urticaria and one ankylosing spondylitis, no efficacy could be found. A quantitative assessment was not possible due to the heterogeneity of the included studies. The authors found only 4 controlled trials with sample sizes bigger than 37 individuals per group. Only one study investigated the effector mechanisms of AWB.
The German authors concluded that there is some evidence for efficacy of AWB therapy in urticaria patients and patients with atopic eczema. Firm conclusions can, however, not be drawn. We see a great need for further RCTs with adequate sample sizes and for investigation of the effector mechanisms of AWB therapy.
The second systematic review had a slightly different focus in that it assessed AWB therapy as well as autologous serum therapy (AST) for patients suffering from chronic spontaneous urticaria (CSU). Its authors managed to include 8 clinical trials. AST was not more effective than the placebo treatment in alleviating CSU symptoms at the end of treatment (p = .161), and AWB injection was also not more effective in response rates than the placebo at the end of follow-up (p = .099). Furthermore, the efficacy of AST or AWB injection for CSU and the ASST status were not significantly related. No remarkable adverse events were recorded during therapy.
The Taiwanese authors concluded that their meta-analysis suggested that AWB therapy and AST are not significantly more effective in alleviating CSU symptoms than the placebo treatment.
These somewhat contradictory conclusions will confuse most readers. Personally, I think that caution is well-justified. The trials are mostly flawed, and even our positive study (which received the highest possible quality marks by the authors of the first review) can in no way be definitive, because it was far too small for allowing firm conclusions.
Yet, despite all this, I do think that AWB therapy merits further study.
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.
As most of us know, the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) can be problematic; its use in children is often most problematic:
- There are hardly any SCAMs that have been shown to work for paediatric conditions.
- Most SCAMs can cause considerable harm to children.
- Some might even amount to child abuse.
- Most SCAM practitioners lack adequate training to treat children.
- Many SCAM providers offer dangerous advice to parents.
- Parents are sometimes unable to differentiate between nonsense and medicine.
- Informed consent can present a trick subject when treating children.
In this context, the statement from the ‘Spanish Association Of Paediatrics Medicines Committee’ is of particular value and importance:
Currently, there are some therapies that are being practiced without adjusting to the available scientific evidence. The terminology is confusing, encompassing terms such as “alternative medicine”, “natural medicine”, “complementary medicine”, “pseudoscience” or “pseudo-therapies”. The Medicines Committee of the Spanish Association of Paediatrics considers that no health professional should recommend treatments not supported by scientific evidence. Also, diagnostic and therapeutic actions should be always based on protocols and clinical practice guidelines. Health authorities and judicial system should regulate and regularize the use of alternative medicines in children, warning parents and prescribers of possible sanctions in those cases in which the clinical evolution is not satisfactory, as well responsibilities are required for the practice of traditional medicine, for health professionals who act without complying with the “lex artis ad hoc”, and for the parents who do not fulfill their duties of custody and protection. In addition, it considers that, as already has happened, Professional Associations should also sanction, or at least reprobate or correct, those health professionals who, under a scientific recognition obtained by a university degree, promote the use of therapies far from the scientific method and current evidence, especially in those cases in which it is recommended to replace conventional treatment with pseudo-therapy, and in any case if said substitution leads to a clinical worsening that could have been avoided.
Of course, not all SCAM professions focus on children. The following, however, treat children regularly:
- anthroposophical doctors
- craniosacral therapists
- energy healers
I believe that all SCAM providers who treat children should consider the above statement very carefully. They must ask themselves whether there is good evidence that their treatments generate more good than harm for their patients. If the answer is not positive, they should stop. If they don’t, they should realise that they behave unethically and quite possibly even illegally.
Cupping is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that has existed in several ancient cultures. It recently became popular when US Olympic athletes displayed cupping marks on their bodies, and it was claimed that cupping is used for enhancing their physical performance. There are two distinct forms: dry and wet cupping.
Wet cupping involves scarring the skin with a sharp instrument and then applying a cup with a vacuum to suck blood from the wound. It can thus be seen (and was traditionally used) as a form of blood-letting. Wet cupping is being recommended by enthusiasts for a wide range of conditions. But does it work?
