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

quackery

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Doctor Jens Wurster is no stranger to this blog; previously I discussed his claim that he has treated more than 1000 cancer patients homeopathically and we could even cure or considerably ameliorate the quality of life for several years in some, advanced and metastasizing cases. So far, his claims were based not on evidence published in peer-reviewed journals (I cannot find a single Medline-listed paper by this man); but now Wurster has published an article in a German Journal (Wurster J. Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie … Deutsche Zeitschrift für Onkologie 2018; 50: 85–91; not Medline-listed, I am afraid). The paper is in German, but it has an English abstract; here it is:

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All over the world, oncology patients receive homeopathic treatment concomitant to conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, in order to reduce the side effects of these therapies. It has been shown that cancer patients, who are receiving homeopathic treatment in addition to conventional therapies, have a higher quality of life and a longer survival rate. Studies in cancer cell research have shown the direct effects of highly potentized homeopathic medicines on tumor cell lines. Tumor inhibiting properties of homeopathic medicines have been proven in vivo as well as in vitro. Research projects into complementary medicine (CAMbrella) and research into personalized immunotherapies as well as additive homeopathy open the door to the future of integrative oncology.

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In the article, Wurster states that he has 20 years of experience in treating cancer with homeopathy as an add-on to conventional care, and that he can confirm homeopathy’s effectiveness. He claims that ‘very many’ patients have thus benefitted by experiencing less side-effects of conventional treatments. And he offers two case-reports to illustrate this.

[Nach 20 Jahren klinischer Erfahrung in der Clinica St. Croce im Tessin mit der Behandlung onkologischer Patienten mithilfe der Homöopathie können wir deutlich den Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie in der Onkologie bestätigen [1]. So gelang es unserem Ärzteteam in den zurückliegenden Jahren bei sehr vielen Patienten, durch gezielten Einsatz homöopathischer Mittel die Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien oder Bestrahlungen erfolgreich zu reduzieren [1]. Wie dabei Schulmedizin und Homöopathie in der Praxis zusammenwirken, zeigt folgendes Beispiel. ([1] Wurster J. Die homöopathische Behandlung und Heilung von Krebs und metastasierten Tumoren. Norderstedt: Books on Demand; 2015)]

The two case-reports lack detail and are less than convincing, in my view. Both patients have had conventional therapies and Wurster claims that his homeopathic remedies reduced their side-effects. There is no way of verifying this claim, and the improvements might have occurred also without homeopathy.

In the discussion section of his paper, Wurster then elaborates that oncologists throughout Europe are now realising the potential of homeopathy. In support he mentions paediatric oncologists in Klagenfurt who managed to spare pain-killers by giving homeopathics. Similarly, at the Inselspital in Bern, they are offering homeopathic consultations to complement conventional treatments.

[Inzwischen haben auch einige Onkologen erkannt, wie eine gezielt eingesetzte homöopathische Behandlung die Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien oder Bestrahlungen reduzieren kann. Wir arbeiten inzwischen mit einigen Onkologen aus ganz Europa zusammen, die den Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie in der Onkologie erlebt haben. In der Kinderonkologie in Klagenfurt beispielsweise konnten mithilfe der Homöopathie Schmerzmittel bei den Kindern eingespart werden. Auch am Inselspital Bern werden zusätzliche homöopathische Konsile in der Kinderonkologie angeboten, um die konventionelle Behandlung begleiten zu können [8].]

At this point, Wurster inserts his reference number 8. As several of his references are either books or websites, this reference to an article in a top journal seems interesting. Here is its abstract:

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BACKGROUND:

Though complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are frequently used by children and adolescents with cancer, there is little information on how and why they use it. This study examined prevalence and methods of CAM, the therapists who applied it, reasons for and against using CAM and its perceived effectiveness. Parent-perceived communication was also evaluated. Parents were asked if medical staff provided information on CAM to patients, if parents reported use of CAM to physicians, and what attitude they thought physicians had toward CAM.

STUDY DESIGN:

All childhood cancer patients treated at the University Children‘s Hospital Bern between 2002-2011 were retrospectively surveyed about their use of CAM.

RESULTS:

Data was collected from 133 patients (response rate: 52%). Of those, 53% had used CAM (mostly classical homeopathy) and 25% of patients received information about CAM from medical staff. Those diagnosed more recently were more likely to be informed about CAM options. The most frequent reason for choosing CAM was that parents thought it would improve the patient’s general condition. The most frequent reason for not using CAM was lack of information. Of those who used CAM, 87% perceived positive effects.

