The Homeopathy Paradox. Use it and you can go to jail; defend and promote it, and you might be rewarded.

The Homeopathy Paradox. Use it and you can go to jail; defend and promote it, and you might be rewarded.

You can make it, sell it, teach it, promote it, defend it etc. but if you actually use homeopathic remedies you can go to jail. A tragic example of this was reported a couple of years ago. Parents were sent to jail after their child died because they opted for a homeopathic treatment instead of an evidence based effective treatment. What makes it even more tragic is that the father is (was) a lecturer in Homoepathy. You can teach it but you cannot use it, because it is ineffective and can cause you or your children harm – and this is paradoxical. The sad thing is that this is not an isolated case, there are many more cases – you can find more examples here.

As far as I can tell the father of the deceased received his Masters in Health at Western Sydney University (WSU), and this brings me again to my alma mater. WSU hosts the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) who promotes and defends all types of complementary medicines, including homeopathy. When the well-known and definitive NHMRC report on Homeopathy was released, they quickly published a statement that made this report suspect and they simply defended homeopathy – and they still do. At the time this prompted me to investigate the reasons for releasing this remarkable statement.

It turns out that the NICM is partly sponsored by homeopaths who also promotes all other types of disproven and unproven complementary medicines. They accepted a couple of million dollars from the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies and in order to extend this financial relationship, the university management decided to confer an honorary fellowship to the founding member of this foundation. It paid off, because a couple of years later they again donated millions of dollars. And this is a problem. If you, as a university, accept funding from an organisation such as the Jacka Foundation you legitimise whatever these people do and to protect your (future) income you will continue to defend what they do (at the time of accepting the funds the foundation promoted this list of treatments). That the Jacka Foundation links to anti-vaccination proponents and that they themselves promote everything from homeopathy to energy medicine is a dangerous step for any university.  To then go and reward them for it is even worse and makes a laughing stock of the academic system.

But, because the NICM is hosted at a university they cannot always say what they want to say – or at least, they cannot put it on paper. They therefore associate themselves with organisations such as Complementary Medicine Australia (CMA) who can say what they want (they are industry funded). According to the NICMs ‘communication strategy’ they will use the CMA to respond to any negative media reports concerning homeopathy, because it has never occurred to them that they have a responsibility to inform the Australian public that homeopathy doesn’t work. So, in response to the NHMRC report the CMA published their infamous “The NHMRC Review on Homeopathy had Five Fundamental Flaws” (this statement is currently being used all over the world by Homeopaths to continue to defend homeopathy). They basically state that any report indicating that homeopathy doesn’t work, is unacceptable. It ends with the rather aggressive statement that “Homeopathy has been around for hundreds of years, and I am sure will be around a lot longer than some of the critics.”

But the rabbit hole goes deeper. One would expect that an organisation such as the World Health Organisation would at least be able to provide the best scientific and evidence based advice regarding complementary medicines including homeopathy. But they don’t. In their “WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy, 2014-2023” they call for the better integration of homeopathy (and other complementary medicines) with conventional healthcare. This is shocking, but not unexpected especially if you look at who compiled the report. Michael Smith, naturopath and an adjunct of the NICM. This WHO report was, of course, accepted with open arms by the NICM and other complementary medicine proponents.

To put all this in perspective. I am writing this article in a restaurant and about 100 m from me there is a registered homeopathic clinic. In South Africa, homeopaths register with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) and any complaints, such as homeopathy does not work, should be submitted to this council. Problem is; the executive of the AHPCSA consists of chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths etc. Adjacent to the homeopath’s practice is a large pharmacy that has the appearance of a corny, cheap warehouse selling everything you can think of, including a large array of homeopathic products. One product is labelled as “every home should have one” – the Blue Box Homeopathic treatment kit.

Because I visited a game farm a week or so ago and managed to get myself stung by a scorpion, I found the homeopathic remedy for serious bites quite interesting, although shocking. It simply states “bites 30C – serious bites i.e. spider, scorpion, snake, dog bite”. A 30C dilution does not contain anything except the solvent. If you consider the large number of deadly snake species in South Africa, this homeopathic remedy can have deadly consequences, because it is nothing more than a placebo.  The kit also contains deadly nightshade to be given to babies for teething issues, but again in a 30C dilution. Let us just hope that they get their dilutions right otherwise we might end up with a similar incidence as in the US where 10 children tragically died after taking incorrectly diluted  homoepathic teething products containing deadly nightshade.