This study compared the effects of wet-cupping therapy with conventional therapy on persistent nonspecific low back pain (PNSLBP). In this randomized clinical trial, 180 participants with the mean age of 45±10 years old, who had been suffering from PNSLBP were randomly assigned to wet-cupping or conventional treatment. The wet-cupping group was treated with two separate sessions (4 weeks in total) on the inter-scapular and sacrum area. In the conventional treatment group, patients were conservatively treated using rest (6 weeks) and oral medications (3 weeks). The primary and the secondary outcome were the quantity of disability using Oswestry Disability Index (ODI), and pain intensity using Visual Analogue Scale (VAS), respectively.
The results show that there was no significant difference in demographic characteristics (age, gender, and body mass index) between the two groups. Therapeutic effect of wet-cupping therapy was comparable to conventional treatment in the 1st month follow-up visits. The functional outcomes of wet-cupping at the 3rd and 6th month visits were significantly superior compared to the conventional treatment group. The final ODI scores in the wet-cupping and conventional groups were 16.7 ± 5.7 and 22.3 ± 4.5, respectively (P<0.01).
The authors concluded that wet-cupping may be a proper method to decrease PNSLBP without any conventional treatment. The therapeutic effects of wet-cupping can be longer lasting than conventional therapy.
Perhaps the authors were joking? In any case, their conclusions cannot be taken seriously. Why? There are several reasons, but the most obvious ones are:
- There was no adequate control of the presumably substantial placebo effects of wet cupping.
- The control group received a treatment that is known to be ineffective or even detrimental.
For people with acute low back pain, advice to rest in bed is less effective than advice to stay active. Thus comparing wet cupping to a control group treated with bed rest is bound to generate a false-positive outcome for wet cupping.
My final point is perhaps the most important: wet cupping can lead to serious complication, and I therefore do not recommend it to anyone – other than masochists, perhaps.
Time for celebrations and congratulations!
‘Doctor’ Colleen Huber (DCH) is the US naturopath who is currently suing Britt Hermes. For me, this is enough reason to do a bit of reading and find out who DCH is and what motivates her. Here is what I found out (I added some * to the quotes [all in italics] and comments below).
DCH has an impressive presence on the Internet. One website, for instance, tells us that DCH is a Naturopathic Medical Doctor* in Tempe, Arizona. Her clinic, Nature Works Best Cancer Clinic, has had the most successful results of any clinic in the world reporting its results over the last 9 years **.
Dr. Huber authored the largest and longest study*** in medical history on sugar intake in cancer patients, which was reported in media around the world in 2014. Her other writing includes her book, Choose Your Foods Like Your Life Depends On Them ****, and she has been featured in the books America’s Best Cancer Doctors and Defeat Cancer. Dr. Huber’s academic writing has appeared in The Lancet *****, the International Journal of Cancer Research ***** and Molecular Mechanisms *****, and other medical journals ******. Her research interests are in the use of therapeutic approaches targeting metabolic aspects of cancer…
*I am puzzled by this title. Is it an official one? I only found this, and it omits the ‘medical’: Currently, 20 states, five Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed laws regulating naturopathic doctors. Learn more about licensure from the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. It seems that Arizona is the only state where the ‘medical’ is allowed. However, don’t take this to mean that DCH went to medical school.
** ‘most successful results of any clinic in the world’? Really? Where are the comparative statistics?
*** the study had all of 317 patients and was published in an obscure, non-Medline listed journal.
**** currently ranked #1,297,877 in Books on Amazon.
***** no such entries found on Medline.
****** sorry, but my Medline search for ‘huber colleen’ located only 2 citations, both on arthritis research conducted in an US Pfizer lab and therefore probably not from ‘our’ DCH.