CONCLUSIONS:

Since many pediatric oncology patients use CAM, patients’ needs should be addressed by open communication between families, treating oncologists and CAM therapists, which will allow parents to make informed and safe choices about using CAM.

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Any hope that this paper might back up the statements made by Wurster is thus disappointed.

Altogether, this Wurster-paper contains no reliable evidence. The only clinical trial it seems to rely on is the one by Prof Frass which we have discussed previously here and here. The Frass-study is odd in several ways and, before we can take its results seriously, we need to see an independent replication of its findings. In this context, it is noteworthy that my own 2006 systematic review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support clinical efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer care. In view of all this, I feel that the new Wurster-paper provides no reliable evidence and no reason to change my now somewhat dated conclusion of 2006. Moreover, I would insist that those who claim otherwise are unethical and behave irresponsible.

And finally, I need to reiterate what I stated in my previous post: the Wurster-paper indicates that something is amiss with medical publishing. How can it be that, in 2018, the ‘Deutsche Zeitschrift für Onkologie’ (or any other medical journal for that matter) can be so bar of critical thinking to publish such dangerously misleading nonsense? The editors of this journal (Univ.-Prof. Dr. med. Arndt Büssing, Witten/Herdecke; Dr. med. Peter Holzhauer, Bad Trissl und München) and its editorial board members (L. Auerbach, Wien; C. Bahne Bahnson, Kiel; J. Büntzel, Nordhausen; B. Freimüller-Kreutzer, Heidelberg; H.R. Maurer, Berlin; A. Mayr, Starnberg; R. Moss, New York; T. Ostermann, Witten/Herdecke; K. Prasad, Denver; G. Pulverer, Köln; H. Renner, Nürnberg; C.P. Siegers, Lübeck; W. Schmidt, Greifswald; G. Uhlenbruck, Köln; B. Wolf, München; K.S. Zänker, Witten/Herdecke) should ask themselves whether they are taking their moral obligations seriously enough, or whether their behaviour is not a violation of their most fundamental ethical duties.

In our book ‘MORE HARM THAN GOOD‘ we allude to such problems as follows: …Spurious results are frequently paraded by CAM advocates in support of implausible treatments… the more poorly conceived and executed a research project is, the more likely it is to produce false-positive results. These results then may lead to repetitive cycles of unproductive work to explain what was found—often to simply disprove the erroneous results. This is an unfortunate feature of various fields of scientific research, but it has particularly serious implications in medical research. Moreover, researchers who practice and behave as advocates of CAM may unintentionally or deliberately distort or exaggerate weak findings. Invalid CAM research claims tend not to be put to rest; instead they are repeatedly recycled…

And:

The CAM practitioner who promotes untruths has either failed to enlighten themselves as to the facts—this being a central requirement of professional ethics— or has chosen to deliberately deceive patients. Either of these reasons for promulgating falsehoods amounts to a serious breach in terms of virtue ethics. According to almost all forms of ethical theory, the truth-violating nature of CAM renders it immoral in both theory and practice.

The damage that can result from such violations of medical ethics is not merely a matter for the ‘ivory towers of academia’, it can virtually be a matter of life and death.

Please bear with me and have a look at the three short statements quoted below:

1 Reiki

… a Reiki practitioner channels this pure ‘chi’, the ‘ki’ in Reiki, or energy through her hands to the recipient, enhancing and stimulating the individual’s natural ability to restore a sense of wellbeing. It is instrumental in lowering stress levels, and therefore may equip the recipient with increased resources to deal with the physical as well as the emotional, mental and spiritual problems raised by his/her condition. It is completely natural and safe, and can be used alongside conventional medicine as well as other complementary therapies or self-help techniques.

It has been documented that patients receiving chemotherapy have commented on feeling less distress and discomfort when Reiki is part of their care plan. Besides feeling more energy, hope and tranquillity, some patients have felt that the side-effects of chemotherapy were easier to cope with. Reiki has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, to raise energy levels in tired and apathetic patients. It is of great value in degenerative disease for the very reasons that pain and anxiety can be reduced.

The treatment is gentle, supportive and non-invasive, the patient always remains clothed. Even though the origins of reiki are spiritual in nature, Reiki imposes no set of beliefs. It can be used by people of different cultural backgrounds and faith, or none at all. This makes it particularly suitable in medical settings. Predicting who would or would not like to receive Reiki is impossible.

2 Emmett

EMMETT is a gentle soft tissue release technique developed by Australian remedial therapist Ross Emmett. It involves the therapist using light finger pressure at specific locations on the body to elicit a relaxation response within the area of concern.