Can I now go and complain about this, because they are knowingly putting people’s lives at risk (the kit also contains a 200C natural antibiotic) for the sake of making money? I don’t think it will work, considering that I have to lodge my complaint about homeopathy to a homeopath.  As long as loads of money is being pumped into universities, as long as homeopaths wiggle themselves into the regulatory agencies, I fear that the homeopathy paradox will be with us and it might even get worse in future. If you are up against an extremely well organised and highly complex system or dare I say an organised criminal syndicate, then it will take a very long time before any progress will be made.  But, we have to try!

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”- Al Capone and the Complementary Medicine Empire. Part 2: The profitable political and regulatory connections.  

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”- Al Capone and the Complementary Medicine Empire. Part 2: The profitable political and regulatory connections.  

Al Capone’s “…mutually profitable relationships with mayor William Hale Thompson and the city’s police meant that Capone seemed safe from law enforcement.” If you want to build, maintain and expand a dubious empire, then this is the way to do it. Popularity and a positive public image alone won’t do it, you need strong ties, with mutual benefits, with politicians and regulators.

In Part 1 of the Capone series of articles, the well-known ‘appeal to popularity’ was discussed with Capone’s famous quote “All I do is satisfy a public demand”. Capone was very popular and improved his already positive public image by opening up soup kitchens during the great depression. This is strikingly similar to what the Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine (CAIM) Empire is doing by ‘only satisfying a public demand’ while their proverbial soup kitchen is to provide some very good advice such as a balanced diet, exercise etc.  To understand the context of the current article Part 1 should first be read.

Political and regulatory connections

Capone was big buddies with the mayor, as well as with key figures in the police force (the regulators). To such a degree that he basically got away with murder. The CAIM empire achieve the same feat via organisations such as Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA), the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) etc. Every country has similar organisations, which again link up on an international level. These organisations lobby endlessly to achieve further legitimisation of disproven therapies, for example, through mandatory registration of disproven CAIM practices and therapists (TCM, Osteopathy, Chiropractic etc.). They aggressively defend against any negative scientific evidence and advertise their proverbial soup kitchens via ‘friendly’ journalists – to name but a few things.

But let’s focus on Australia; the deputy mayor of Sydney, Kerryn Phelps, has very strong ties with the NICM and is currently listed as an adjunct, she was the former president of the AIMA and, of course, she operates two integrative medicine clinics in Sydney. The NICM provides the ‘scientific evidence’ and she puts it in practice via her clinics. So, what type of political protection will she wield over the Sydney branch of the Empire, including the NICM? How will they further legitimise disproven therapies? But this is only the deputy mayor of Sydney, here is list of other Australian politicians that have been approached. Here is one senator that has clearly fallen for it – resulting in gems such as genital acupuncture that cures infertility.

What they want is protection, they want to be safe from prosecution, while continuing with their dubious activities. So who better to ask than the big champion of the CAIM Empire, HRH Prince Charles, to join the Sydney club.  Who will dare to touch you when you have the big guns on your side. But we have to be fair. Some politicians and other high profile people will reject the advances of the Empire, problem is, many might not. Be as it may, political connections are of utmost importance making them pretty much untouchable – same as with Capone.

As for the regulators; they have a very strong presence and even chaired the ‘Advisory Committee on Complementary Medicine’ advising and influencing the Australian regulator on CAIM issues. Currently a tremendous effort goes towards further relaxing the already extremely lax regulations governing CAIMs in Australia; “….excessive regulatory burden from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) as the biggest challenge affecting their business” They want to be able to make it easier and cheaper to sell the public whatever they fancy.

As for their global aspirations. There is one document that seems to have had a major impact on their credibility and expansion drift more than any other, and it is used to defend against any scientific evidence that a specific CAIM does not work. A respected global authority clearly gave them the thumps up and a green light to go.

“….on the stance that Australia’s peak medical science authority takes towards the aspirations and commitment of the WHO 2014-2023 Traditional Medicines Strategy” (letter from the Australian Homeopathic Society in response to the negative NHMRC Homeopathy report).

The recent release of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 provides an important message to all world Governments that TM is an important and underestimated part of health care found in almost every country in the world, and community demand for it is increasing.”

“…will be in line with the World Health Organization’s strategy of increasing public awareness and strengthening the role traditional (indigenous) and complementary medicine plays in keeping populations healthy.”

The WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 recommends member states, in effect, to integrate disproven and unproven CAIM therapies with conventional healthcare. This is, surprise surprise, exactly what the CAIM Empire wants and now they use this document as an ‘order’ from the WHO to aggressively expand their operations – because who can argue with the well-respected WHO? Does this report say anything regarding the horrific trade and use of human body parts, ‘harvested’ from children while alive, or the use of endangered animals in their products? (apparently, donkeys are being skinned alive nowadays for their purported ‘medicinal’ value). The NICM approved a thesis in 2008 where the lifesaving properties of Rhino horn was being promoted and currently they direct consumers on their website under the ‘CM resources’ tap, to a site where Rhino horn is listed as a ‘herb’ for when ‘your blood feels hot’! Just 1-2 grams will do the job.

What is their strategy to root out these horrific practices? You would expect at least a chapter on this issue, but no, it is completely ignored and instead a lovely ‘soup kitchen’ strategy is presented. This WHO strategy clearly has the fingerprints of the CAIM Empire all over it, and lo and behold, it was indeed compiled by another adjunct (a naturopath) of the NICM. Anyone that raises serious concerns? Well, it is not us that want to integrate CAIM, the command comes straight from the WHO (they just fail to tell you that they have written it) – and they just continue as before.

Politicians and regulators; it worked wonders for Capone, but the CAIM empire makes him look like a boy scout. They are indeed a very clever, although unethical, bunch of people. Part 3 will deal with breaking the law –  another similarity between the Capone and CAIM Empires.

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”-Al Capone. Part 1: A quote perfected by the Complementary Medicine Empire.

“All I do is satisfy a public demand”-Al Capone. Part 1: A quote perfected by the Complementary Medicine Empire.

“I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want”. “All I do is satisfy a public demand”. Two quotes made by the (in)famous American gangster, Al Capone. Little did Capone know that his quotes will be fully exploited and perfected by another business empire, almost a hundred years later. Nowhere is this sort of argument more prominent than in the world of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine (CAIM). ‘There is a growing demand for it, so surely our products work and are safe to use’ (this Capone approach is currently being used in a relatively new development, to integrate their ‘goods’ with conventional healthcare).  For people with the skill of critical thought, this is the well-known fallacy of “appeal to popularity”. Undeniably, this approach is quite effective and therefore also employed as one of their main vehicles to expand their empire.

Here you can find some recent examples where these statements were made in the public domain. There is, however, one example that I want to give here. “…given the number of people using these therapies, it was unethical for doctors not to practise in an integrative way.” This statement was made by Prof Kerryn Phelps, founder of Sydney Integrative Medicine and Cooper Street Clinic and consequently also a former winner of the Bent Spoon award for the promotion of pseudoscience. It comes as no surprise that she is also a conjoint professor at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), but it is somewhat surprising that she is deputy mayor of Sydney who will; “…call out BS when she sees it…”.

So, they do not only supply the growing demand, but they claim it is also unethical not to do so. Said differently, they are trying to legitimise disproven ‘health’ products, because the public demands it – they are the good guys! In effect, they take it one step further than Capone, who at least admitted that he was a criminal. The CAIM empire expressly state that they only integrate evidence-based CAIM’s and reject disproven or ineffective CAIM’s. Problem is; they almost never specify which those latter ones are, let alone removing ineffective therapies – and this is the big problem. If they actually go and do what they claim they do, their empire will contract by 95% or more, which will result in only one thing, and that is total collapse. But this also means that there are many more parallels that can be drawn between the Capone and CAIM Empires.

Populism and a positive public image

Capone rose to power during the great depression of the 1920-30’s, and it stands to reason that public sentiment during these hard times was firmly anti-establishment. Much like today, any populist with anti-establishment sentiments seems to be able to garner the support of many. Such was Capone’s popularity that the crowds would cheer for him at ball-games, as they saw him as some sort of modern-day Robin Hood. He was also a master in polishing his public image by donating to various charities and even running soup kitchens for the unemployed during the depression years. Although commendable, this was only done to build and maintain a positive public image in order to expand his highly profitable criminal empire.