Another website on or by DCH informs us that her outfit Nature Works Best is a natural cancer clinic located in Tempe, Arizona, that focuses on natural, holistic, and alternative cancer treatments. Our treatments have proved to be an effective alternative to traditional chemotherapy and radiation, which we do not use in our treatments. Rather, we have developed a natural method of treating cancers based on intravenous vitamin therapy which may include Vitamin-C, Baking Soda, and other tumor fighting agents as well as a simple food plan. *
Our team of naturopathic medical doctors have administered an estimated 31,000 IV nutrient treatments, used for all stages and types of tumors. As of July 2014, 80% of patients who completed our treatments alone went into remission, 85% of patients who completed our treatments and followed our food plan went into remission. **
* Give me a break! Vitamin-C and Baking Soda are claimed to have proved to be an effective alternative to traditional chemotherapy and radiation ? I would like to see the data before I believe this!
** Again, I would like to see the data before I believe this!
Finally, a further website proudly repeats that her academic writing has appeared in The Lancet and Cancer Strategies Journal, and other medical journals. It even presents an abstract of her published work; here it is:
Recent recommendations for the more widespread prescription of statin drugs in the U.S. have generated controversy. Cholesterol is commonly thought to be the enemy of good health. On the other hand, previous research has established the necessity of cholesterol in production of Vitamin D and steroid hormones, among other purposes, some of which have been shown to have anti-cancer effect. We compare total serum cholesterol (TC) in cancer survivors vs cancer fatalities, and we assess the value of deliberately lowering TC among cancer patients. We also examined diet in the survivors as well as those who then died of cancer.
In this original previously unpublished research, we conducted a double-blind retrospective case series, in which we looked back at data from all 255 cancer patients who came to and were treated by our clinic with either current dietary information, and/or a recent serum TC level, measured by an unaffiliated laboratory or an unaffiliated clinic over the previous seven years, comparing TC in the surviving cancer patients versus those cancer patients who died during that time.
Surviving cancer patients had 24.0 points higher mean total cholesterol than the mean for deceased cancer patients. A number of dietary differences between cancer survivors and those who then died of cancer were also found to be notable.
Caution is advised before attempting to lower cholesterol in cancer patients with close to normal TC levels. Those cancer patients with higher TC were more likely to survive their cancer.
I don’t know about you, but I am not impressed. Surviving cancer patients had 24.0 points higher mean total cholesterol than the mean for deceased cancer patients. Has DCH thought of the possibility that moribund patients quite simply eat less? In which case, the observed difference would be a meaningless epiphenomenon.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, DCH is currently suing Britt Hermes for libel…
Yesterday Britt Hermes reported that she has won the court case:
On May 24, 2019, the District Court (Landgericht) of Kiel, Germany ruled against naturopathic cancer quack Colleen Huber in a defamation lawsuit she brought against me. Huber filed suit in September 2017 over my opinions about the dubious treatments and human subjects research at her cancer clinic in Tempe, Arizona (USA), and also over my suspicions that Huber was cybersquatting domains in my name…
In a blog post from December 2016, I theorized that Huber or someone in her close orbit had registered domains using my first and last names to misrepresent my position on naturopathic “doctors.” You can view the archive of brittmariehermes.com from 31 March 2016 here. In my post, I also wrote about Huber’s dubious cancer treatments of intravenous baking soda, mega-doses of intravenous vitamin C, and a strict sugar-free diet. Huber advocates against state-of-the-art oncology, especially chemotherapy and radiation, because she thinks these therapies strengthen cancer…
I am sure that many readers of the blog want to join me in congratulating Britt.
VERY WELL DONE INDEED!
Exactly 20 years ago, I published a review concluding that the generally high and possibly growing prevalence of complementary/alternative medicine use by children renders this topic an important candidate for rigorous investigation. Since then, many papers have emerged, and most of them are worrying in one way or another. Here is the latest one.
This Canadian survey assessed chiropractic (DC) and naturopathic doctors’ (ND) natural health product (NHP) recommendations for paediatric care. It was developed in collaboration with DC and ND educators, and delivered as an on-line national survey. NHP dose, form of delivery, and indications across paediatric age ranges (from newborn to 16 years) for each practitioner’s top five NHPs were assessed. Data were analysed using descriptive statistics, t-tests, and non-parametric tests.
