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

prevention

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We live in truly grim times! Let me therefore try to cheer you up a little. Here is a story that might make you smile.

In 1981, I moved back from London to Munich. While still in London, I had written an article on garlic for a German medical journal. It was published just as we arrived in our new home. Here is it’s English abstract:

Garlic has had a firm place in folk medicine since ancient times. More recent results are summarized here which show that extracts of the plant have an antimicrobial action, they are capable of lowering blood cholesterol and of reducing secondary vascular changes. They raise fibrinolytic activity and inhibit thrombocyte aggregation. Therefore the plant contains highly active therapeutic principles which appear to be particularly suitable for prophylaxis of arteriosclerosis.

Yes, you are quite right, this paper is nothing to write home about. So, why do I consider it ‘most consequential‘? Here is what happened:

My wife and I had barely arrived in our new home, when a man phoned (he had gone to a lot of trouble to find my number) and said: “I know you are the leading expert on garlic; I urgently need to talk to you”. Never correct a man’s mistake, if it’s in your favour, I thought, and we made an appointment for a meeting at the Munich train station hotel.

When I met him a few days later, he ordered me a coffee (which later I had to pay for) and explained that he had worked his whole life (he was about 50, I guessed) for the pharmaceutical industry and had now decided that this was enough. He thus planned to set up his own pharmaceutical company. He already had a photocopy machine in his basement, he proudly told me, and a wife who was willing to work as hard as he was. Specifically, his plan was to launch a garlic pill, and for that he needed my advice. I told him what he wanted to know, and we parted after about two hours promising to stay in contact.

The man’s name was Kuno Lichtwer.

During the weeks that followed, he often phoned me to pick my brain. One day, he told me that he had everything in place: he had found a supplier of the materials, a manufacturer to produce the pills and even registered a name for it:

KWAI

Then he popped the question that was foremost on his mind: ‘What do you think, Dr Ernst, should I risk it and go ahead with this or not?’. I had started to like that man; he was going to lose all his savings on a crazy idea, I felt. So, I told him: ‘If I were you, I would not do it. There are already plenty of garlic pills on the market. You are risking to lose everything.’ Then there was a long pause; eventually, he thanked me for my honest advice and hung up.

Weeks later he phoned again to tell me that he had truly appreciated my brutally direct advice, thought long and hard about it, but went ahead with his plan anyway. Would I now accept the position of ‘medical advisor’ to Lichwer Pharma? I was surprised, but accepted this new post. Thereafter, I advised him the best I could. We even conducted and published the very first clinical trial with his product. It was a rather flimsy study (we had no funds at all), but did suggest a positive result.

Each time Mr Lichtwer called me, he was elated; things were not just going well, they were booming! He was evidently hugely gifted in promoting KWAI. Then he invited me several times to come to Berlin where Lichtwer Pharma was based for business meetings. Proudly, he showed me that meanwhile his firm had moved out of his basement into a proper building. The next I knew was that he had a dozen employees. Lichtwer seemed unstoppable. This went on for 2 or 3 years, if I remember correctly.

During all this time, we had never talked about money, and my work for him had always been unpaid – that is, until one day just before Christmas he phoned and explained that he had moved his firm to yet a bigger building and hired yet more staff. He also realised that I deserved some renumeration for my advice; therefore, he had put a cheque in the post. When I told my wife about it, we both celebrated in anticipation of the substantial windfall. Two days later, his letter arrived. He very kindly thanked me for years of work and included a cheque of 500 DM (about 150 DM per year of work). A few months later, his firm had grown so big that a full time medical and research director was badly needed. He informed me that he had found a highly experienced expert and invited me to meet the new man, Prof Schulz.

No, I did not feel hard done by! On the contrary, I was happy that my prediction had been grossly wrong and that my friend Kuno was doing so well. In addition, I was also relieved, because my research at the University did not give me nearly enough time to look adequately after the now substantial firm of Lichtwer Pharma.

Thereafter, Lichtwer’s garlic pill went from strength to strength. Several larger studies confirmed our initial results that garlic positively influenced blood lipids (in 2000, our systematic review concluded: The available data suggest that garlic is superior to placebo in reducing total cholesterol levels. However, the size of the effect is modest, and the robustness of the effect is debatable. The use of garlic for hypercholesterolemia is therefore of questionable value). One day, I read somewhere that KWAI had become the most consumed pill in Germany (even beating Aspirin). Then Lichtwer Pharma went international and added several further herbal products to its portfolio. In 1991, Lichtwer Pharma was estimated to be worth 100 Million DM. Several years later, the firm had almost 400 employees and a yearly turnover of 353 Million DM.

To his credit, Kuno Lichtwer never entirely forgot me. When I had moved to the UK, he even came to Exeter, was entertained by my University, and made a donation of £100 000 towards a ‘Lichtwer Research Fellowship’ for my department. I am not sure whether Kuno Lichtwer is still alive. If he is, he would probably agree that, had I offered him 10 000 DM of my savings during our 1st meeting in 1981 (he did hint at that possibility), he would have gladly made me a partner in his enterprise.