Similarly, CAIM proponents have created, over a very long time, a firm anti-healthcare sentiment under the general public. The anti-vaccination movement is a case in point. They focus solely, and of course publicly, on existing problems within the healthcare establishment. Yes, there are many problems within conventional healthcare, but those problems needs to be identified and addressed – this is also known as progress. But unfortunately, their motives are not all that pure. They want to replace conventional healthcare with mainly disproven and unproven CAIMs, and again, the anti-vaccination movement is a case in point. They thrive on the anti-healthcare sentiment and while they work towards achieving their goals, the crowds are cheering them on. The fact that most of their treatments by and large fail to have any effect, and some might even be quite dangerous, seems to be of minor importance.

The CAIM empire specialises in public relations by providing the public with a proverbial soup kitchen. Commendable, but unfortunately these soup kitchens are being used to hide a more sinister world – very similar to Capone.  You be the judge! Here is a list compiled from the websites of ten organisations in six different countries, advertising the wholesome goodness of their soup kitchens, using phrases such as “wellness”, “patient centred”, “holistic”, “evidence-based”, “safe”, “cost effective” etc. It is more than enough to satiate the appetites of the hungry masses – and it might even convince some scientists.

But, if we look behind the soup kitchen we find a completely different world, which, I might add, is much more sinister. Here is a list compiled from the websites of the same ten organisations, detailing what they’re actually selling – and it is much more than just soup.  A quick scan of the list will tell you that although it contains some good medical advice, it basically contains everything that has ever been invented as a complementary or alternative medicine. A very large number of disproven and unproven therapies are listed -therapies that are known to have no benefit and to have caused harm to patients. They continue to advertise, use, defend, and importantly, refuse to publicly criticise those that sell these disproven therapies. This list reflects what their empire really stands for, and it has rightfully been called “…….one of the most colossal deceptions in healthcare today”.

Although a lot can be said about this list, I only want to focus on one aspect. When one or more of these treatments are shown, with scientific evidence, not to work (and hence it becomes dangerous to use) the Empire reacts by simply hiding their involvement and full support for those treatments from public scrutiny, and they continue as before.  For example: The AIMA currently do not list a single specific “medicine” (although their NZ counterparts still do).  This wasn’t always the case, as can be seen in the table, they simply decided to remove this (incriminatory) information and currently, they only provide the soup kitchen. The NICM do exactly the same thing, but once authorities were notified that their main funders, the Jacka Foundation (with links to anti-vaccination proponents), lists some shocking disproven “treatments”, this information was simply removed – and they continue as before. And what about the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital – they simply changed their name not to reflect what they are actually doing and they basically continue as before.

The Empire get rid of incriminating paper trials, they refuse to acknowledge that a specific CAIM doesn’t work and they become better and better at drawing the public’s attention away from what they really do and to deflect the attention towards their soup kitchens – this is called, deception!

Part 2 will deal with some other striking similarities between these two empires and, of course, the eventual fall of ‘Good Guy’ Capone.

‘Officer I am not drunk, I am alternative sober!’ Skeptics stand by Bent Spoon nomination.

‘Officer I am not drunk, I am alternative sober!’ Skeptics stand by Bent Spoon nomination.

‘I reject your reality and substitute my own’ – a quote made semi-famous by Adam Savage from the TV series, Mythbusters, and obviously meant as a joke at the time. But it seems that this one-liner has caught on with some of the world’s most powerful. Donald Trump, working tirelessly to solve the world’s biggest problems, decided during his first few days in office to release a statement, via his team, that they will provide the ‘alternative facts’ regarding the number of attendees at his inauguration. Truly important stuff, resulting in a deluge of twitter comments including the hilarious ‘Officer I am not drunk, I am alternative sober’.

This article is, however, about his front-runners who has perfected the art of conjuring, disseminating and defending ‘alternative facts’ and because they were mainly allowed to do so, unchecked or unchallenged, for many years or decades they arguably assisted in paving the way for creating the current situation we find ourselves in. For example: scientists are now holding their breaths due to Trump’s plan to review current vaccination policies and for whatever might follow once this review is completed.  What kind of ‘alternative facts’ will this review reveal? Allowing ‘alternative facts’ to go by unchallenged, even the tiniest of deviations that may seemingly not have any measurable impact, creates societies that accepts ‘alternative facts’ and hence for it to become the norm.  It is about accepting it and not necessarily about the fact itself – e.g. nobody really cares about the inauguration numbers (correction; there might actually be one person who truly cares).