Of the 421 respondents seeing one or more paediatric patients per week, 172 (41%, 107 DCs, 65 NDs) provided 440 NHP recommendations, categorized as:
- vitamins and minerals (89 practitioners, 127 recommendations),
- probiotics (110 practitioners, 110 recommendations),
- essential fatty acids (EFAs: 72 practitioners, 72 recommendations),
- homeopathics (56 practitioners, 66 recommendations),
- botanicals (29 practitioners, 31 recommendations),
- other NHPs (33 practitioners, 34 recommendations).
Indications for the NHP recommendations were tabulated for NHPs with 10 or more recommendations in any age category:
- 596 total indications for probiotics,
- 318 indications for essential fatty acids,
- 138 indications for vitamin D,
- 71 indications for multi-vitamins.
Good evidence regarding the efficacy, safety, and dosing for NHP use in children is scarce or even absent. Therefore, the finding that so many DCs and NDs recommend unproven NHPs for use in children is worrying, to say the least. It seems to indicate that, at least in Canada, DCs and NDs are peddling unproven, mostly useless and potentially harmful children.
In an earlier, similar survey the same group of researchers had disclosed that the majority of Canadian DCs and NDs seem to see infants, children, and youth for a variety of health conditions and issues, while, according to their own admission, not having adequate paediatric training.
Is this a Canadian phenomenon? If you think so, read this abstract:
This systematic review is aimed at estimating the prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)-use by paediatric populations in the United Kingdom (UK).
AMED, CINAHL, COCHRANE, EMBASE and MEDLINE were searched for English language peer-reviewed surveys published between 01 January 2000 and September 2011. Additionally, relevant book chapters and our own departmental files were searched manually.
Eleven surveys were included with a total of 17,631 paediatric patients. The majority were of poor methodological quality. Due to significant heterogeneity of the data, a formal meta-analysis was deemed inappropriate. Ten surveys related to CAM in general, while one was specifically on homeopathy. Across all surveys on CAM in general, the average one-year prevalence rate was 34% and the average lifetime prevalence was 42%. In surveys with a sample size of more than 500, the prevalence rates were considerably lower than in surveys with the sample size of lower than 500. Herbal medicine was the most popular CAM modality, followed by homeopathy and aromatherapy.
Many paediatric patients in the UK seem to use CAM. Paediatricians should therefore have sufficient knowledge about CAM to issue responsible advice.
This means, I fear, that children are regularly treated by SCAM practitioners who are devoid of the medical competence to do so, and who prescribe or recommend treatments of unknown value, usually without the children needing them.
Why are regulators not more concerned about this obvious abuse?
This paper notes that, according to the World Naturopathic Federation (WNF), the naturopathic profession is based on two fundamental philosophies of medicine (vitalism and holism) and seven principles of practice (healing power of nature; treat the whole person; treat the cause; first, do no harm; doctor as teacher; health promotion and disease prevention; and wellness). The philosophy, theory, and principles are translated to clinical practice through a range of therapeutic modalities. The WNF has identified seven core modalities: (1) clinical nutrition and diet modification/counselling; (2) applied nutrition (use of dietary supplements, traditional medicines, and natural health care products); (3) herbal medicine; (4) lifestyle counselling; (5) hydrotherapy; (6) homeopathy, including complex homeopathy; and (7) physical modalities (based on the treatment modalities taught and allowed in each jurisdiction, including yoga, naturopathic manipulation, and muscle release techniques).
The ‘scoping’ review was to summarize the current state of the research evidence for whole-system, multi-modality naturopathic medicine. Studies were included, if they met the following criteria:
- Controlled clinical trials, longitudinal cohort studies, observational trials, or case series involving five or more cases presented in any language
- Human studies
- Multi-modality treatment administered by a naturopath (naturopathic clinician, naturopathic physician) as an intervention
- Non-English language studies in which an English title and abstract provided sufficient information to determine effectiveness
- Case series in which five or more individual cases were pooled and authors provided a summative discussion of the cases in the context of naturopathic medicine
- All human research evaluating the effectiveness of naturopathic medicine, where two or more naturopathic modalities are delivered by naturopathic clinicians, were included in the review.