Cancer impacts people in different ways throughout the journey of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Many have found the EMMETT Technique to be very beneficial in a number of ways. Although pressure therapy isn’t new (e.g. acupressure and trigger point therapy are already well known), the amount of pressure required with EMMETT is much lighter and the placement of the pressure is unique to EMMETT Therapy.

Many cancer patients undergo surgery and experience post-surgery tightness and tension around the surgery site in the scar tissue and further afield through the connective tissue or fascia as the body heals. They experience restricted range of movement that may be painful too. Mastectomy patients as an example will usually experience pain or tenderness, swelling around the surgery site, limited arm or shoulder movement, and even numbness in the chest or upper arm. Here’s where EMMETT can assist.  With gentle pressure to specific points, many women have received relief from the pain, reduced swelling and much improved range of movement.  There are multiple EMMETT points that are used to help these women and that give the therapist a range of options depending on the patient’s specific concern.

Many cancer patients also experience fatigue, increased risk of infection, nausea, appetite changes and constipation as common side effects of chemotherapy.  These symptoms can also be greatly supported with a designated sequence where the EMMETT Therapist gently stimulates areas all around the body for an overall effect.  Patients report reduction in swelling, feelings of lightness, increased energy, more robust emotional well-being, less pain and feeling better generally within themselves.

3 Daoyin Tao

The theory behind this massage lies in traditional Chinese medicine, so covers yin and yang, five elements and Chinese face reading from a health perspective.  It enables the emotional elements behind disease to be explored. For example, the Chinese will say that grief is held in the Lung, anger in the liver, and fear in the kidney.

For this half hour massage there is no need for the patient to remove clothes, so it is a lovely way of receiving a massage where body image may be an issue, or where lines and feeds are in place, making removal of clothes difficult. This massage therapy can be given not only in a clinic, but also on the day unit, on hospital wards and even in an intensive care unit.

In working the meridian system the therapist is able to work the whole body, reaching areas other than the contact zone. Patients have commented that this deeply relaxing and soothing massage is; “one of the best massages I have ever had”. It has been proven to be beneficial with problems of; sleep, headaches, anxiety, watery eyes, shoulder and neck tension, sinusitis and panic attacks, jaw tension, fear, emotional trauma/distress.

END OF QUOTES

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Where do you think these statements come from?

They sound as though they come from a profoundly uncritical source, such as a commercial organisation trying to persuade customers to use some dodgy treatments, don’t they?

Wrong!

They come from the NHS! To be precise, they come from the NHS NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL in Harrowgate, a service that offers a range of free complementary therapy treatments to patients and their relatives who are affected by a cancer diagnosis and are either receiving their cancer treatment at Harrogate or live in the Harrogate and Rural District.

This NHS school offers alternative treatments to cancer patients and claim that they know from experience, that when Complementary Therapies are integrated into patient care we are able to deliver safe, high quality care which fulfils the needs of even the most complex of patients.

In addition, they also run courses for alternative practitioners. Their reflexology course, for instance, covers all of the following:

  • Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
  • Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
  • Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
  • Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
  • Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
  • Managing a wide range of conditions
  • Legal implications
  • Cautions and contraindications
  • Assessment and client care
  • Practical reflexology skills and routines
  • Treatment planning

I imagine that the initiators of the school are full of the very best, altruistic intentions. I therefore have considerable difficulties in criticising them. Yet, I do strongly feel that the NHS should be based on good evidence; and that much of the school’s offerings seems to be the exact opposite. In fact, the NHS-label is being abused for giving undeserved credibility to outright quackery, in my view.

I am sure the people behind this initiative only want to help desperate patients. I also suspect that most patients are very appreciative of their service. But let me put it bluntly: we do not need to make patients believe in mystical life forces, meridians and magical energies; if nothing else, this undermines rational thought (and we could do with a bit more of that at present). There are plenty of evidence-based approaches which, when applied with compassion and empathy, will improve the well-being of these patients without all the nonsense and quackery in which the NHS NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL seems to specialise.

It is bad enough, I believe, that such nonsense is currently popular and increasingly politically correct, but let’s keep/make the NHS evidence-based, please!

I stumbled over an article entitled ‘The myths of homeopathy: Resounding answers‘. I thought it was great fun, so much so, that I copied it below – not just once but twice. The second time I took the liberty of replacing the little porkies told by homeopaths with the truth.

THE ORIGINAL

Homeopathic medicines are not placebos! Little “pellets” of sugar cannot have an effect!

Of course, the sugar in homeopathic pellets doesn’t have any effect. This is why we also have tablets and drops that contain homeopathic active substances.

The sugar is simply a medium for these active substances. The important element is what has been added to the sugar – the active ingredient!

As homeopathic remedies have very slow action, they cannot be used to treat acute illnesses!

