Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the umbrella term for modalities historically used in ancient China. TCM includes many therapeutic and some diagnostic modalities. Even though, these modalities differ in many respects, they are claimed to have in common that they are based on assumptions most of which originate from Taoist philosophy:
- The human body is a miniature version of the universe.
- Harmony between the two opposing forces, yin and yang, means health.
- Disease is caused by an imbalance between these forces.
- Five elements—fire, earth, wood, metal, and water—symbolically represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and explain the functioning of the body and how it changes during disease.
- The vital energy, qi or chi, flows through the body in meridians, is essential for maintaining health.
TCM is a construct of Mao Zedong who lumped all historical Chinese treatments together under this umbrella and created the ‘barefoot doctor’ to practice TCM nationwide – not because he believed in TCM, but because China was desperately short of real doctors and needed at least a semblance of healthcare.
Over the past few years, China has been aggressively promoting TCM for expanding its global influence and for a share of the estimated US$50-billion global market (of products of dubious quality). A recent article in ‘Nature’ explains that the WHO’s governing body, the World Health Assembly, is set to adopt the 11th version of the organization’s global compendium — known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). For the first time, the ICD will include information about TCM. Chapter 26 of the ICD will feature a classification system on TCM, largely based not on science or facts, but on obsolete nonsense.
The WHO’s support applies to all traditional medicines, but its relationship with Chinese medicine, and with China, has grown especially close, in particular during the tenure of Margaret Chan, who ran the organization from 2006 to 2017 and made sure that several documents favourable to TCM were passed. The WHO’s declarations about traditional medicine are puzzling. Various of these WHO documents call for the integration of “traditional medicine, of proven quality, safety and efficacy”, while being silent as to which traditional medicines and diagnostics are proven. Wu Linlin, a WHO representative in the Beijing office, told Nature that the “WHO does not endorse particular traditional and complementary medicine procedures or remedies”.
But this is evidently not the case and in sharp contrast to the WHO’s actions in other areas. The agency provides, for instance, specific advice on what vaccines and drugs to use and what foods to avoid. With traditional medicines, however, such specifics are missing. The message therefore can only be that the WHO endorses TCM as safe and effective.
The evidence, however, tells us a different story. On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed that:
- the clinical trials of TCM are often of poor quality,
- there are several good reasons why one has to be very sceptical about research coming out of China,
- critics are silenced,
- in general, the evidence on TCM is neither positive nor trustworthy.
China’s drug regulator gets more than 230,000 reports of adverse effects from TCM each year, and Chinese herbal medicines carry multiple direct risks:
- one or more ingredients can be toxic,
- some have been shown to be contaminated with toxic materials such as heavy metals,
- others are adulterated with synthetic drugs such as steroids,
- others again can interact with prescription drugs taken concomitantly,
- and not to forget, the risk for endangered species.
To this, we have to add the indirect risk of employing useless treatments for otherwise treatable conditions.
In view of all this, the WHO’s endorsement of TCM and its obsolete concepts is not just not understandable, it is a dangerous step backwards and, in my view, even intolerable.
On this blog, I have ad nauseam discussed the fact that many SCAM-practitioners are advising their patients against vaccinations, e. g.:
- Andrew Wakefield, Donald Trump, SCAM, and the anti-vaccination cult
- More on vaccination scepticism, and the plea for a no-fault vaccination injury compensation scheme
- Naturopaths’ counselling against vaccinations could be criminally negligent
- HOMEOPATHS AGAINST VACCINATION: “The decision to vaccinate and how you implement that decision is yours and yours alone”
- Governments take action to prevent vaccination-rates from falling
- Use of alternative medicine is associated with low vaccination rates
- Integrative medicine physicians tend to harbour anti-vaccination views
- Vaccination: chiropractors “espouse views which aren’t evidence based”
- Faith-healing as an alternative to vaccination?
- Recommending homeoprophylaxis is unethical, irresponsible and possibly even criminal
- Chiropractors are undermining public health
- CAM use is risk factor for the failure to immunise children
- Let’s be blunt: homeopathy is bogus – but homeoprophylaxis is worse, much worse!
- Are mothers being taught by homeopaths to become anti-vaxers?
- Some naturopaths are clearly a danger to public health
The reason why I mention this subject yet again is the alarming news reported in numerous places (for instance in this article) that measles outbreaks are now being reported from most parts of the world.
The number of cases in Europe is at a record high of more than 41,000, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned. Halfway through the year, 2018 is already the worst year on record for measles in Europe in a decade. So far, at least 37 patients have died of the infection in 2018.
