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NOVAMOXIN antibioticThere are lots of folks who think “conventional medicine” is evil, comprised of personnel who work to keep people sick rather than help them, and that pharmaceuticals are “poisons” which must be avoided at all cost. It’s easy to dismiss them as wingnuts and crackpots whose belief in herbal remedies, reiki, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, and other assorted forms of pseudomedicine isn’t all that bad … because, after all, most of these “treatments” don’t hurt them (except in their wallets).

The truth, however, is that a reliance on pseudomedicine can, in fact, lead to severe harm, up to and including needless death. A sterling example of this recently happened in Alberta. The Calgary Sun reports a mother in that city has been arrested for allowing her own son to die (WebCite cached article):

Police say a woman gave her bedridden seven-year-old son holistic treatment before he succumbed to what would have been a treatable illness.

Friday, 44-year-old Tamara Lovett was arrested, later charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life in connection with the death of Ryan Lovett.…

Police allege the Grade 2 student was at home, bedridden for 10 days prior to that with what was later identified as a strep infection.

Strep infections are often treatable with medication such as penicillin.

Although it was not only the single mother who saw him deteriorating, no one contacted authorities.

So, although only the mother was arrested, we had other adults, too, who stood by and watched a child die, all in the name of avoiding normal medical treatment … which would certainly have worked. I’m sure they’re just so proud of themselves for having taken this determined stand against the evils of “conventional medicine”!

The sad but unavoidable truth is that pseudomedicine definitely can be harmful. That doesn’t mean “conventional medicine” isn’t without its faults … but it’s much better than the alternative, which has potentially-deadly consequences.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Actor Peter Bergman was famous for his commercials in which he said, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Say what you want about the commercial, but at least he was honest and up-front. Not so with Suzanne Somers, who recently published a book full of medical advice. Even though she’s no doctor, and hasn’t a minute of medical training, she nevertheless feels free to tell you how to treat cancer. It’s all about “alternative medicine,” you see, because to Ms Somers, “conventional medicine” is “destructive.” The Human Condition blog at Newsweek reports on this book:

The gist of Somers’s argument is that conventional cancer treatments—surgery, radiation, chemotherapy—take a destructive approach and that chemo, in particular, is overused. Long an advocate of alternative therapies, Somers argues that it makes more sense to build up the body to fight cancer than it does to tear it down through radiation and chemicals. She is particularly enamored of nutritional “cures.”

Even though Ms Somers has no medical credentials to speak of, she nevertheless claims to have them:

Of course, Somers has had no formal medical or scientific training, but considers herself an authority—in part because she’s survived breast cancer after choosing not to have chemotherapy, and because she’s a regular on the alternative-medicine circuit. This book, like her others, consists mainly of transcripts of her conversations with various alternative-medicine doctors, as well as lots of details about her own experiences and prevention regimen, which she has spelled out many times before, most notably on Oprah earlier this year. It’s noteworthy that her promotion of the book began by publicly blaming Patrick Swayze’s recent death on chemotherapy, rather than his pancreatic cancer. (She has since apologized to his family.)

How very nice of Ms Somers to take advantage of another person’s death, to promote her book. (Yes, she did apologize … but she knew what she was doing when she did it, and it was every bit as mercenary a decision as I just described it.)

Sprinkled into her anti-medicinal whiney tome is a bit of good advice and sound medical caveats, as Newsweek concedes:

Not all the recommendations Somers makes in the book raise eyebrows. She says eating healthy and exercising, reducing stress, and getting a good night’s sleep may reduce the risk of cancer. That’s true, but it’s not news. She’s right that not every woman with stage I breast cancer needs chemo. Few doctors would argue. In fact, they have the technology to calculate the size of the likely benefit, and agree that sometimes it’s quite small. Most doctors offer it as a choice to women who want to do everything possible to prevent cancer’s return.

But dropping a load of bullshit on people, doesn’t become any less bullshit, because she sprinkled a (metaphorical) cup of sugar over it. It remains predominantly bullshit.

The unconscionable part of this is that Newsweek had, earlier this year, exposed Somers’ questionable medicine in the course of its exposé of Oprah Winfrey’s pseudoscience promotion (as I blogged in June). Given this revelation, Somers has no viable excuse for having chosen to proceed with publishing a book full of assorted pseudomedicine and potentially-harmful medical instruction.