This is incorrect. You can successfully use homeopathy in acute circumstances such as infections, fevers and colds.

Homeopathy seems to be a kind of magic!

Homeopathy is not magic! Homeopathy is a field of medicine that has the capacity to heal, but if course, it has its limits, just like any other medicine, including conventional medicine.

To give you a clear example – it’s unlikely that homeopathy will replace a surgical intervention.

During homeopathic treatment you have to follow a strict diet!

Well, it’s not such a bad thing…but of course, you need to eat healthily and avoid smoking, drinking alcohol and coffee.

In some cases you can’t eat onion or garlic as they contain sulphur, which is a homeopathic remedy in itself. All of these things have little to do with a strict diet.

Diabetes sufferers can’t use homeopathic remedies!

This is not true. The amount of sugar in the pellets is negligible. These homeopathic pellets could even be taken on a daily basis. The foods we eat contain much more sugar, even those that are especially for diabetics.

MY CORRECTED VERSION

Homeopathic medicines are not placebos! Little “pellets” of sugar cannot have an effect!

Of course, the sugar in homeopathic pellets doesn’t have any effect. And the drops added also contain no active substances.

In other words, there is no active ingredient!

As homeopathic remedies have very slow action, they cannot be used to treat acute illnesses!

This is correct. You cannot successfully use homeopathy in acute circumstances such as infections, fevers and colds. In fact, you cannot use it to cure any condition, chronic or acute.

Homeopathy seems to be a kind of magic!

Homeopathy is not magic! It relies on the placebo and other non-specific effects, and that is no magic.

During homeopathic treatment you have to follow a strict diet!

Hahnemann gave very clear instructions to avoid a whole range of things while taking homeopathic remedies – otherwise, they don’t work, he claimed. This is as wrong as everything else Hahnemann said about homeopathy: these remedies don’t work whatever you do.

Diabetes sufferers can’t use homeopathic remedies!

This is not true. The amount of sugar in the pellets is negligible. These homeopathic pellets could even be taken on a daily basis. The foods we eat contain much more sugar, even those that are especially for diabetics. But that does, of course, not mean that diabetics ought to take homeopathic remedies. There is no reason why they should; these remedies are pure placebos.

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Few people reading these lines will be surprised that the ‘resounding answers’ turn out to be resounding lies. And what I above called ‘great fun’, turns out to be a serious deception.

The fascinating thing here is, I think, the way homeopaths try to mislead the public: one seemingly innocent untruth about the ‘active substance’ is used as the basis for an entire house of cards. It tumbles at the slightest attempt to provide the facts. Sadly, many consumers do not know the facts and are therefore prone to fall victim of these resounding lies.

There is perhaps not a law against such lies, but there certainly are moral and ethical principles that must not be violated:

TELLING LIES OF THIS NATURE IS UNETHICAL AND ENDANGERS THE HEALTH OF THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW THE FACTS.

Homeopaths are not generally known for the reliability of their recommendations. This advice by the UK Society of Homeopaths (SoH) was emailed to me a few days ago (how on earth did they know I was on holiday?). It is just too weird and wonderful – I cannot resist the temptation of showing it to you:

START OF QUOTE

Off on holiday? Whether you’re going abroad or ‘staycationing’, keep these remedies handy to tackle a range of minor ailments. We suggest 30c potencies for all remedies, using every 30- 90 minutes, two or three times depending on the severity of the condition. Always seek medical help for anything more than a minor injury or illness.

Aconite Great for shock, such as from fright, bad news or after having a fall. Also good for the onset of fever after exposure to acute cold, wind or heat.

Apis For bee or wasp stings and any allergic reaction which causes rapid swelling, redness and pain and where the affected area is puffy, white or rosy, feels hot and is better for cold compresses.

Arnica The classic remedy for trauma, injury and bruising. The typical arnica patient will tell you that they are fine but may well be confused or in shock. Also useful for fractures, strains after exertion such as lifting heavy objects and the early stages of a black eye and for jetlag.

Arsenicum This is a great remedy for food poisoning, especially from meat. The person will be very anxious and not easily pacified. The pains are often burning. Vomiting and diarrhoea accompanied by chills, exhaustion, and restless.

Belladonna Great for heatstroke or exhaustion, along with appropriate cooling and rehydration therapy, and for acute fevers or inflammations, which come on suddenly and lead to throbbing pain, redness and swelling. The skin is hot and red and the face flushed but, at the same time, the person can feel chilly and want to be covered.

Ledum This is the first remedy to think of with puncture wounds and for bites and stings which fester. Good for twisted or sprained joints, especially ankles.