- Case studies of five or more cases were included.
Thirty-three published studies with a total of 9859 patients met inclusion criteria (11 US; 4 Canadian; 6 German; 7 Indian; 3 Australian; 1 UK; and 1 Japanese) across a range of mainly chronic clinical conditions. A majority of the included studies were observational cohort studies (12 prospective and 8 retrospective), with 11 clinical trials and 2 case series. The studies predominantly showed evidence for the efficacy of naturopathic medicine for the conditions and settings in which they were based. Overall, these studies show naturopathic treatment results in a clinically significant benefit for treatment of hypertension, reduction in metabolic syndrome parameters, and improved cardiac outcomes post-surgery.
The authors concluded that to date, research in whole-system, multi-modality naturopathic medicine shows that it is effective for treating cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal pain, type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, depression, anxiety, and a range of complex chronic conditions. Overall, these studies show naturopathic treatment results in a clinically significant benefit for treatment of hypertension, reduction in metabolic syndrome parameters, and improved cardiac outcomes post-surgery.
Where to start?
There are many issues here to choose from:
- The definition of naturopathy used in this review may be the one of the WHF, but it has little resemblance to the one used elsewhere. German naturopathic doctors, for instance, would not consider homeopathy to be a naturopathic treatment. They would also not, like the WNF does, subscribe to the long-obsolete humoral theory of disease. The only German professional organisation that is a member of the WNF is thus not one of naturopathic doctors but one of Heilpraktiker (the notorious German lay-practitioner created by the Nazis during the Third Reich).
- A review that includes observational studies and even case series, while drawing far-reaching conclusions on therapeutic effectiveness is, in my view, little more than embarrassing pseudo-science. Such studies are unable to differentiate between specific and non-specific therapeutic effects and therefore can tell us nothing about the effectiveness of a treatment.
- A review on a subject such as naturopathy (an approach which, after all, originated in Europe) that excludes studies not published in English (and without an English abstract providing sufficient information to determine effectiveness) is likely to be incomplete.
- The authors call their review a ‘scoping review’; they nevertheless draw conclusions not about the scope but the effectiveness of naturopathy.
- Many of the studies included in this review do, in fact, not comply with the inclusion criteria set by the review-authors.
- The review does not assess or even comment on the risks of naturopathic treatments.
- Several of the included studies are not investigations of naturopathy but of approaches that squarely fall under the umbrella of integrative or alternative medicine.
- Of the 33 studies included, only 5 were RCTs, and none of these was free of major limitations.
- None of the RCTs have been independently replicated.
- There is a remarkable absence of negative trials suggestion a strong influence of bias.
- The review lacks any trace of critical thinking.
- The authors are affiliated to institutions of naturopathy but declare no conflicts of interest.
- No funding source was named but it seems that it was supported by the WNF; their primary goal is to promote and advance the naturopathic profession.
- The review appeared in the notorious Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Prof Dwyer, the founding president of the Australian ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’, said the study damaged Southern Cross University’s reputation. “At the heart of this is the credibility of Southern Cross University,” he said. “There’s been a stand-off between SCU and the rest of the scientific community in Australia for a number of years and there have been challenges to whether they are really upholding the highest standards of evidence-based medicine.” Professor Dwyer also raised questions about the university’s credibility late last year when it accepted a $10 million donation from vitamin company Blackmore’s to establish a National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine.
My conclusion of naturopathy, as defined by the WNF, is that it is an obsolete form of quackery steeped in concepts of vitalism that should be abandoned sooner rather than later. And my conclusion about the new review agrees with Prof Dwyer’s judgement: it is an embarrassment to all concerned.