Nowhere is ‘alternative facts’ or ‘alternative truths’ more common than in the world of alternative medicine, in all of its different shapes and sizes. But as Edmund Burke apparently said sometime in the 1700’s “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing”. It is therefore important that men and women, specialising in different areas of science, to at least try and present the real facts when confronted with the unchallenged dissemination of ‘alternative facts’. Yes, it can get you in hot water, but it needs to be done.  In the world of alternative medicine this also seems to be a full-time job, but luckily there are a number of brave souls, and a number of organisations, who expose these ‘alternative facts’ with the real facts, as and when presented by the alternative, complimentary and integrative medicine fraternity.

One such organisation is the Australian Skeptics who annually reward the ‘best performing’ Australian with the coveted Bent Spoon award for “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle, and it serves to highlight particularly egregious instances of anti-science”.   A number of ‘alternative fact’ proponents were nominated in 2016, including Prof Alan Bensoussan, Director of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Western Sydney University, Australia.  Obviously, you cannot just nominate anyone; that would be just wrong and therefore the provided incriminatory information has to be double-checked and authenticated.

In a recent newsletter of the Australian Skeptics an article appeared about the efforts by Prof Bensoussan to get his nomination removed (without providing a shred of scientific evidence!). You can read the full text of this riveting article here and below is mainly the e-mail exchange between the Skeptics and the NICM (republished with permission):

“On 22 November 2016, a few days before our National Convention where we present our annual awards, Australian Skeptics Inc President Eran Segev received an email from Professor Alan Bensoussan. It had a letter attached, and requested “that this letter is treated with strict confidence and only used for the purpose of removing the nomination”.

As will become clear shortly, we rejected this request as being unreasonable and unjustified both substantively and as the email was copied to two other parties not directly linked to Australian Skeptics Inc. However, there were parts of the letter that we accept should appropriately remain confidential, and we have chosen to redact those.

You can read Prof Bensoussan’s letter here.

On 3 December, a few days after the Convention, Eran Segev sent the following email to Prof Bensoussan:

Dear Prof Bensoussan,

Thanks for your email and letter. At the convention this weekend we have announced the “winner” of the Bent Spoon for this year, and I’m sure you’d be pleased to know that NICM was spared. The nominations for 2016 have now been removed from our website.

I wish to use this opportunity to express my ongoing concern over the uncritical way NICM presents information that is, at a minimum, dubious. The easiest example is the definition provided under “Energy Medicine”. Simply using the biologically meaningless terms “energy fields” and “biofields” puts you in the same category as some of the worst cranks in alternative medicine. As a minimum, I would have expected something like “it is claimed” followed by other qualifications that make it clear that NICM does not subscribe to these unscientific definitions. Unfortunately, a review of your site suggest that your claim that you “…do not defend the use of any complementary medicine unsupported by evidence” is false.

While you did not win the Bent Spoon this year, I reject your suggestion that the nomination was undeserved. Investigating complementary medicine in a scientifically rigorous manner is a credible scientific pursuit. Promoting it with weak or non-scientific evidence, as NICM often does, is not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Bent Spoon nominations for your organisation as you continue your uncritical support for implausible and evidence-free treatment modalities.

In your response to the NH&MRC review you ignored the magical pre-scientific notions that underpin homeopathy and its complete lack of plausibility, producing a statement which makes it look very much like you think this modality has some credibility, yet to be proven. The same approach permeates your site – no criticism of any alternatives to medicine in sight.

Even your warnings are mealy-mouthed: Saying “Serious forms of disease, conditions and disorders should not be diagnosed or treated without first consulting a suitably qualified healthcare professional” is not nearly good enough, when what any responsible organisation would say is “Go see your doctor” to make sure no-one sees a naturopath for a serious condition.

I also note that NICM is being sponsored by the Jacka Foundation, an organisation so uncritical of alternatives to medicine that it links to notorious anti-vaccination activists as sources of information.

I hope this will serve as a bit of a reminder of the need for scientific thinking to replace the unwavering support of complementary medicine in all its forms, which seems to inflict NICM.

Sincerely,

Eran Segev

President – Australian Skeptics Inc

Prof Bensoussan’s response on 5 December:

Dear Eran

Thank you for your update note and thoughts. We are intending to revise our website over the summer and hope to address some of the issues you have raised. However, I don’t agree with everything you say and your language is in places unnecessarily offensive.