Nux Vomica The main remedy for hangover or indigestion from over-eating but also useful for food poisoning in which there is constant retching.

Urtica urens Very useful for skin conditions such as urticaria with raised lumps like nettle rash and great for ‘prickly heat. Urtica can be used for minor burns and scalds as well where pains are stinging, like nettle rash, but not too sore to touch.

END OF QUOTE

I find the list and particularly the comments most revealing. To me, they suggest that homeopathy just do not have a cue. They recommend nonsense for conditions they know nothing about. They do not seem to know what real shock or food poisoning or heat stroke are. They do not seem to appreciate that they can be life-threatening problems. And by stating “Always seek medical help for anything more than a minor injury or illness”, they clearly admit that they are merely jokers of no significance whatsoever.

For what it’s worth, I here give my evidence-based view on the remedies listed:

Aconite No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Apis No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Arnica Some evidence to show that Arnica does not work.

Arsenicum No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Belladonna No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Ledum No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Nux Vomica No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Urtica urens No evidence to justify the claims mentioned above.

Oh, I almost forgot: the SoH is the organisation of ‘professional’ homeopaths in the UK (professional meaning they have no medical training). On their website, they state: “High standards are the cornerstone of the Society of Homeopaths. So we were delighted that our register was accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA)  in 2014… This accreditation demonstrates our commitment to high professional standards, to enhancing safety and delivering a better service.”

One does wonder whether killing gullible holidaymakers via bad advice counts as high standards.

With depressing regularity, we hear that this or that VIP has decided to travel to Germany to get her/his cancer cured. As long as I can remember, cancer quackery has been wide-spread in Germany. More recently, dozens of private clinics have sprung up that seem to specialise in treating rich, foreign cancer patients. The message they like to send out is that, in Germany, one gets more advanced and effective treatments.

Having looked at some of the clinics’ websites, I do, however, not get the impression that this is true. For instance, one clinic that is often mentioned offers amongst other treatments the following (the descriptions are quotes from the clinic’s website):

  • Orthomolecular medicine aims to restore the 
ideal and beneficial environment of the body by correcting molecular imbalances, and this approach is used in cancer, infections, depression and atherosclerosis, among others.
  • Here at the Hallwang Private Oncology Clinic every patient receives a well-balanced supportive infusion program consisting of anti-inflammatory, potent anti-oxidant and detoxifying substances, which help you recover from previous treatments, minimize side effects from current treatments and strengthen your immune system to enhance treatment effects. Substances used are for example vitamin C, selenium, zinc, L-ornithine aspartate, glutathione, alpha lipoic acid, among many others.
  • Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is an essential vitamin. It is a potent antioxidant which helps to protect against free radical damage to our proteins, fats, carbohydrates, DNA and RNA. Vitamin C is used to boost the immune system.
  • Ozone is a powerful oxidizing agent. While high concentrations can be toxic, small ozone doses may increase naturally occurring antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants help to eliminate malignant calles and are needed to keep the body healthy. Ozone used for treatment is known for its bactericidal, fungicidal and virostatic properties. It also stimulates circulation and immune functions, and revitalizes the body.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to treat several medical conditions. It is a well-established treatment for decompression sickness, a hazard of scuba diving. Other conditions treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy include serious infections, skin lesions or radiation injury. Wounds for example need oxygen to heal properly, and exposing a wound to 100 percent oxygen can improve and speed the healing process. This has been shown in a number of studies. The goal of this treatment is to increase the amount of oxygen your blood can carry in order to restore normal levels of blood gases and tissue function to promote healing and cure infection.
  • Whole body hyperthermia can be applied in a number of different diseases, including malignant, immunological, viral and other diseases. The aim of WBH is the destruction of malignant cells by induction of apoptosis via hyperthermia along with elimination of malignant cells that have become resistant to chemotherapy. With the help pf WBH, effects of other treatments, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy, can be enhanced.

END OF QUOTES

This does not look like cutting edge cancer therapy at all; in fact, none of these treatments are new and none have been shown to cure cancer or any other condition. Thus they are all examples of cancer quackery.

But, to be fair, the clinic in question (and most similar institutions in Germany) also employs a range of conventional cancer therapies. I am not an oncologist and therefore not competent to comment on these treatments; I leave this to someone who is competent; this is what David Gorski writes about them:  Hallwang uses very experimental treatments in a “blunderbuss” fashion, basically throwing everything but the kitchen sink together with no sophistication. We can’t even know if these doctors know what the hell they are doing. Patients are treated, and, as far as we can tell, no systematic record of how well these patients do and how long they survive is kept, or, if such records are kept, they are kept secret.