But, as they say: money is not everything.

And a good story to tell is also not bad.

Hesperidin is a flavonoid found in citrus fruits, especially orange and grapefruit. It is said to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Research into hesperidin began in the 1940s but only recently interest turned buoyant, and all sorts of benefits have been suggested. Here are just three recent clinical studies:

  1. This study investigated the effects of chronic intake of an orange extract (2S-hesperidin) or placebo on non-oxidative/glycolytic and oxidative metabolism markers and performance markers in amateur cyclists. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial was carried out between late September and December 2018. Forty amateur cyclists were randomized into two groups: one taking 500 mg/day 2S-hesperidin and the other taking 500 mg/day placebo (microcellulose) for eight weeks. All participants completed the study. An incremental test was used to evaluate performance, and a step test was used to measure oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide, efficiency and oxidation of carbohydrates and fat by indirect calorimetry. The anaerobic power (non-oxidative) was determined using Wingate tests (30 s). After eight weeks supplementation, there was an increase in the incremental test in estimated functional threshold power (FTP) (3.2%; p ≤ 0.05) and maximum power (2.7%; p ≤ 0.05) with 2S-hesperdin compared to placebo. In the step test, there was a decrease in VO2 (L/min) (-8.3%; p ≤ 0.01) and VO2R (mL/kg/min) (-8.9%; p ≤ 0.01) at VT2 in placebo. However, there were no differences between groups. In the Wingate test, there was a significant increase (p ≤ 0.05) in peak and relative power in both groups, but without differences between groups. Supplementation with an orange extract (2S-hesperdin) 500 mg/day improves estimated FTP and maximum power performance in amateur cyclists.
  2. In this clinical trial with a parallel-group design, 49 patients with MetS received either 500-mg hesperidin or placebo, twice daily, for 12 weeks. Number of participants with treated MetS was considered as a primary end point. Anthropometric parameters, dietary intake, physical activity, lipid profile, glucose homeostasis parameter, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) were assessed at the beginning and at the end of the study. Compared with the placebo group, hesperidin decreased fasting glucose level (- 6.07 vs. – 13.32 mg/dL, P = 0.043), triglyceride (- 8.83 vs. – 49.09 mg/dL, P = 0.049), systolic blood pressure (- 0.58 vs. – 2.68 mmHg, P = 0.048) and TNF-α (- 1.29 vs. – 4.44 pg/mL, P = 0.009). Based on the within-group analysis, hesperidin led to significant decrease in serum levels of glucose, insulin, triglyceride, total cholesterol, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, TNF-α and hs-CRP, while in control group only glucose and insulin significantly decreased. The results indicate that hesperidin supplementation can improve metabolic abnormalities and inflammatory status in patients with MetS.
  3. In this study, 64 patients were randomly allocated to receive 500 mg/day hesperidin or placebo capsules for 6 weeks. Data on systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure, serum total antioxidant capacity (TAC), tumor necrosis factor alpha, interleukin 6 (IL-6), and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) were collected at the baseline and at the end of the study. In the hesperidin group, SBP (122.7 ± 8.5 vs. 119.0 ± 7.4; p = .005), mean arterial blood pressure (94.2 ± 5.5 vs. 91.8 ± 5.5; p = .009), IL-6 (8.3 ± 2.1 vs. 7.4 ± 1.8; p = .001), and hs-CRP (1.9 ± 1.2 vs. 1.1 ± 0.9; p < .000) decreased whereas TAC increased (0.74 ± 0.1 vs. 0.82 ± 0.1; p < .000) in comparison to the baseline values. There was a significant difference in mean percent change of SBP, diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial blood pressure, serum TAC, and inflammatory markers (tumor necrosis factor alpha, IL-6, and hs-CRP) between hesperidin and control groups following intervention in adjusted models (p < .05). These results suggest that hesperidin may have antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory effects in type 2 diabetes.

The latest suggestion for Hesperidin is – how could be be otherwise? – that it helps against COVID-19: Hesperidin can block coronavirus from entering host cells through ACE2 receptors which can prevent the infection. Anti-viral activity of hesperidin might constitute a treatment option for COVID-19 through improving host cellular immunity against infection and its good anti-inflammatory activity may help in controlling cytokine storm. Hesperidin mixture with diosmin co-administrated with heparin protect against venous thromboembolism which may prevent disease progression. Based on that, hesperidin might be used as a meaningful prophylactic agent and a promising adjuvant treatment option against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

According to one source, Hesperidin can cause several problems:

  • abdominal pain,
  • diarrhea,
  • contact dermatitis,
  • nausea,
  • interactions with medications (including anticoagulants, blood pressure drugs, and calcium channel blockers),
  • increased risk of bleeding.

No doubt, Hesperidin is an interesting substance. Yet, I feel that much more research is needed until we can be reasonably sure that it is clinically effective for any condition, particularly COVID-19.

