MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

neglect

It has been reported that, between 1 January 2018 and 31 May 2018, there have been 587 laboratory confirmed measles cases in England. They were reported in most areas with London (213), the South East (128), West Midlands (81), South West (62), and Yorkshire/Humberside (53). Young people and adults who missed out on MMR vaccine when they were younger and some under-vaccinated communities have been particularly affected.

Public Health England (PHE) local health protection teams are working closely with the NHS and local authorities to raise awareness with health professionals and local communities. Anyone who is not sure if they are fully vaccinated should check with their GP practice who can advise them.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE, said:

“The measles outbreaks we are currently seeing in England are linked to ongoing large outbreaks in Europe. The majority of cases we are seeing are in teenagers and young adults who missed out on their MMR vaccine when they were children. Anyone who missed out on their MMR vaccine in the past or are unsure if they had 2 doses should contact their GP practice to catch-up. This serves as an important reminder for parents to take up the offer of MMR vaccination for their children at 1 year of age and as a pre-school booster at 3 years and 4 months of age. We’d also encourage people to ensure they are up to date with their MMR vaccine before travelling to countries with ongoing measles outbreaks. The UK recently achieved WHO measles elimination status and so the overall risk of measles to the UK population is low, however, we will continue to see cases in unimmunised individuals and limited onward spread can occur in communities with low MMR coverage and in age groups with very close mixing.”

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And what has this to do with alternative medicine?

More than meets the eye, I fear.

The low vaccination rates are obviously related to Wakefield’s fraudulent notions of a link between MMR-vaccinations and autism. Such notions were keenly lapped up by the SCAM-community and are still being trumpeted into the ears of parents across the UK. As I have discussed many times, lay-homeopaths are at the forefront of this anti-vaccination campaign. But sadly the phenomenon is not confined to homeopaths nor to the UK; many alternative practitioners across the globe are advising their patients against vaccinations, e. g.:

Considering these facts, I wish Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE, would have had the courage to add to her statement: IT IS HIGH TIME THAT ALTERNATIVE PRACTITIONERS DO MORE THAN A MEEK LIP SERVICE TO THE FACT THAT VACCINATIONS SAVE LIVES.

Our good friend Dana Ullman commented on my last post that doctors are being unethical by NOT prescribing homeopathic medicines because they are breaking one of the most important medical guidelines: “First, do no harm.” Here I do not want to discuss in-depth the nonsense about homeopathy in his sentence, rather I want to focus on the notion that doctors are obliged to foremost do no harm.

The sentence ‘first do no harm’ is supposed to originate from the Hippocratic oath which allegedly all doctors have to take when finishing medical school. This is twice wrong:

  1. we don’t take this oath – I have read it, and it is something utterly non-applicable to today;
  2. the famous sentence does not appear in the oath.

But never mind the history and all that! Doctors are nevertheless obliged to ‘first do no harm’ because it is an important principle of medical ethics.

This is also not true, I’m afraid.

If it were true, doctors would have to stop practicing much of medicine instantly. Clinicians do harm all the time. Their injections hurt, their diagnostic procedures can be unpleasant and painful, their medications cause adverse effects, their surgical interventions are full of risks, etc., etc. None of this would be remotely acceptable, if it did not also some good.

And that is why the ethical imperative of doing no harm has sensibly been changed to the imperative of doing more good than harm. Of course, doctors must be allowed to do even quite serious harm, as long as their actions can be expected to generate even more good. In more common medical terms, we speak of the risk/benefit balance of an intervention:

  • if the known risks of a treatment are greater than the expected benefits, we cannot ethically prescribe it;
  • if the benefits outweigh the risks, we can consider it as a reasonable option.

That is all very well, but it can only apply to treatments where both the risks and the benefits are well-understood. What about the many treatments where there is uncertainty regarding either or both of these factors? This question is impossible to answer in the abstract. We need to look at the best evidence we have for each specific case and, together with the patient, try to make an informed judgement.

Now, let’s please our good friend Dana and do such an evaluation for homeopathy, as one of many examples of an alternative therapy:

Therefore, one might argue that the balance of risk versus benefit might not look all that bad. Dana and his colleagues would thus feel that it ethically legitimate to routinely use homeopathy. But this line of thought would ignore an important issue: harm can be done not just by the remedy itself. The harm caused by applying an ineffective treatment for conditions that are otherwise effectively treatable (usually referred to as neglect) can be considerable, even fatal. So, for homeopathy the true situation presents itself as follows:

This results in a negative risk/benefit balance which means, as outlined above, we cannot ethically use homeopathy.

… and, of course, Dana’s statement (doctors are being unethical by NOT prescribing homeopathic medicines because they are breaking one of the most important medical guidelines: “First, do no harm.” ) turns out to be wrong on several levels.

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