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.

3 Responses

  1. I’m not sure how much credit modern medicine can take for people not dieing before 45. In the past class had a lot to do with it. Medieval life expectancy was somewhere around 30 while the average aristocrat could be expected to live well into their 50’s and most of the time longer than that.

    Modern medicine certainly has had an effect but quality of living is the biggest one. We live better then the kings of the medieval period.

    Childhood mortality is really where medicine makes its mark, if you lived past 15 you were pretty much home free.

    I know what you mean though.

  2. I have 2 different types of eczema and there have been times I have been in massive pain. The doctors gave me sedatives so I would sleep, when I had chickenpox on top a massive eczema reaction to ragweed. I can’t imagine what what pain that poor child must have been in while his/her skin was being destroyed.

    I can see how a parent could fall into magical thinking. For example I have topical reactions to some food allergies. That can make an magical diet seem logical.. Epsom salts in the bath for dry skin seems illogical, but it reduces the swelling and fissuring. Of course this is followed by topical cordizone to any outbreak and massive moisturizer everywhere.

    I remember my father getting very angry when the docs would not give me antibiotics for the “infection”. They took the time to explain that the allergic reaction looked like an infection but it why it wasn’t one. (Was swollen and hot to the touch). Doctors educating parents is an important step in protecting the children.

  3. I guess someone should also point out that sometimes lack of treatment is actually the best option. Getting sick is part of life after all, and doctors that hand out antibiotics like candies are a huge problem.

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