In 2004, my team published a review analysing the diversity of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) research published in one single year (2002) across 7 European countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium) and the US. In total 652 abstracts of articles were assessed. Germany and the UK were the only two European countries to publish in excess of 100 articles in that year (Germany: 137, UK: 183). The majority of articles were non-systematic reviews and comments, analytical studies and surveys. The UK carried out more surveys than any of the other countries and also published the largest number of systematic reviews. Germany, the UK and the US covered the widest range of interests across various SCAM modalities and investigated the safety of CAM. We concluded that important national differences exist in terms of the nature of SCAM research. This raises important questions regarding the reasons for such differences.
One striking difference was the fact that, compared to the UK, Germany had published far less research on SCAM that failed to report a positive result (4% versus 14%). Ever since, I have wondered why. Perhaps it has something to do with the biggest sponsor of SCAM research in Germany: THE CARSTENS STIFTUNG?
The Carstens Foundation (CF) was created by the former German President, Prof. Dr. Karl Carstens and his wife, Dr. Veronica Carstens. Karl Carstens (1914-1992) was the 5th President of federal Germany, from 1979 to 1984. Veronica Carstens (1923-2012) was a doctor of Internal Medicine with an interest in natural medicine and homeopathy in particular. She is quoted by the CF stating: „Der Arzt und die Ärztin der Zukunft sollen zwei Sprachen sprechen, die der Schulmedizin und die der Naturheilkunde und Homöopathie. Sie sollen im Einzelfall entscheiden können, welche Methode die besten Heilungschancen für den Patienten bietet.“ (Future doctors should speak two languages, that of ‘school medicine’ [Hahnemann’s derogatory term for conventional medicine] and that of naturopathy and homeopathy. They should be able to decide on a case by case basis which method offers the best chances of a cure for the patient.***)
Together, the two Carstens created the CF with the goal of sponsoring SCAM in Germany. More than 35 million € have so far been spent on more than 100 projects, fellowships, dissertations, an own publishing house, and a patient society “Natur und Medizin” (currently ~23 000 members) with the task of promoting SCAM. Projects the CF proudly list as their ‘milestones’ include:
- an outpatient clinic of natural medicine for cancer
- a project ‘Natural medicine and homeopathy for children and adolescents’.
The primary focus of the CF clearly is homeopathy, and it is in this area where their anti-science bias gets most obvious. I do invite everyone who reads German to have a look at their website and be amazed at the plethora of misleading claims.
Their expert for all things homeopathic is Dr Jens Behnke (‘Referent für Homöopathieforschung bei der Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung: Evidenzbasierte Medizin, CAM, klinische Forschung, Grundlagenforschung’). He is not a medical doctor but has a doctorate from the ‘Kulturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Europa-Universität Viadrina’ entitled ‘Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung. Eine epistemologische Analyse des Paradigmenstreits in der Homöopathieforschung’ (Science and world view. An epistemological analysis of the paradigm-quarrel in homeopathy research). His supervisor was Prof Harald Walach who has long been close to the CF.
Behnke claims to be an expert in EBM, clinical research and basic research but, intriguingly, he has not a single Medline-listed publication to his name. So, we only have his dissertation to assess his expertise.
The very 1st sentence of his dissertation is noteworthy, in my view: Die Homöopathie ist eine Therapiemethode, die seit mehr als 200 Jahren praktiziert wird und eine beträchtliche Zahl an Heilungserfolgen vorzuweisen hat (Homeopathy is a therapeutic method, that is being used since more than 200 years and which is supported by a remarkable number of therapeutic successes). In essence, the dissertation dismisses the scientific approach for evaluating homeopathy as well as the current best evidence that shows homeopathy to be ineffective.
Behnke dismisses my own research on homeopathy without even considering it. He first claims to have found an error in one of my systematic reviews and then states: Die Fragwürdigkeit der oben angeführten Methoden rechtfertigt das Übergehen sämtlicher Publikationen dieses Autors im Rahmen dieser Arbeit. Wenn einem Wissenschaftler die aufgezeigte absichtliche Falschdarstellung aufgrund von Voreingenommenheit nachgewiesen werden kann, sind seine Ergebnisse, wenn überhaupt, nur nach vorheriger systematischer Überprüfung sämtlicher Originalpublikationen und Daten, auf die sie sich beziehen, verwertbar. Essentially, he claims that, because he has found one error, the rest cannot be trusted and therefore he is entitled to reject the lot.