Kind regards

Alan

And finally, Eran’s message on 5 December:

Dear Prof Bensoussan,

We at Australian Skeptics are encouraged by the news that you intend to revise the website and look forward to seeing a more measured attitude to the evidence – or lack thereof – for various CM modalities. However, until such time as NICM has clearly made a shift in its approach, we will continue to keep a sceptical eye over the Institute and its publications, and make public our criticism of the Institute when we feel it’s appropriate.

Specifically, we refer to your letter dated 22 November 2016, which we note was headed “Strictly confidential”. We suggest that this was inappropriate and that we are entitled to republish your letter if we wish.

Your letter requested us to remove text from our publicly available website. There was no confidential information in the letter which you are entitled to protect from public disclosure.

As part of our ongoing investigation of CAM, we consider that it is in the public interest to republish the nomination, your letter and our response dated 3 December 2016.

We also give you the opportunity to respond and we will publish that, assuming it is in appropriate terms and not of excessive length. If you wish to take advantage of our offer, please respond by 5 pm Friday 9 December 2016.

Sincerely,

Eran Segev

President – Australian Skeptics Inc

To date, no response has been received to this last message.

We sincerely hope that NICM will change its ways; but if past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, we remain sceptical.

A horror movie called “traditional and complementary medicine”

A group of burly men surrounds a delightful three-year-old toddler playing in the park. Out of nowhere, the one man rips off the one arm from the unsuspecting toddler while the other man starts to cut off the other arm. The trembling legs follow and the bloody, unconscious, dismembered body is thrown into the bush to die. In this movie, the bone chilling screams from the toddler is needed as this enhances and strengthens the medicinal properties of the blood-spattered limbs.

A scene from a Hollywood horror movie? No, this horrific scene is not from a movie, it is everyday life in some parts in the world. We are living this movie, although not many people want to talk about it. This horrifying slaying of a toddler happened just the other day – you can read about it here. The reason that this incident barely made the news is because this is not a unique case, it happens way more often than most people would think (for those who can stomach it – you can find more examples here and here – or google “muti killings” or “muti murders”).

How can human beings do something like this to an innocent child? Because most traditional, complementary, alternative and integrative medicines are belief based medicines underpinned by pseudoscientific principles. It is based on “magic”, something that modern science cannot explain nor confirm – or at least that is what advocates of these medicines claim. These people truly belief that a toddler’s limbs, and other body parts, have medicinal value. That many people from all cultures in the world continue to belief, and use their respective traditional health care systems, is due to many different factors.  It ranges from lack of knowledge, distrust of modern medicine (advocates love to promote this aspect), inaccessibility to modern healthcare especially in rural areas in Africa, Asia and maybe even outback Australia, costs involved etc. Another aspect, and a growing cause of concern, is that trusted institutes such as universities defend and promote these pseudoscientific principles in order to balance their books.

The trade in body parts for medicinal purposes, called the ‘muti’ trade, is obviously banned and any perpetrator faces stiff penalties, and yet this heinous practice is not declining it is actually on the increase. Harvesting body parts from people (if you suffer from albinism you are a prime target) and children who are alive, as opposed to corpses, because this augments the medicinal properties makes it all the more horrific. Similarly, the banned trade and use of endangered animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) does not seem to have much of an effect, looking at the exponential rise in the number of rhinos that has being blasted to smithereens over the last couple of years. And here again you have people who belief in the magical healing powers of Rhino horn and people at respected universities who promote and support the underlying pseudoscientific principles which dictates that rhino horn, and everything that they fancy, is “lifesaving medicine”. This is the wisdom of traditional medicine! But can we, in western countries, point a finger to Africa with their muti murders or to Asia with their use of endangered animals, bodily fluids and parts and tell them that they are completely bonkers?

I wish I could, but unfortunately I can’t. They can point a finger right back at the West because most western countries have embraced and are increasingly promoting their own pseudoscientific medicines such as homeopathy and chiropractic, and to some degree, TCM and acupuncture. They use clever marketing strategies and fake scientific terminology to achieve this and at the end of the day, children also die horrific deaths as more and more people are being misled or persuaded to use these modalities (deaths occur mainly due to a failure to provide effective treatments in time). But it gets worse in Western countries. Whilst the people harming their children with these “medicines” receive jail time the professors who defend and promote these practices are handsomely rewarded.  Scientists complaining about these practices are ostracised whilst scientists promoting these practices are seen as local hero’s at these universities simply because they bring in loads of money from the CAM industry. So you find these pseudoscientific healthcare systems all over the world and in all cultures.  The golden thread that runs through all of them; a superstitious belief that every single modality works for its intended purpose and nearly zero scientific evidence that any of it works. In a previous article I have written about the opposing and irreconcilable worlds of pseudoscience vs science.