This whole episode just goes to show that Americans are a strange — and overly credulous — bunch. All someone has to do is become an actor or actress on a famous show, and people attribute all sorts of expertise to that person, which they do not actually possess. Ms Somers is irresponsible to assume the mantle of “physician” merely because she’s a celebrity and had cancer. Lots of celebrities have, unfortunately, had cancer … but few, if any, are credentialed to actually practice medicine or offer medical advice; and most are responsible enough not to “play doctor” by writing books on “medicine.” It’s time we realized that the cult of celebrity-worship — coupled with a vast lack of critical-thinking skills — that has consumed the US, is becoming dangerous.

Update: CNN has commentary by Dr Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. Unlike Ms Somers, as a practicing oncologist, Dr Brawley actually does possess credentials in the treatment of cancer. However, I’m sure Ms Somers, her friend Oprah, and their sheep followers will dismiss what he says, since he’s part of the Vast Conventional-Medical Conspiracy that works to destroy people and keep them sick, rather than cure them. (OK, folks, that was just a touch of sarcasm!)

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On the heels of my post yesterday about the anti-vaccine movement raging in New York state, I thought I should remark on Phil Plait (of the excellent Bad Astronomy blog) deciding to take a stand against the anti-vaccine movement in his own way:

I used to write for the Huffington Post, an online news and blog collective. It was started by Arianna Huffington during the Bush Era as a response to all the far-right online media. I didn’t agree with a lot of what was on there — I am more centrist — but at the time I thought it was necessary.

Then they started to promote far-left New Age nonsense, and when it came to vaccinations, HuffPo started posting all kinds of opinions that amounted to nothing more than out-and-out health threats. While they do sometimes post a counter-argument, it’s still almost all alt-med, all the time.

Here’s the latest: a doctor named Frank Lipman is telling people not to get vaccinated against Swine Flu. Instead he says you should wash your hands a lot, eat well, and take homeopathic medicine.

I’m sure the folks at Huff feel they’re doing the right thing, but when you’re talking medicine, feelings do not matter … science and, more specifically, evidence do. At any rate, Plait is done with Huff:

It’s the peddling of antivax rhetoric like this that drove me from HuffPo, and I’ve let them know why. I was a minor cog there, so I know it made no difference… and the proof is that they still post articles promoting procedures known to be useless. In fact, it’s worse than that, since someone might try the homeopathic water rather than get actual treatment.

So, as always, don’t listen to people like Lipman, or even to me when it comes to this stuff. Instead, go to your doctor, a board-certified and science-based doctor, and ask them about the H1N1 swine flu, and see if they recommend getting the shot.

That’s good advice … go to a bona fide evidence-based doctor, and follow his/her instructions. Plait’s exit from the circus of children that is Huff may not alleviate that blog’s fuzzy thinking, but even symbolic stands can carry some weight. Good for you, Dr Plait!

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The mass media once again dutifully follow and relay, as if it were true, the “alternative medicine” narrative, trumpeting how often people resort to alternative or “complementary” remedies (I guess this was a slow news day, huh?):

Many Americans turning to unconventional medicine

About four in 10 U.S. adults and one in nine children are turning to unconventional medical approaches for chronic pain and other health problems, health officials said on Wednesday. …

About 38 percent of adults used some form of complementary and alternative medicine in 2007, compared to 36 percent in 2002, the last time the government tracked at the matter.

For the first time, the survey looked at use of such medicine by children under age 18, finding that about 12 percent used it, officials said. The reasons included back pain, colds, anxiety, stress and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the survey.

Folks, this is not proof that alternative or complementary medicine works. Just because people do something, or believe something is true, does not grant it veracity. To believe this is known in Latin as argumentum ad populum, and in English by various names, such as appeal to popularity, bandwagon fallacy, argument by consensus, or authority of the many. Whatever name you give it, it’s wrong. Once upon a time most of humanity believed the earth was the center of a cosmos only a few thousand miles in diameter, with the sun, moon, etc. revolving around it. All of those people turned out to have been wrong.

In a similar way, that lots of Americans resort to questionable remedies, does not mean they actually work. It just means that lots of people think they work. Big difference.

The Reuters story continues:

Overall, the most common category of complementary and alternative medicine used was natural products such as herbal medicines and certain other types of dietary supplements other than vitamins and minerals.

The problem with this is that, it turns out a lot of these herbal remedies don’t work! The more studies are done on them, the more we find out out how useless they are. Here are some stories showing how this is the case:

Echinacea unproven to have value as cold treatment

Ginkgo Biloba Does Not Reduce Dementia Risk, Study Shows

Saw Palmetto No Better Than Placebo For Enlarged Prostate

… and many more, all available by Googling “<herb name> effectiveness

In fact, I will have more to say about the effectiveness of dietary supplements in my next blog entry

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