In the same dissertation, we read the following: Ernst konstatiert in allen … Arbeiten zur Homöopathie ausnahmslos, dass es keinerlei belastbare Hinweise auf eine Wirksamkeit homöopathischer Arzneimittel über Placeboeffekte hinaus gebe (Ernst states in all publications on homeopathy without exception that no solid suggestions exist at all for an effectiveness of homeopathic remedies). However, it is demonstrably wrong that all of my papers arrive at a negative judgement of homeopathy’s effectiveness; here are three that spring into my mind:
- There is evidence that homeopathic treatment can reduce the duration of ileus after abdominal or gynecologic surgery. However, several caveats preclude a definitive judgment. These results should form the basis of a randomized controlled trial to resolve the issue.
- Subjective complaints were relieved significantly more by Poikiven than by placebo. [Poikiven is a homeopathic remedy containing undiluted herbal ingredients, I hasten to add]
- … homeopathy works for certain conditions and is ineffective for others. [yes, I know! … (published in 1990)]
So, applying Behnke’s own logic outlined above, one should argue that, because I have found one error in his research, the rest of what Behnke will (perhaps one day be able to) publish cannot be trusted and therefore I am entitled to reject the lot.
That would, of course, be tantamount to adopting the stupidity of one’s own opponents. So, I will certainly not do that; instead, I will wait patiently for the sound science that Dr Behnke (and indeed the CF) might eventually produce.
***phraseology that is strikingly similar to that of Rudolf Hess on the same subject.
One would be hard-pressed to find a form of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that is not being promoted for back pain: chiropractic, osteopathy, reflexology, naturopathy, homeopathy … you name it. Intriguingly, they all seem to generate similarly good – a realist would say bad – results. Faced with this large but largely ineffective options, one can hardly be surprised that enterprising innovators look for their own solutions. And few are more enterprising then this patient from Ireland who decided to devise his very own and highly unusual back pain therapy.
The 33 year old male with a history of back problems was seen complaining of severe, sudden onset lower back pain. He reported lifting a heavy steel object 3 days prior and his symptoms had progressed ever since. A physical exam of revealed an erythematous papule with a central focus on the medial aspect of his right upper limb.
The patient disclosed that he had – independent of any medical advice – intravenously injected his own semen as an innovative method to alleviate his back pain (a truly naturopathic approach, if there ever was one!). He also revealed that he had previously injected one monthly “dose” of semen for 18 consecutive months using a hypodermic needle purchased online.
On this occasion, the patient had tried to inject three “doses” of semen intra-vascularly and intra-muscularly. The erythema extended medially along his upper limb over the course of the following 24 hours.
It became indurated around the injection site where he had failed multiple attempts at injecting the semen thus causing an extravasation of his sperm into the soft tissues. Blood tests demonstrated a C-reactive protein of 150mg/L and white cell count of 13×109/L. The patient was immediately commenced on intravenous antimicrobial treatment after seeking advice regarding appropriate cover. A radiograph of the limb was obtained to exclude retained foreign body and it demonstrated a subcutaneous emphysema.
This patient’s back pain improved over the course of his inpatient stay. He opted to discharge himself without availing of an incision and drainage of the local collection.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of this story is the fact that the patient had previously treated himself 18 (!) times before this little mishap occurred.
Why?, one may well ask. The answer has, I think, been provided by legions of proponents of diverse forms of SCAM: BECAUSE IT WORKED! PEOPLE ARE NOT STUPID; THEY DON’T CONTINUE TREATMENTS, IF THEY DON’T WORK.
So, either intravenous semen injections are an effective way to control back pain – in which case, I recommend that NICE look into it – or…
… THERE IS SOMETHING BADLY WRONG WITH THE FAVOURITE ARGUMENT OF SCAM-ENTHUSIASTS, IT WORKED FOR ME AND THEREFORE IT IS EFFECTIVE AND SAFE.
(I know which explanation I favour)