I was criticised for not referencing this article in a recent post on adverse effects of spinal manipulation. In fact the commentator wrote: Shame on you Prof. Ernst. You get an “E” for effort and I hope you can do better next time. The paper was published in a third-class journal, but I will nevertheless quote the ‘key messages’ from this paper, because they are in many ways remarkable.

  • Adverse events from manual therapy are few, mild, and transient. Common AEs include local tenderness, tiredness, and headache. Other moderate and severe adverse events (AEs) are rare, while serious AEs are very rare.
  • Serious AEs can include spinal cord injuries with severe neurological consequences and cervical artery dissection (CAD), but the rarity of such events makes the provision of epidemiological evidence challenging.
  • Sports-related practice is often time sensitive; thus, the manual therapist needs to be aware of common and rare AEs specifically associated with spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) to fully evaluate the risk-benefit ratio.

The author of this paper is Aleksander Chaibi, PT, DC, PhD who holds several positions in the Norwegian Chiropractors’ Association, and currently holds a position as an expert advisor in the field of biomedical brain research for the Brain Foundation of the Netherlands. I feel that he might benefit from reading some more critical texts on the subject. In fact, I recommend my own 2020 book. Here are a few passages dealing with the safety of SMT:

Relatively minor AEs after SMT are extremely common. Our own systematic review of 2002 found that they occur in approximately half of all patients receiving SMT. A more recent study of 771 Finish patients having chiropractic SMT showed an even higher rate; AEs were reported in 81% of women and 66% of men, and a total of 178 AEs were rated as moderate to severe. Two further studies reported that such AEs occur in 61% and 30% of patients. Local or radiating pain, headache, and tiredness are the most frequent adverse effects…

A 2017 systematic review identified the characteristics of AEs occurring after cervical spinal manipulation or cervical mobilization. A total of 227 cases were found; 66% of them had been treated by chiropractors. Manipulation was reported in 95% of the cases, and neck pain was the most frequent indication for the treatment. Cervical arterial dissection (CAD) was reported in 57%, and 46% had immediate onset symptoms. The authors of this review concluded that there seems to be under-reporting of cases. Further research should focus on a more uniform and complete registration of AEs using standardized terminology…

In 2005, I published a systematic review of ophthalmic AEs after SMT. At the time, there were 14 published case reports. Clinical symptoms and signs included:

  • central retinal artery occlusion,
  • nystagmus,
  • Wallenberg syndrome,
  • ptosis,
  • loss of vision,
  • ophthalmoplegia,
  • diplopia,
  • Horner’s syndrome…

Vascular accidents are the most frequent serious AEs after chiropractic SMT, but they are certainly not the only complications that have been reported. Other AEs include:

  • atlantoaxial dislocation,
  • cauda equina syndrome,
  • cervical radiculopathy,
  • diaphragmatic paralysis,
  • disrupted fracture healing,
  • dural sleeve injury,
  • haematoma,
  • haematothorax,
  • haemorrhagic cysts,
  • muscle abscess,
  • muscle abscess,
  • myelopathy,
  • neurologic compromise,
  • oesophageal rupture
  • pneumothorax,
  • pseudoaneurysm,
  • soft tissue trauma,
  • spinal cord injury,
  • vertebral disc herniation,
  • vertebral fracture…

In 2010, I reviewed all the reports of deaths after chiropractic treatments published in the medical literature. My article covered 26 fatalities but it is important to stress that many more might have remained unpublished. The cause usually was a vascular accident involving the dissection of a vertebral artery (see above). The review also makes the following important points:

  • … numerous deaths have been associated with chiropractic. Usually high-velocity, short-lever thrusts of the upper spine with rotation are implicated. They are believed to cause vertebral arterial dissection in predisposed individuals which, in turn, can lead to a chain of events including stroke and death. Many chiropractors claim that, because arterial dissection can also occur spontaneously, causality between the chiropractic intervention and arterial dissection is not proven. However, when carefully evaluating the known facts, one does arrive at the conclusion that causality is at least likely. Even if it were merely a remote possibility, the precautionary principle in healthcare would mean that neck manipulations should be considered unsafe until proven otherwise. Moreover, there is no good evidence for assuming that neck manipulation is an effective therapy for any medical condition. Thus, the risk-benefit balance for chiropractic neck manipulation fails to be positive.
  • Reliable estimates of the frequency of vascular accidents are prevented by the fact that underreporting is known to be substantial. In a survey of UK neurologists, for instance, under-reporting of serious complications was 100%. Those cases which are published often turn out to be incomplete. Of 40 case reports of serious adverse effects associated with spinal manipulation, nine failed to provide any information about the clinical outcome. Incomplete reporting of outcomes might therefore further increase the true number of fatalities.
  • This review is focussed on deaths after chiropractic, yet neck manipulations are, of course, used by other healthcare professionals as well. The reason for this focus is simple: chiropractors are more frequently associated with serious manipulation-related adverse effects than osteopaths, physiotherapists, doctors or other professionals. Of the 40 cases of serious adverse effects mentioned above, 28 can be traced back to a chiropractor and none to a osteopath. A review of complications after spinal manipulations by any type of healthcare professional included three deaths related to osteopaths, nine to medical practitioners, none to a physiotherapist, one to a naturopath and 17 to chiropractors. This article also summarised a total of 265 vascular accidents of which 142 were linked to chiropractors. Another review of complications after neck manipulations published by 1997 included 177 vascular accidents, 32 of which were fatal. The vast majority of these cases were associated with chiropractic and none with physiotherapy. The most obvious explanation for the dominance of chiropractic is that chiropractors routinely employ high-velocity, short-lever thrusts on the upper spine with a rotational element, while the other healthcare professionals use them much more sparingly.

