Study: Alternative medicine sometimes causes death

It has been documented again and again where alternative medical treatments have killed people. Rather than respond appropriately (and logically!), the usual woo-man answer is to point out all the deaths that occur as a result of real medicine. This, of course, does nothing to answer the initial concern, and even it was a logically valid point in the given context, it is easily countered by pointing out:

  • Mistakes cause many deaths. This does not count against the efficacy of real medicine.
  • People don’t die at an average age of 45 anymore in large part because of modern medicine. You can say “thank you” anytime.
  • People aren’t dying from an intrinsic property of modern medicine.

The reason I make this point is to get it out of the way so I can make this point: Alternative medicine sometimes kills children.

Australian researchers monitored reports from pediatricians in Australia from 2001 to 2003 looking for suspected side effects from alternative medicines like herbal treatments, vitamin supplements or naturopathic pills. They found 39 reports of side effects including four deaths.

The study was published online Thursday in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, a specialist publication of the medical journal BMJ.

Unlike conventional medicines, whose side effects are tracked by national surveillance systems, there are no such systems in place for alternative therapies.

One thing the study didn’t say was that much of the harm from alternative (not real) medicine comes from the non-use of real medicine. When people get sick and decide to use unproven treatments rather than actually have something positive done for their health, they often risk becoming sicker. One medical school professor not involved in the study makes the same point:

“Perhaps the most serious harm occurs when effective therapies are replaced by ineffective alternative therapies,” he said. “In that situation, even an intrinsically harmless medicine, like a homeopathic medicine, can be life-threatening,” [Edzard] Ernst said.

It is difficult to know how many deaths come from replacing real medicine with alternative treatments. We know close to a dozen deaths occur every year as a result of faith healing. But that’s for children. I suspect the number would be higher for adults because older individuals are going to tend to have more underlying conditions than any child. And when we expand our horizon to consider general harm or being sick for longer, I believe the numbers would go up even further.

Alissa Lim of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and colleagues wrote that all four deaths they identified were caused by a decision to use alternative therapies instead of conventional medicines.

They described one case of a 10-month-old baby who had severe septic shock after being given naturopathic medicines and was assigned to a special diet to treat eczema. In another case, an infant who suffered multiple seizures and a heart attack died after being given alternative therapies — which the parents had chosen due to their concerns about the side effects of regular medicines.

Ernst said people should recognize the limitations of alternative medicines and that practitioners should be careful not to oversell their benefits.

I think I have a better recommendation than Ernst: Let’s just outlaw it all and start saving the health and lives of people.

Christmas music

It’s beyond me why so many people say they hate Christmas music.

Thought of the day

There are some phrases, refrains, points, etc that will work for a person or group for awhile, but when the opposition starts making a mockery of them, they pretty much have to be dropped, if only for the sake of quality rhetoric. For example, President Obama pointed out for a long time that he inherited a terrible economy. He’s right, of course. And, in fact, we still have to blame Bush and Republican policies (deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, etc) for getting us in this mess. But that isn’t something the President can do very easily anymore because conservative pundits have made an issue out of the idea of blaming Bush.

But religion has some pretty good ones, too. The one I have in mind is when dozens or hundreds of people die in some horrific accident, but one person survives. Often it will be a small child, but not always. Religious people will look to what happened and proclaim it a miracle! that that one person did not perish. Of course, even if miracles did exist (and the belief that they do is in conflict with science), I can’t see how that would be one. What about all the others that died? What about all the families that have lost loved ones? The fact that not everyone is dead doesn’t strike me as something to cheer. So I wonder: When can we all start making enough of a mockery of this religious refrain in order to get people to drop it?

Merry Christmas

I really need to update this picture.