One might, of course, argue that many patients are suffering from terminal cancers. They are desperate and have a right to try anything. As good physicians, we must not take their hope away. I would not dispute that; on the contrary, these patients deserve the best care we can muster. But I would still warn them to be cautious, and again I concur with David GorskiPeople will often say of a terminal illness: How could things get any worse? The lesson of Hallwang tells us. Things can get worse if you’re induced into chasing false hope. Things can get worse if you are enticed into eschewing effective palliative treatment and suffer more than is necessary—or even die prematurely from the treatment. Things can get worse if you drain your life’s savings, leave nothing behind for your family, and spend the rest of your life chasing ever more money. Things can get worse if your family joins you in draining their life’s savings to pay for your treatments. Things can always get worse, and quack cancer clinics virtually guarantee that they will.

In view of all this, I feel strongly that it is high time the German regulators have a close look at the plethora of cancer quackery and find a way of stopping this unethical, despicable exploitation.

 

One of the biggest danger of SCAM, in my view, is the fact that SCAM-practitioners all too often advise their patients to forego effective conventional medicine. This probably applies to most medicines, but is best-researched for immunisations. A recent article puts it clearly:

… negative attitudes towards vaccines reflect a broader and deeper set of beliefs about health and wellbeing… this alternative worldview is influenced by ontological confusions (e.g. regarding purity, natural energy), and knowledge based on personal lived experience and trusted peers, rather than the positivist epistemological framework. [This] view is supported by recent social-psychological research, including strong correlations of vaccine scepticism with adherence to complementary and alternative medicine, magical health beliefs, and conspiracy ideation. For certain well-educated and well-resourced individuals, opposition to vaccines represents an expression of personal intuition and agency, in achieving a positive and life-affirming approach to health and wellbeing. These core beliefs are not amenable to change – and especially resistant to communications from orthodox, authoritative sources.

The authors concluded suggesting that a better long-term strategy is to combine with other disciplines in order to address the root causes of vaccine scepticism. Vaccine scepticism is unlikely to thrive in a cultural context that trusts and values the scientific consensus.

If I understand them correctly, the authors believe it is necessary to change the societal attitude to science.

I am sure they are correct.

We live in a time when anyone’s opinion is deemed as valuable as the next person’s. Pseudo-experts who have their knowledge from a couple of google searches are being considered as trustworthy as the true experts who have the background, knowledge and experience to issue responsible advice. Science is viewed by many as just another way of knowing, or even as the new cult or religion that must be viewed with suspicion.

It is clear that these are deplorable developments. But how to stop them?

This is where it gets complex.

One is tempted to lay the blame at the door of our politicians. Why do we tolerate the fact that so many of them have not the slightest inkling about science?

But hold on, WE elected them!

Why?

Because large sections of the public are ignorant too.

So, one must start much earlier. We need better science education, and that has to begin in the first year of schooling! We need evening classes in critical thinking. We need adult science courses for politicians.

But this is not going to happen, because our politicians fail to see the importance of such measures (and, of course, they might feel that an uneducated public is easier to govern than an educated one).

How to break this vicious circle?

It is clear from these simple (and simplistic) reflections that a multifactorial approach is required. And it is clear that it ought to be a strategy that prevents standards in the most general terms from slipping ever lower. But how?

I wish I knew!!!

This is a somewhat unusual post.

I do not normally dwell on personal anecdotes or experiences – but this one might be relevant, and it is absolutely true.

About 7 or 8 years ago (we had just published our book Trick or Treatment), I was invited to a meeting of health insurers. Not just any old meeting, but a top-notch conference where many of the world’s most influential executives of large insurance companies were gathered. It took place in one of the most luxurious hotels of Istanbul. The most prominent speaker was the brother of France’s president Sarkozy (who flew in by helicopter and came with two body-guards). He began his lecture by stating “You of course all know me because I have a famous sister in law.”

I did not have such a witty opening phrase for my talk. My task was to review the evidence for and against the major alternative therapies (at the time, I did such lectures regularly). My audience of about 300 people listened politely to what I had to say and, during, question time, they made some relevant comments. Altogether, it was a good and well-received lecture.

But the interesting bit came later.

Over coffee, I was surrounded by people who came to me and said something like this: “We know the evidence, of course, and we know how flimsy it is, particularly for homeopathy. But we still pay for it, because the competition does it too. We cannot be seen to offer less than they do. This is purely a commercial decision about being seen to be competitive.”

Such honesty came as a surprise to me. I had expected that they were well-informed about the evidence; after all, they were in charge of huge companies selling health insurances. Not knowing about the evidence would have been negligent. But I had not expected they would volunteer their motives quite so openly. I got the impression that they were trying to justify their nonsensical actions without seeming irrational. In a way, they seemed to say: ‘Such treatments might not work for the patient, but they do work for us’.