Another review summarised published cases of injuries associated with cervical manipulation in China. A total of 156 cases were found. They included the following problems:

  • syncope (45 cases),
  • mild spinal cord injury or compression (34 cases),
  • nerve root injury (24 cases),
  • ineffective treatment/symptom increased (11 cases),
  • cervical spine fracture (11 cases),
  • dislocation or semi-luxation (6 cases),
  • soft tissue injury (3 cases),
  • serious accident (22 cases) including paralysis, deaths and cerebrovascular accidents.

Manipulation including rotation was involved in 42% of all cases. In total, 5 patients died…

To sum up … chiropractic SMT can cause a wide range of very serious complications which occasionally can even be fatal. As there is no AE reporting system of such events, we nobody can be sure how frequently they occur.

[references from my text can be found in the book]

Thirty years ago, I had just been appointed chair of PHYSICAL MEDICINE AND REHABILITATION at the University of Vienna and was about to move – as the first clinical department – into the brand new AKH (General Hospital) of Vienna thus gradually enlarging the team I had taken over from about 20 to 120 co-workers. During this period, I found little time to do original research; however, I did manage to finally write up and publish a study, we had conducted several years before while I was still in Munich. As it is (almost) on the subject of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), and as it relates to the prevention of a viral infection, I think it might be of interest to give it another outing.

Here is its abstract:

The high morbidity of common colds means that their economic importance is considerable, with colds causing more loss of productivity than any other infection. As no effective prophylaxis is available, this trial was to test the hypothesis that sauna bathing can reduce the incidence of common colds. Twenty-five volunteers were submitted to sauna bathing, with 25 controls abstaining from this or comparable procedures. In both groups the frequency, duration and severity of common colds were recorded for six months. There were significantly fewer episodes of common cold in the sauna group. This was found particularly during the last three months of the study period when the incidence was roughly halved compared to controls. The mean duration and average severity of common colds did not differ significantly between the groups. It is concluded that regular sauna bathing probably reduces the incidence of common colds, but further studies are needed to prove this.

In the discussion section of the paper, we stated the following:

Preventive methods with comparable efficacy have not been described in the literature (2, 12). Vitamin C is of doubtful value (7, 15, 16); vaccination is not feasible since far too many virus types exist (2, 17); virucidal kerchiefs are effective (8, 18) but not available commercially and protect only the environment of a common cold sufferer rather than the sufferer him-/herself.

I believe most of this is still true today (but I might be wrong, as I did not keep up with this particular line of research). Re-reading the paper, I find that our trial was far from optimal:

  • we had to conduct it with zero funding,
  • it was small,
  • it was not randomised,
  • it lacked objective endpoints.

Anyway, sauna bathing is most agreeable, and I can recommend it just for this reason. However, I would doubt that public saunas are a good idea during the present health crisis.

Please, stay safe!

We are living in difficult times, and few things are more difficult than spending the holidays in confinement alone or (possibly worse) with close family. If you do, you need all the help you can get. Here are a few homeopathic remedies (all available from Her Majesty’s homeopathic pharmacy) which, according to the ‘like cures like’ (LCL) axiom of homeopathy, might come in handy:

So, do take good care of yourselves, stay healthy, don’t over-dose the brandy butter, port, or anything else, and

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

It has been reported that Karnataka’s Deputy Chief Minister, Dr CN Ashwathnarayan, has launched eight products, several of which fall in the category of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), aimed at mitigating COVID-19, developed by various start-ups at Bangalore Bioinnovation Centre (BBC). Dr CN Ashwathnarayan said the launch of the products shows that Karnataka has emerged as a leading state in developing solutions to fight the COVID 19 pandemic.

