Thursday, February 28, 2008

Homeopathy - Letter to Mmegi

I was appalled to see the article entitled "People living with HIV turn to homeopathy" in Mmegi on Thursday 28th February. Appalled because I don't think we should allow charlatans to sell their ludicrous products and, in so doing, exploit the desperate, the sick and the naïve.

Let's be clear. Homeopathy is based on nonsense. The article states that it is based on the idea of treating patients with a minute dose of the substance that causes the symptoms the patient is experiencing, but this is rubbish. What you actually get from a homeopath is water. Homeopathic "remedies" are so diluted that not a single atom of any original substance remains. If you push a homeopath on this subject you’ll eventually get them to confess that they believe the water somehow "remembers" a substance that it once contained. This is utter gibberish.

Every controlled test of homeopathic remedies has failed to show any real effect. The homeo-pathetic movement has consistently failed to help anyone other than themselves. Help themselves to fat bank balances that is. What the charlatans in Maun are really doing is breaking the law. Section 15 (1) (c) of the Consumer Protection Regulations forbids people from promising "outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis". If they take a single thebe for their water treatment they are breaking the law.

The most ridiculous aspects of what they say are almost unbelievable. The homeopath covered in the article confesses that she prescribed a "grief remedy" as well as something for liver toxicity. This is just scandalous.

So what about the wonderful effects the victims are supposedly seeing in Maun? They are nothing more than the placebo effect. Doctors around the world know that giving patients a totally ineffective medicine will make them a feel a little bit better for a short while. But that's more to do with getting a bit of attention and sympathy than any real effect.

What homeopaths pretend to offer people with HIV is hope. Hope is a great thing but only when it is based on a genuine hope, a real hope of improvement. What in fact homeopaths offer is false hope, based on a mixture of ignorance and lies. I have contempt for people who exploit the desperate. Utter contempt. I genuinely hope that nobody falls for this nonsense. If just one person does and stops taking their ARVs, the drugs that DO work, then the homeopaths who have come here thinking they can fool us will have blood on their hands.

Scence is blind - Botswana Guardian

Saying something out loud doesn't make it true. Writing something in a newspaper doesn't make it true. Even just believing something doesn't mean what you believe is true. In the past people were taught, and genuinely believed, that the world was flat. They believed that the stars were gods, that the Sun rotated around the Earth and that illness was caused by evil spirits. But we moved on. We embraced knowledge rather than superstition and we put behind us beliefs that had no foundation.

Or did we?

Last week the astonishing South African Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, stated that traditional healers, whose work is soon to be integrated into the conventional health system would not have to prove that their remedies actually worked. Specifically she said that traditional medicine should not be "bogged down in clinical trials". According to the BBC she said that "We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development".

Yet again she has missed the point. There is no such thing as a "Western protocol for research". There is no such thing as “Western research”. In fact there is no such thing as "Western medicine" any more than there is "Western sunshine". Medicine is medicine and the only real distinctions we should make are between medicines that work and those that do not, between ideas that are useful and those that are not, between things that actually help humanity and those that do not.

The scientific method, the approach that genuine medicine really uses, is based on one key thing. It's based on predictions that can be falsified. Not things that can be proved but things that can be falsified and that's what the clinical trials that Manto complains about are really all about. They are about really testing a theory that something works and testing it rigorously. What she presumably fears, along with homeopaths, reflexologists and herbal medicine sellers is the dreaded "double-blind, controlled trial". You get two groups, one gets the medicine you are testing and the other gets something that looks and feels like the medicine but is really often no more than a sugar pill or a glass of water. The key thing is that neither the people taking the medicine nor the doctors or nurses who actually give it to them know which is which until the end of the trial. Only then are the details taken out of a sealed envelope and the results properly analysed. That way can you remove the effect of people’s expectations. That way you can rule out the placebo effect, which is what happens when people believe they are getting a medicine when in fact they are not but they get slightly better anyway, just because they believe something is happening. The placebo effect is a powerful effect and it’s only by “blinding” both the patients and the doctors in a trial that you can rule out it’s effect.

In that sort of trial we could see whether so-called traditional medicines work. Hopefully some of them would. Maybe we really would find something marvelous that can really help humanity. Maybe science and tradition could come together and we could see through the medieval distortions and ignorance surrounding us

True science is a genuinely wonderful thing. Like justice it is blind. Blind to untruth, blind to expectations and blind to prejudice. Like all truth it is blind to prejudice, blind to ignorance and blind to lies.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A cure for everything? - Botswana Guardian

It really is getting worse. In the past I’ve been irritated by the nonsense from various organisations trying to sell their useless rubbish. To begin with it was the Scientologists selling their ludicrous “we can fix everything” courses while hiding their deranged belief that our minds are inhabited by the souls of multi-million year old aliens. Then it was the alternative health movements who advocate fiddling with your feet, your bottom or your gullibility, homeopaths who think water has a memory of an ingredient that is no longer there, pseudo-oriental doctors who think sticking needles into part of you will rebalance your chi and then the silliest product in the history of unscientific rubbish: the detox foot pads.

This is all, of course, utterly unscientific, utterly without evidence and utterly useless. It’s all based on lies, naiveté or ignorance.

However despite this being completely silly I have always been able to see the funny side. Until recently every bit of pseudoscientific hogwash that I’ve come across has at least been amusing.

Until last weekend.

There I was strolling with my family around Riverwalk Shopping Centre when we passed by a pharmacy. An advertisement in the window offered “Rise-up and walk – the broad spectrum herbal medicine”. OK, I thought, here we go again, some herbal concoction made from leaves that hints, in vague terms, that it can help your immune system or can boost your health. Not so. This one was different. I won’t describe their claims, I’ll quote them directly:

“Effective Solution to Athritis, Blood Pressure, Diabetes, Cancer, Typhoid, HIV/Aids, Gynaecological Disorders, Viral, Fungal & Bacterial Diseases among others”.

Where to begin?

Well, perhaps by nominating the producers of this remarkable medicine for a Nobel Prize for Medicine. If this rubbish can, in fact, cure everything from typhoid to HIV/AIDS then the producers deserve a prize. At one stroke they have cured the world of AIDS, bacterial diseases like TB and typhoid and removed the threat posed by cancer.

Alternatively we can have the peddlers of this criminal rubbish reported to the Consumer Protection Unit for breaking the law. Our very own Consumer Protection Regulations state that suppliers have breached the terms of the Regulations if they quote “scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated”. They are also in trouble if they promise “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”.

Let’s be clear about a few things. There are no products that can cure cancer that can also cure typhoid, HIV/AIDS and diabetes. Anyone who tells you differently is either a fraud or a fool.

I genuinely wish there was such a cure, I really do. If it existed my wife wouldn’t have lost her sister, my father wouldn’t have lost three years of his teenage life to TB and millions of other people would be alive today.

But it’s simply not true. It’s a deliberate lie. It’s an attempt to cash in on our desperation and that’s what makes it so repellant. Sooner or later someone is going to spend money on this worthless rubbish and will stop taking their real medicine. Then they’ll die.

I beg you all not to buy products from suppliers who sell false hopes to the desperate. We really must all stand up against this sort of deception. Lives are at stake.