I remember suggesting to some of these executives that they could even be more competitive, progressive and ethical by telling their customers that they took better care of their money that the competition by NOT paying for ineffective treatments. Such remarks  resulted in blank faces or vague smiles. I felt my audience had not really understood the opportunity. Being honest, transparent and evidence-based was evidently not understood as a viable marketing tool.

As I said, this was almost a decade ago

… lots has happened since.

I wonder whether the message might be more attractive today.

Traditional vaginal practices usually relate to personal hygiene, genital health or sexuality. Hygiene practices involve external washing and intravaginal cleansing or douching and ingestion of substances. Health practices include intravaginal cleansing, traditional cutting, insertion of herbal preparations, and application of substances to soothe irritated vaginal tissue.

One such traditional practice is ‘vaginal steaming’.

Recently vaginal steaming has become a fad promoted by SCAM-promoters (such as the vagina-obsessed Gwyneth Paltrow) with the claim that it leads to a range of health benefits. According to one website, for instance, vaginal steaming, Yoni Eggs, yoni or v-steam, as it is casually known, acts as an internal cleanser of the membranes of the vaginal tissues and uterus. This is considered especially important for stagnant fertility conditions and/or incomplete emptying of menses each cycle. This women’s treatment gently but effectively cleanses, tones and revitalizes a woman’s center, providing a myriad benefits from reduced menstrual cramps to increased fertility and more. Support your natural feminine cycle, help your body to heal, relax, and detoxify both physically and emotionally with a yoni steam.

The method is recommended for a wide range of conditions and is said to achieve all of the following and much, much more:

  • Significant reduction of pain, bloating and exhaustion associated with menstruation.
  • Significant reduction of PMS.
  • Decrease of menstrual flow as well as reduction of dark purple or brown blood at the onset or end of menses.
  • Regulation of irregular or absent menstrual cycles.
  • Increased fertility.
  • Faster healing and toning of the reproductive system following childbirth.
  • Assisting in healing uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, uterine weakness, uterine prolapse & endometriosis.
  • Breaking down of reproductive adhesion/scar tissue. Assisting with the repair of a vaginal tear, episiotomy, or C-section scar.
  • Assisting with the healing of haemorrhoids.
  • Treating chronic vaginal/yeast infections and maintaining healthy vaginal odour.
  • Relief of menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness or pain during sex.
  • Detoxification of the womb/removal of toxins from the body. Release of stored emotions.
  • Reconnection with our female bodies and tapping into the sexual energy that is our creative potential.

Frequently, entrepreneurs recommend adding herbal or other ingredients. Herbs often used include:

  • mugwort
  • wormwood
  • chamomile
  • calendula
  • basil
  • oregano
None of these claims are supported by anything we would recognise as evidence, and it would be easy to make fun at the quacks who make them (and the women who fall for them) – unless, of course, there was real and significant harm involved. I fear, the potential for harm is undeniable:
  • vaginal steaming arms your bank account;
  • it disrupts the normal pH balance of the vagina;
  • in turn, this increases the risk of fungal and bacterial infections;
  • vaginal steaming can cause burns;
  • with added herbs, it can cause allergies.

New Zealand psychologists analysed online accounts of vaginal steaming to determine the sociocultural assumptions and logics within such discourse, including ideas about women, women’s bodies and women’s engagement with such ‘modificatory’ practices. Ninety items were carefully selected from the main types of website discussing vaginal steaming: news/magazines; health/lifestyle; spa/service providers; and personal blogs. Within an overarching theme of ‘the self-improving woman’ the researchers identified four themes: (1) the naturally deteriorating, dirty female body; (2) contemporary life as harmful; (3) physical optimisation and the enhancement of health; and (4) vaginal steaming for life optimisation. The authors concluded that online accounts of vaginal steaming appear both to fit within historico-contemporary constructions of women’s bodies as deficient and disgusting, and contemporary neoliberal and healthist discourse around the constantly improving subject.

For the sake of ‘journalistic balance’, let’s give Gwyneth the last word about the benefits of vaginal steaming. She knows best because she has done it and was quoted uttering these profound and scientific views: “The first time I tried v-steaming, I was like, ‘This is insane’. My friend Ben brought me and I was like, ‘You are out of your f**king mind. What is this? But then by the end of it I was like, ‘This is so great.’ Then I start to do research, and it’s been in Korean medicine for thousands of years and there are real healing properties. If I find benefit to it and it’s getting a lot of page views, it’s a win-win.”