Here are short descriptions of the innovations:

  • Padma Vitals +: Developed by Innovator start-up Dr. Madan Gopal of Cardiac Design labs,Padma Vitals + is a  centralized monitoring system for ECG, respiration, Spo2 and body temperature, which can measure the vitals continuously and the analysis sent through telemetry, with an alerting system embedded in it. The device is much needed for contactless monitoring of patients during COVID 19 Pandemic. The product has been validated at Narayana Hrudayalaya.
  • Malli’s Cordytea: Developed by Dr. Moushmi Mondal from Mallipatra Neutraceuticals, this product is an Immunity booster tea prepared from medicinal mushroom – Cordyceps. The mushroom variety grown under laboratory conditions is developed by the Innovator. Cordicepin, an active ingredient is known to have anti-viral properties too. In the COVID 19 times, it will be helpful in boosting the immunity levels. The product has been patented and is approved by FSSAI.
  • CD4 Shield : Developed by Dr. Vijay Lanka and his team from Stabicon, this product is a chewable tablet containing curcumin and Vitamin B12. Both the ingredients fight inflammation and infection. The product ensures activation of innate immunity by activating CD4+, CD8+ and IFN 1 to virus specific effect and has immunomodulatory properties. It also reduces cytokine storm in response to viral infection. The product is approved by FSSAI.
  • BeamRoti : Developed by Dr. Srinivas from Aspartika, the product is an immunity booster chapati having mixture of herbs recommended by AYUSH ministry. The ingredients have been prepared using supercritical fluid extraction technology to ensure optimum concentration of herbal extract reaches the body. The chapatis are easy to store with good shelf life and Patent application has been filed. The product is approved by FSSAI.
  • Immune booster daily drops: Developed by Dr. Srinivas from Aspartika, the product is an immunity booster drop having mixture of herbs recommended by AYUSH ministry. The ingredients have been prepared using supercritical fluid extraction technology to ensure optimum concentration of herbal extract reaches the body by mixing just one drop of the product in a glass of hot water. The product is approved by FSSAI.
  • VegPhal – Fruit and Vegetable Sanitizer: Developed by Deepak Bhajantri from Krimmi Biotech, this fruit and vegetable sanitizer is prepared using edible ingredients effective against microbes and removal of pesticides. It is chorine and alcohol free.
  • Water Sanitizer – Kitchen Tap: The product is developed by Ravi Kumar from Biofi and is a miniaturized version of UV purifier that can be attached to a water tap and kill 99% of microbes including viruses such as phages.
  • nti-Micobial HVAC module: The product is developed by Ravi Kumar from Biofi and is a module that can be fitted to HVAC system to ensure circulating air is sanitized. This is especially useful during COVID 19 times as many enclosed spaces in which AC circulated air may be contaminated. Based on UV-silver titanium dioxide technology, the product is patented and has been validated.

Karnataka is of course a state in the south western region of India. The region has so far about one million COVID-19 cases, while almost 12 000 people have died. One would therefore very much hope that the newly launched innovations can make a difference.

But will they?

As far as the SCAM-related products (e.g. ‘immune boosters’) are concerned, I see no convincing evidence to assume that they are effective. If anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know.

But why not? They can’t do any harm!

Sadly, I am am not so sure. I see the potential for considerable harm from all the useless SCAMs that are being promoted left right and centre for protecting the public against COVID-19. Firstly, there is the financial harm of paying for products that are useless. Secondly, ineffective effords might distract from finding and adhering to efforts that are effective. Thirdly, believing in a SCAM that does not work will create a sense of false security which, in turn, renders consumers more vulnerable to catch the virus.

As always in healthcare, even harmless interventions that do not work can become dangerous, as they lead to neglecting effective measures. I shudder to think of how many deaths have been caused by the many SCAM merchants who see the current pandemic as an opportunity.

Numerous so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) have been touted as the solution for COVID-19. In fact, it is hard to find a SCAM that is not claimed to be useful for corona patients. Crucially, such claims are being made in the complete absence of evidence. A recent paper offers a bibliometric analysis of global research trends at the intersection of SCAM and COVID-19.

SCOPUS, MEDLINE, EMBASE, AMED and PSYCINFO databases were searched on July 5, 2020. All publication types were included, however, articles were only deemed eligible, if they made mention of one or more SCAMs for the potential prevention, treatment, and/or management of COVID-19 or a health issue indirectly resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The following eligible article characteristics were extracted: title; author names, affiliations, and countries; DOI; publication language; publication type; publication year; journal (and whether it is TICAM-focused); 2019 impact factor, and TICAMs mentioned.

A total of 296 eligible articles were published by 1373 unique authors at 977 affiliations across 56 countries. The most common countries associated with author affiliation included:

  • China,
  • the United States,
  • India,
  • Italy.

Four journals had published more that 10 papers each on the subject:

  • Chinese Traditional and Herbal Drugs,
  • Journal of Biomolecular Structure & Dynamics,
  • Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi (China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica),
  • Pharmacological Research

The vast majority of articles were published in English, followed by Chinese. Eligible articles were published across 157 journals, of which 33 were SCAM-focused; a total of 120 journals had a 2019 impact factor, which ranged from 0.17 to 60.392. A total of 327 different SCAMs were mentioned across eligible articles, with the most common ones including:

  • traditional Chinese medicine (n = 94),
  • vitamin D (n = 67),
  • melatonin (n = 16),
  • phytochemicals (n = 12),
  • general herbal medicine (n = 11).

The Canadian author concluded that this study provides researchers and clinicians with a greater knowledge of the characteristics of articles that been published globally at the intersection of COVID-19 and SCAM to date. At a time where safe and effective vaccines and medicines for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 have yet to be discovered, this study provides a current snapshot of the quantity and characteristics of articles written at the intersection of SCAM therapies and COVID-19.

