The Harm of Alternative Medicine

A frequent point that comes up in most discussions of alternative medicine is- what’s the harm? So what if they don’t have any real evidence that they work? If people want to get a nice foot massage at a refloxology session or take homeopathic pills when they get a cold is that really so bad?

My general response to such points is that I agree that, generally speaking, most people in the West who make use of alternative medicine treatments aren’t really doing any harm. In fact I would go so far as to say that in a fair amount of cases the treatments are probably beneficial to the individual due to a combination of the placebo effect and relaxation. The problems come however when we look further afield than those using alternative medicine as a complementary system of medicine for minor health problems.

In the UK, for instance, an investigation in 2006, orchestrated by Simon Singh and Sense about Science revealed that homeopaths in the UK were actually promoting homeopathic treatments -with no proven efficacy- as a valid and alternative means of protection against malaria. In their investigation they sent an undercover investigator posing as a young traveller who was about to visit some malaria hotspots and was seeking information about protection to 10 homeopathic clinics and pharamacies. In all 10 homeopathic remedies were offered as suitable protection- despite there being no evidence that any homeopathic remedy offers any protection against malaria. What was even more disturbing is that none of the clinics or pharmacies suggested that she would still need to take anti-malarial drugs and in fact, in a newsnight follow up, several homeopaths were filmed actually recommending that homeopathic treatments could be taken instead of proven anti-malarial drugs.

A newsnight video detailing the investigations and showing the hidden camera footage can be seen here along with an article discussing the investigations here. There is also another video here with Simon Singh’s response and a representative of the British Homeopathic Association desperately trying to downplay the results of the investigation.

In all fairness, this isn’t a major issue as only around 20 people a year die in the UK from contracting malaria when abroad. The tragedy is however that those 20 deaths are avoidable if proper precautions are taken and the message provided by the homeopaths in these investigations completely undermine such a message.

Another website which provides further evidence for the potential damage that alternative medicine and a lack of critical reasoning can cause is the aptly named ‘Whats the harm?‘. This website compiles news stories were severe harm has resulted from a lack of critical thinking and arranges into easily accesible categories which list the number of people directly harmed by x. Not suprisingly, there is a very long section on alternative medicine and a browse through some of the stories there should provide more examples than you ever care to read of how alternative treatments are not always just the relaxing diversions they are often assumed to be. 

All of the material discussed so far however pales in comparison to the case of Aids prevention and Matthias Rath- the main reason I am writing this post. Matthias Rath is a German born vitamin pill entrepeneur who was once a medical researcher. He made millions selling vitamin pills in the UK, marketing them as a natural cure for cancer and disparaging proven cancer treatments as being dangerous and poisonous. In the late nineties he began to shift his focus to South Africa which was and is still experiencing an incredibly destructive Aids epidemic. Unfortunately for the population of South Africa, the president at the time was a vocal ‘HIV-Aids dissident’ who as Ben Goldacre puts it “lent official support to a small band of campaigners who variously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-retroviral medication does more harm than good, and so on”.

In such a welcoming enviroment Matthias Rath flourished. He set up vitamin clinics, took out full page ads in newspapers  attacking retroviral medication as poisons invented by Western governments, sued Aids researchers and activists and even set up a study which required aids sufferers to switch from proven medication regimes to his unproven and implausible vitamin regime (which was suspended in 2008 after being ruled as illegal).

All of this information is taken from a chapter written by Ben Goldacre, a doctor and columnist for the Guardian who writes about the media’s misrepresentation of science.  He wrote a chapter discussing Matthias Rath and the South African Aids tragedy for his book ‘Bad Science’ which unfortunately had to be left out of the first print edition, as he was at the time still being sued by Matthias Rath for libel. Rath lost the case and Ben has subsequently put the chapter back in to the new edition of the book AND made the chapter freely available online. You can read it in a pdf document or in other formats at Ben’s site and I strongly recommend you do as it is a highly disturbing story and more people should be aware of it.

Ben’s chapter ends with a stinging criticism of the alternative health community on not only it’s failure to condemn Rath but it’s active support for his ideas. Rath’s activities have a body account attached to them and those organisations who promote rather than condemn his ideas and activities are guilty of contributing to grave harm indeed. So to end this post I’ll quote a paragraph discussing the extent of the tragedy of the South Africn governments actions (supported by Rath) and the final paragraph’s form Ben’s chapter in full and leave the reader to decide for themselves if there really is any harm in promoting alternative medicine:

One study estimates that if the South African national government had used anti-retroviral drugs for prevention andtreatment at the same rate as the Western Cape province (which defied national policy on the issue), around 171,000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths could have been prevented between 1999 and 2007. Another study estimates that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unnecessary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unnecessarily born with HIV because of the failure to implement a cheap and simple mother-to-child-transmission prevention program. Between one and three doses of an ARV drug can reduce transmission dramatically. The cost is negligible. It was not available. 

Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticise any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true astonishment and watched leading figures of the UK’s alternative therapy movement applaud Matthias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organisations continue to defend Rath. Homeopaths’ mailouts continue to promote his work. The British Association of Nutritional Therapists has been invited to comment by bloggers, but declined. Most, when challenged, will dissemble. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘I don’t really know much about it.’ Not one person will step forward and dissent.

The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the conclusion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cultural and intellectual.I may be mistaken.


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