Jun 01 2009

Young Scientists Condemn CAM in the Third World

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As much as unscientific medicine is a problem in relatively wealthy Western nations, it is even more so in developing and third world countries. In the US so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) is largely consumed by the “worried well” – people with disposable income who use it to treat common everyday ailments or symptoms. CAM does also infiltrate the treatment of serious diseases, but to a much smaller degree.

In the third world, however, unscientific treatments for serious public health threats is a real problem. Malaria, HIV, TB, influenza, and childhood diarrhea are all epidemic in Africa and other locations, all exacerbated by the lack of adequate health care resources. The impact of this lack of resources is worsened by reliance on ineffective pseudoscience treatments, and sometimes (as with HIV) the denial of scientific treatments.

The World Health Organization (WHO) whose very purpose is to serve the public health worldwide, especially in developing and struggling nations, has failed to adequately address the problem of unscientific medicine. The WHO, unfortunately, is an imperfect political organization and as such is vulnerable to sectarian interests. It has a poor record on combating unscientific medicine, and in fact promotes it.Their stance on “traditional medicine”, which is the term they seem to prefer, is that their role is to facilitate the “integration” of traditional medicine into “allopathic” medicine. Their use of the term “allopathic”, which is a derogatory term for scientific medicine, is very telling. The WHO policy appears to have been written by proponents of unscientific medicine.

A group of young scientists and doctors in training, The Voice of Young Science Network, have decided to prod the WHO into a more reasonable stance toward unscientific medicine. Specifically, they are publicly calling on the WHO to oppose the use of homeopathy to treat malaria, HIV, TB, influenza, and childhood diarrhea. In their open letter they state:

We are calling on the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. Homeopathy does not protect people from, or treat, these diseases. Those of us working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed. When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.

Many people in developing countries urgently need access to evidence-based medical information and to the most effective means of treating these dangerous diseases. The promotion of homeopathy as effective or cheaper makes this difficult task even harder. It puts lives at risk, undermines conventional medicine and spreads misinformation.

We are sure that you will recognise these dangers and ask that you issue a clear international communication condemning the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. We are sure, too, that you will recognise the urgency of our request, and look forward to your response.

They also give some specific examples of clinics in Africa pushing homeopathy instead of conventional medicine:

In Tanzania, Jeremy Sherr and Sigsbert Rwegasira run three homeopathic clinics and claim to have government support to establish a school of homeopathy. Rwegasira claims to treat “no less than 100 malaria patients per day.” According to Sherr’s promotional material, “conventional medicine only supplies temporary relief, often at a great cost financially, and with many severe side effects”.

For those who think that CAM is benign (which is never true, in my opinion) consider the impact of promoting  worthless snakeoil instead of effective scientific treatments for a serious infectious disease like TB.

I applaud these young scientists for taking a stab at the WHO – they absolutely should be called out for their promotion of quackery as legitimate health care. In my opinion, however, the statement does not go far enough. The WHO should be called upon to condemn all homeopathy for any indication. Homeopathy is pure pseudoscience and homeopathic “remedies” are nothing but placebos. The only ethical and scientific stance for the WHO or any such organization to have toward homeopathy is its eradication.

But I understand that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. I see the strategy in starting with the use of homeopathy for serious diseases that represent large public health risks in vulnerable populations. This is certainly the low-hanging fruit.

I will be very interested to see the WHO response, if any. Since it is clear that the foxes are already in charge of the hen house when it comes to CAM, I doubt the WHO will be moved by this open letter. Hopefully, however, it will spark some public discussion on the topic, and raise awareness of the utterly worthless and unscientific nature of homeopathy.

What this letter also highlights is that the entire scientific community needs to be called out on the subject of CAM. Being a “shruggie” (someone who recognizes the unscientific nature of CAM but does not feel it is worth any of their time or attention) is no longer ethically defensible.Scientistst and health-care professionals have a contract with society which includes defending the public from the threats of pseudoscience. Nowhere today is this more necessary than the infiltration and erosion of science-based medicine by unscientific sectarian interests.

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