If anyone repeated the research today, I fear that the number of different SCAMs would have at least doubled. There is simply no form of SCAM that would not have joined the bandwagon of snake-oil salesmen trying to make a quick buck or satisfying their dangerous delusion of a panacea. Today (11/12/2020) my very quick Medline search on just a few SCAMs resulted in the following:

  • Herbal medicine: 253
  • Dietary supplement: 139
  • Acupuncture: 68
  • Homeopathy (not mentioned at all above): 20
  • Chiropractic: 13
  • Naturopathy: 6

One of the most chilling reads during my ‘rough and ready’ trawl through the literature was an article co-authored by a Viennese professor who has featured repeatedly on this blog. Here is its abstract:

Successful homeopathic prescriptions are based on careful individualization of symptoms, either for an individual patient or collectively in the case of epidemic outbreaks. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was initially represented as a severe acute respiratory illness, with eventual dramatic complications. However, over time it revealed to be a complex systemic disease with manifestations derived from viral-induced inflammation and hypercoagulability, thus liable to affect any body organ or system. As a result, clinical presentation is variable, in addition to variations associated with several individual and collective risk factors. Given the extreme variability of pathology and clinical manifestations, a single, or a few, universal homeopathic preventive Do not split medicine(s) do not seem feasible. Yet homeopathy may have a relevant role to play, inasmuch as the vast majority of patients only exhibit the mild form of disease and are indicated to self-care at home, without standard monitoring, follow-up, or treatment. For future pandemics, homeopathy agencies should prepare by establishing rapid-response teams and efficacious lines of communication.

The Canadian author of the above paper did not analyse how many of the papers he included would make therapeutic claims. I suspect that the majority did. In this context, one of the clearest indications of how deluded SCAM practitioners tend to be during these difficult times was provided by this paper:

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by a new coronavirus, first appeared in late 2019. What initially seemed to be a mild influenza quickly revealed itself as a serious and highly contagious disease, and the planet was soon faced with a significant morbidity and mortality associated with this pathogen. For homeopathy, shunned during its 200 years of existence by conventional medicine, this outbreak is a key opportunity to show potentially the contribution it can make in treating COVID-19 patients. This should be done through performance of impeccably controlled, prospective, randomized clinical trials, with publication of their findings in well-ranked conventional medicine journals. If the homeopathy community fails to take advantage of this rare opportunity, it might wait another century for the next major pandemic.

I must admit, I felt vaguely sick while reading it.

Acupuncture-moxibustion therapy (AMT) is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that has been used for centuries in treatment of numerous diseases. Some enthusiasts even seem to advocate it for chemotherapy-induced leukopenia (CIL)  The purpose of this review was to evaluate the efficacy and safety of acupuncture-moxibustion therapy in treating CIL.

Relevant studies were searched in 9 databases up to September 19, 2020. Two reviewers independently screened the studies for eligibility, extracted data, and assessed the methodological quality of selected studies. Meta-analysis of the pooled mean difference (MD) and risk ratio (RR) with their respective 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated.

Seventeen studies (1206 patients) were included, and the overall quality of the included studies was moderate. In comparison with medical therapy, AMT has a better clinical efficacy for CIL (RR, 1.24; 95% CI, 1.17-1.32; P < 0.00001) and presents advantages in increasing leukocyte count (MD, 1.10; 95% CI, 0.67-1.53; P < 0.00001). Also, the statistical results show that AMT performs better in improving the CIL patients’ Karnofsky performance score (MD, 5.92; 95% CI, 3.03-8.81; P < 0.00001).

The authors concluded that this systematic review and meta-analysis provides updated evidence that AMT is a safe and effective alternative for the patients who suffered from CIL.

A CIL is a serious complication. If I ever were afflicted by it, I would swiftly send any acupuncturist approaching my sickbed packing.

But this is not an evidence-based attitude!!!, I hear some TCM-fans mutter. What more do you want that a systematic review showing it works?

I beg to differ. Why? Because the ‘evidence’ is hardly what critical thinkers can accept as evidence. Have a look at the list of the primary studies included in this review:

  1. Lin Z. T., Wang Q., Yu Y. N., Lu J. S. Clinical observation of post-chemotherapy-leukopenia treated with ShenMai injectionon ST36. World Journal of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine2010;5(10):873–876. []
  2. Wang H. Clinical Observation of Acupoint Moxibustion on Leukopenia Caused by Chemotherapy. Beijing, China: Beijing University of Chinese Medicine; 2011. []
  3. Fan J. Y. Coupling of Yin and Yang between Ginger Moxibustion Improve the Clinical Effect of the Treatment of Chemotherapy Adverse Reaction. Henan, China: Henan University of Chinese Medicine; 2013. []
  4. Lu D. R., Lu D. X., Wei M., et al. Acupoint injection with addie injection for patients of nausea and vomiting with cisplatin induced by chemotherapy. Journal of Clinical Acupuncture and Moxibustion2013;29(10):33–38. []
  5. Yang J. E. The Clinical Observation on Treatment of Leukopenia after Chemotherapy with Needle Warming Moxibustion. Hubei, China: Hubei University of Chinese Medicine; 2013. []
  6. Fu Y. H., Chi C. Y., Zhang C. Y. Clinical effect of acupuncture and moxibustion on leukopenia after chemotherapy of malignant tumor. Guide of China Medicine2014;12(12) []
  7. Wang J. N., Zhang W. X., Gu Q. H., Jiao J. P., Liu L., Wei P. K. Protection of herb-partitioned moxibustion on bone marrow suppression of gastric cancer patients in chemotherapy period. Chinese Archives of Traditional Chinese Medicine2014;32(12):110–113. []
  8. Zhang J. The Clinical Research on Myelosuppression and Quality of Life after Chemotherapy Treated by Grain-Sized Moxibustion. Nanjing, China: Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine; 2014. []
  9. Tian H., Lin H., Zhang L., Fan Z. N., Zhang Z. L. Effective research on treating leukopenia following chemotherapy by moxibustion. Clinical Journal of Chinese Medicine2015;7(10):35–38. []
  10. Hu G. W., Wang J. D., Zhao C. Y. Effect of acupuncture on the first WBC reduction after chemotherapy for breast cancer. Beijing Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine2016;35(8):777–779. []
  11. Zhu D. L., Lu H. Y., Lu Y. Y., Wu L. J. Clinical observation of Qi-blood-supplementing needling for leukopenia after chemotherapy for breast cancer. Shanghai Journal of Acupuncture and Moxibustion2016;35(8):964–966. []
  12. Chen L, Xu G. Y. Observation on the prevention and treatment of chemotherapy-induced leukopenia by moxibustion therapy. Zhejiang Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine2016;51(8):p. 600. []
  13. Mo T., Tian H., Yue S. B., Fan Z. N., Zhang Z. L. Clinical observation of acupoint moxibustion on leukocytopenia caused by tumor chemotherapy. World Chinese Medicine2016;11(10):2120–2122. []
  14. Nie C. M. Nursing observation of acupoint moxibustion in the treatment of leucopenia after chemotherapy. Today Nurse2017;4:93–95. []
  15. Wang D. Y. Clinical Research on Post-chemotherapy-leukopenia with Spleen-Kidney Yang Deficiency in Colorectal Cancer Treated with Point-Injection. Yunnan, China: Yunnan University of Chinese Medicine; 2017. []
  16. Gong Y. Q, Zhang M. Q, Zhang B. C. Prevention and treatment of leucocytopenia after chemotherapy in patients with malignant tumor with ginger partitioned moxibustion. Chinese Medicine Modern Distance Education of China2018;16(21):135–137. []
  17. Li Z. C., Lian M. J., Miao F. G. Clinical observation of fuzheng moxibustion combined with wenyang shengbai decoction in the treatment of 80 cases of leukopenia after chemotherapy. Hunan Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine2019;35(3):64–66. []

Notice anything peculiar?

  • The studies are all from China where data fabrication was reported to be rife.
  • They are mostly unavailable for checking (why the published adds links that go nowhere is beyond me).
  • Many do not look at all like randomised clinical trials (which, according to the authors, was an inclusion criterion).
  • Many do not look as though their primary endpoint was the leukocyte count (which, according to the authors, was another inclusion criterion).

Intriguingly, the authors conclude that AMT is not just effective but also ‘safe’. How do they know? According to their own data extraction table, most studies failed to mention adverse effects. And how exactly is acupuncture supposed to increase my leukocyte count? Here is what the authors offer as a mode of action:

Based on the theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), CIL belongs to the category of consumptive disease, owing to the exhaustion of genuine qi in the zang-fu viscera and the insufficiency of kidney essence and qi-blood. Researchers believe that there is an intimate association between the occurrence of malignant tumors and the deficiency of genuine qi. During attacking the cancer cells, chemotherapeutics also damaged the function of zang-fu viscera and qi-blood, leading to CIL. According to the theory of TCM and meridian, acupuncture-moxibustion is an ancient therapeutic modality that may be traced back more than 3500 years in China. Through meridian conduction, acupuncture-moxibustion therapy stimulates acupoints to strengthen the condition of zang-fu viscera and immune function, supporting genuine qi to improve symptoms of consumption.

I think it is high time that we stop tolerating that the medical literature gets polluted with such nonsense (helped, of course, by journals that are beyond the pale) – someone might actually believe it, in which case it would surely hasten the death of vulnerable patients.

The amount of different so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) that are being tried or promoted against COVID-19 is legion. Anything really from vitamins to herbal remedies, homeopathics to chiropractic. In fact, it is hard these days to find a SCAM that is not touted for COVID-19.

This study aimed to evaluate if a dietary supplement of quercetin (a polyphenol contained in many fruit and vegetables), vitamin C and bromelain (a proteolytic enzyme contained in pineapple) could be protective against coronavirus infections.