“Following the decade’s lowest number of cases in 2016, we are seeing a dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks,” Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said in a statement. “Seven countries in the region have seen over 1,000 infections in children and adults this year (France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Ukraine).”
In the U.S., where measles were thought to be eradicated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 107 measles cases as of the middle of July this year. “This partial setback demonstrates that every person who is not immune remains vulnerable no matter where they live, and every country must keep pushing to increase coverage and close immunity gaps,” WHO’s Dr. Nedret Emiroglu said. 95 percent of the population must have received at least two doses of measles vaccine to achive herd immunity and prevent outbreaks. Some parts of Europe have reached that target, while others are even below 70 percent.
And why are many parts below the 95% threshold?
Ask your local SCAM-provider, I suggest.
We used to call it ‘alternative medicine’ (on this blog, I still do so, because I believe it is a term as good or bad as any other and it is the one that is easily recognised); later some opted for ‘complementary medicine’; since about 15 years a new term is en vogue: INTEGRATED MEDICINE (IM).
Supporters of IM are adamant that IM is not synonymous with the other terms. But how is IM actually defined?
One of IM’s most prominent defenders is, of course Prince Charles. In his 2006 address to the WHO, he explained: “We need to harness the best of modern science and technology, but not at the expense of losing the best of what complementary approaches have to offer. That is integrated health – it really is that simple.”
Perhaps a bit too simple?
There are several more academic definitions, and it seems that, over the years, IM-fans have been busy moving the goal post quite a bit. The original principle of ‘THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS’ has been modified considerably.
- IM is a “comprehensive, primary care system that emphasizes wellness and healing of the whole person…” [Arch Intern Med. 2002;162:133-140]
- IM “views patients as whole people with minds and spirits as well as bodies and includes these dimensions into diagnosis and treatment.” [BMJ. 2001; 322:119-120]
During my preparations for my lecture at the 16th European Sceptics Congress in London last week (which was on the subject of IM), I came across a brand-new (September 2015) definition. It can be found on the website of the COLLEGE OF MEDICINE This Michael Dixon-led organisation can be seen as the successor of Charles’ ill-fated FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED HEALTH; it was originally to be called COLLEGE FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE. We can therefore assume that they know best what IM truly is or aspires to be. The definition goes as follows:
IM is a holistic, evidence-based approach which makes intelligent use of all available therapeutic choices to achieve optimal health and resilience for our patients.
This may sound good to many who are not bothered or unable to think critically. It oozes political correctness and might therefore even impress some politicians. But, on closer scrutiny, it turns out to be little more than offensive nonsense. I feel compelled to publish a short analysis of it. I will do this by highlighting and criticising the important implications of this definition one by one.
1) IM is holistic
Holism has always been at the core of any type of good health care. To state that IM is holistic misleads people into believing that conventional medicine is not holistic. It also pretends that medicine might become more holistic through the addition of some alternative modalities. Yet I cannot imagine anything less holistic than diagnosing patients by merely looking at their iris (iridology) or assuming all disease stems from subluxations of the spine (chiropractic), for example. This argument is a straw-man, if there ever was one.
2) IM is evidence-based
This assumption is simply not true. If we look what is being used under the banner of IM, we find no end of treatments that are not supported by good evidence, as well as several for which the evidence is squarely negative.
3) IM is intelligent
If it were not such a serious matter, one could laugh out loud about this claim. Is the implication here that conventional medicine is not intelligent?
4) IM uses all available therapeutic choices
This is the crucial element of this definition which allows IM-proponents to employ anything they like. Do they seriously believe that patients should have ALL AVAILABLE treatments? I had thought that responsible health care is about applying the most effective therapies for the condition at hand.
5) IM aims at achieving optimal health
Another straw-man; it implies that conventional health care professionals do not want to restore their patients to optimal health.
In my lecture, which was not about this definition but about IM in general, I drew the following six conclusions:
- Proponents of IM mislead us with their very own, nonsensical terminology and definitions.
- They promote two main principles: use of quackery + holism.
- Holism is at the heart of all good medicine; IM is at best an unnecessary distraction.
- Using holism to promote quackery is dishonest and counter-productive.
- The integration of quackery will render healthcare not better but worse.
- IM flies in the face of common sense and medical ethics; it is a disservice to patients.
The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.
In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.
For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.
In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labour
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:
- One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
- One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
- One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
- One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
- One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
- If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.
I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!