And who would or could argue with that?

I have often pointed out that, in contrast to ‘rational phytotherapy’, traditional herbalism of various types (e. g. Western, Chinese, Kampo, etc.) – characterised by the prescription of an individualised mixture of herbs by a herbalist – is likely to do more harm than good. This recent paper provides new and interesting information about the phenomenon.

Specifically, it explores the prevalence with which Australian Western herbalists treat menstrual problems and their related treatment, experiences, perceptions, and inter-referral practices with other health practitioners. Members of the Practitioner Research and Collaboration Initiative practice-based research network identifying as Western Herbalists (WHs) completed a specifically developed, online questionnaire.

Western Herbalists regularly treat menstrual problems, perceiving high, though differential, levels of effectiveness. For menstrual problems, WHs predominantly prescribe individualised formulas including core herbs, such as Vitex agnus-castus (VAC), and problem-specific herbs. Estimated clients’ weekly cost (median = $25.00) and treatment duration (median = 4-6 months) covering this Western herbal medicine treatment appears relatively low. Urban-based women are more likely than those rurally based to have used conventional treatment for their menstrual problems before consulting WHs. Only 19% of WHs indicated direct contact by conventional medical practitioners regarding treatment of clients’ menstrual problems despite 42% indicating clients’ conventional practitioners recommended consultation with WH.

The authors concluded that Western herbal medicine may be a substantially prevalent, cost-effective treatment option amongst women with menstrual problems. A detailed examination of the behaviour of women with menstrual problems who seek and use Western herbal medicine warrants attention to ensure this healthcare option is safe, effective, and appropriately co-ordinated within women’s wider healthcare use.

Apart from the fact, that I don’t see how the researchers could possibly draw conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of Western herbalism, I feel that this survey requires further comments.

There is no reason to assume that individualised herbalism is effective and plenty of reason to fear that it might cause harm (the larger the amount of herbal ingredients in one prescription, the higher the chances for toxicity and interactions). The only systematic review on the subject concluded that there is a sparsity of evidence regarding the effectiveness of individualised herbal medicine and no convincing evidence to support the use of individualised herbal medicine in any indication.

Moreover, VAC (the ‘core herb’ for menstrual problems) is hardly a herb that is solidly supported by evidence either. A systematic review concluded that, although meta-analysis shows a large pooled effect of VAC in placebo-controlled trials, the high risk of bias, high heterogeneity, and risk of publication bias of the included studies preclude a definitive conclusion. The pooled treatment effects should be viewed as merely explorative and, at best, overestimating the real treatment effect of VAC for premenstrual syndrome symptoms. There is a clear need for high-quality trials of appropriate size examining the effect of standardized extracts of VAC in comparison to placebo, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and oral contraceptives to establish relative efficacy.

And finally, VAC is by no means free of adverse effects; our review concluded that frequent adverse events include nausea, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances, menstrual disorders, acne, pruritus and erythematous rash. No drug interactions were reported. Use of VAC should be avoided during pregnancy or lactation. Theoretically, VAC might also interfere with dopaminergic antagonists.

So, to me, this survey suggests that the practice of Western herbalists is:

  1. not evidence-based;
  2. potentially harmful;
  3. and costly.

In a nutshell: IT IS BEST AVOIDED.

Nipah virus (NiV) infection is a zoonosis that causes severe disease in both animals and humans. The natural host of the virus are fruit bats of the Pteropodidae Family, Pteropus genus. Human-to-human transmission has also been documented, including in a hospital setting in India. Clinical presentations range from asymptomatic infection to acute respiratory syndrome and fatal encephalitis. There is no vaccine for either humans or animals. The primary treatment for human cases is intensive supportive care. In Kerala, India, several people have died of the deadly NiV.  The infection has a mortality rate of around 70%.

It was predictable that such events would bring homeopaths to the fore. This article explains:

The Indian Homeopathic Medical Association’s Kerala unit has claimed to have the medicines to treat Nipah virus. B Unnikrishnan, an association official, said homeopathy has the appropriate medicines for all types of fever and hence they should be allowed to treat the infected patients. The association has requested the state Health Minister KK Shailaja to allow their professionals to examine the records of all those patients who have been tested positive for Nipah… So far, 16 people have died and two are recovering. Some 2,000 people who came in contact with the infected patients are also being monitored.

Knowing that an international delegation of homeopaths travelled to Liberia to treat Ebola (with the official support of their respective professional organisations), this news cannot surprise anyone.

Homeopaths dilute their remedies and delude themselves.

Sadly, the victims of their dilutions/delusions are: 

  • their patients,
  • public health,
  • progress,
  • and rationality.
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