In the verum group, a supplement containing

  • 500mg of quercetin,
  • 500mg of vitamin C,
  • 50mg of  bromelain (QCB)

was administered daily in 2 divided doses for 71 healthcare workers working in areas with high risk of COVID-19, whereas 42 were the control group who received no supplements. The maximum period of follow-up was 120 days. Termination of QCB use prematurely or having a coronavirus infection was the end of a volunteer’s study participation. A rapid diagnostic test was used to detect immunoglobulin positivity.

Graphic demonstrated survival without COVID-19 during follow up time between groups

Graphic demonstrated survival without COVID-19 during follow up time between groups

A total of 113 persons were included. No significant difference were detected between groups at baseline. Mean age of QCB group was 39.0 ± 8.8 years and control group was 32.9 ± 8.7. Average follow-up period for the QCB group was 113 days, and for the control group, 118 days. During the follow-up period, 1 healthcare worker in the QCB group and 9 out in 42 in control group contracted COVID-19. One case was asymptomatic, while others were not. Transmission risk hazard ratio of participants who did not receive QCB was 12.04 (95% Confidence interval= 1.26-115.06, P = 0.031). No significant effect of gender, smoking, antihypertensive medication exposure and having chronic disease on rate of transmission. The authors concluded that this study revealed that QCB was protective for healthcare workers.

The sudy is so poorly written and reported that I had trouble making sense of it. In fact, I first thought it was a fake. Then I saw this note:

Preprints with The Lancet is part of SSRN´s First Look, a place where journals identify content of interest prior to publication. Authors have opted in at submission to The Lancet family of journals to post their preprints on Preprints with The Lancet. The usual SSRN checks and a Lancet-specific check for appropriateness and transparency have been applied. Preprints available here are not Lancet publications or necessarily under review with a Lancet journal. These preprints are early stage research papers that have not been peer-reviewed. The findings should not be used for clinical or public health decision making and should not be presented to a lay audience without highlighting that they are preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed.

If the results are for real (because of the small sample size, the lack of a placebo-control, dozens of potential confounders, etc., the findings could easily false-positive), they would merit urgent replication in a larger, more rigorous trial.

And meanwhile?

Meanwhile I would be very sceptical about the validity of the results. The paper (it really is just a submission for publication in the Lancet; I am not even sure that it will be officially published and I don’t quite see why it is being made available to the public in this way) is too flimsy for words. Despite these warnings, it is likely that many consumers will fall for the claim that QCB was protective for healthcare workers. 

In so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), we have numerous diets that are either promoted for specific conditions or that are popular in a more general sense. Meat-free forms of nutrition can perhaps not be characterised as SCAM, but they are certainly popular with consumers as well as practitioners of SCAM. It is often said that meat-free diets are healthy, but few entusiasts like to consider that it might be associated with health risks.

This study tested whether vegetarianism and veganism are risk factors for bone factures in a prospective cohort with a large proportion of non-meat eaters.

In EPIC-Oxford, dietary information was collected at baseline (1993–2001) and at follow-up (≈ 2010). Participants were categorised into four diet groups at both time points (with 29,380 meat eaters, 8037 fish eaters, 15,499 vegetarians, and 1982 vegans at baseline in analyses of total fractures). Outcomes were identified through linkage to hospital records or death certificates until mid-2016. The risks were calculated of total (n = 3941) and site-specific fractures (arm, n = 566; wrist, n = 889; hip, n = 945; leg, n = 366; ankle, n = 520; other main sites, i.e. clavicle, rib, and vertebra, n = 467) by diet group over an average of 17.6 years of follow-up.

Compared with meat eaters and after adjustment for socio-economic factors, lifestyle confounders, and body mass index (BMI), the risks of hip fracture were higher in

  • fish eaters (hazard ratio 1.26; 95% CI 1.02–1.54),
  • vegetarians (1.25; 1.04–1.50),
  • vegans (2.31; 1.66–3.22).

This was equivalent to rate differences of 2.9 (0.6–5.7), 2.9 (0.9–5.2), and 14.9 (7.9–24.5) more cases for every 1000 people over 10 years, respectively. The vegans also had higher risks of total (1.43; 1.20–1.70), leg (2.05; 1.23–3.41), and other main site fractures (1.59; 1.02–2.50) than meat eaters. Overall, the significant associations appeared to be stronger without adjustment for BMI and were slightly attenuated but remained significant with additional adjustment for dietary calcium and/or total protein. No significant differences were observed in risks of wrist or ankle fractures by diet group with or without BMI adjustment, nor for arm fractures after BMI adjustment.

The authors concluded that non-meat eaters, especially vegans, had higher risks of either total or some site-specific fractures, particularly hip fractures. This is the first prospective study of diet group with both total and multiple specific fracture sites in vegetarians and vegans, and the findings suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research.

The effect is by no means large, and I doubt that it will persuade many non-meat eaters to change their diet. However, perhaps the study can serve as a reminder that people who avoid meat might some lack essential nutrients and that they should therefore consider making sure that no deficiencies can develop.

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