But how to create a happy ending to this horror movie? Most cultures used body parts in one way or the other albeit for sacrificial purposes, for medicinal purposes or even cannibalism – it is (or was) a common occurrence. Whilst this practice is still lingering on in some African (and maybe Asian) countries, the main current aim should be to take the magic out of it. So what better than expert advice and guidance from an independent and truly global organisation such as the respected World Health Organisation (WHO). They should work towards taking the magic out of it and the only way to do this is to convince governments to provide mass education regarding modern healthcare. Other issues that the WHO should focus on is to come up with strategies to overcome the logistical problems hampering modern medicine reaching rural areas and to make it affordable and accessible to all. They should even work towards an exit strategy to provide for the thousands of people making a living from traditional healthcare systems.  To name but a few things.

So in 2013 the WHO stepped up to the plate and published its much anticipated “Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023”. This 76-page report, funded by China and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Traditional Medicine in Hong Kong, unfortunately contains very little or even no scientific information. No discussion on the trade and use of body parts or the pseudoscientific principles on which these “medicines” are based. No discussion of any science stuff such as promoting education, improved accessibility and cost effectiveness of science based effective medicines. There is an  inability to accept that a specific CM is ineffective and should not be used. Instead the whole report revolves around the words “integrate” or “integrative”. This is what this WHO strategy calls for – how to better integrate T&CM, which is based on magic, with mainstream conventional medicine which is based on science. And this goes for homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, TCM – disproven complementary medicines! It is as if the Australian based National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) hosted at Western Sydney University has written this report.  The agenda of the NICM? Accept millions of dollars from the CAM industry, lobby regulators including the WHO to give blanket support for all T&CMs, integrate pseudoscience with science and this in turn increase the sales figures of the CAM industry. So did the NICM write or influence this WHO report?

Who do we find in the acknowledgements section?  Michael Smith, an adjunct of the NICM and a registered naturopath (a.k.a. a pseudoscientist). The NICM would not be the NICM if they didn’t have a finger in the pie in compiling this WHO report and as stated on the NICM’s website “He was one of the primary technical drafters of the WHO Global Strategy for Traditional & Complementary Medicine (2014-2023) and continues to participate in WHO projects, working groups and consultations notably dealing with the regulation and policy setting related to traditional and complementary medicines.” And Michael is not the only one at the NICM who is intricately involved with the WHO. You can find more examples here, here and here. Lobbying and promoting T&CM – that is all that the NICM does.

For the NICM this WHO report is extremely important because now they have a directive from the authoritative WHO and who can argue with that – they can use it to silence their critics. So they proudly follow the WHO’s directive, which they have pretty much written themselves, to; “promote universal health coverage by integrating T&CM services appropriately into health service delivery and self-health care.” That very few of these T&CM’s are effective does not seem to bother anyone, that supporting these pseudoscientific underlying principles is causing untold harm and death to many, including endangered animals, is flat out ignored. But the WHO rather chose to be politically correct, to be sensitive to cultural differences and to be influenced by institutes such as the NICM – who has a financial agenda. They use the logical fallacy, an appeal on popularity, as evidence for effectiveness and based on this the pseudoscientific T&CM needs to be integrated with conventional healthcare.

So this horror movie does not have a happy ending – yet. As long as organisations such as the WHO can be influenced by the NICM and similar institutes there will be a continued, and dare I say, a growing support for the underlying pseudoscientific principles of these T&CM healthcare systems on a global level. This implies that you can go and ban the trade in human body parts or rhino horn all you want, if the underlying principles are not addressed, and people educated accordingly, these atrocious practices will continue unabated.

So what is my issue. I hold anyone of any culture or from any country, and especially experienced scientists such as at the NICM, who promotes and defends pseudosciences responsible for these atrocities. I don’t care if you are involved directly or indirectly or intentionally or unintentionally, if you promote it you are responsible.  And the consumers of all of these pseudoscientific products? Just remember, these companies use their sales figures, even if it is for “harmless” water as in homeopathic medicines, as main justification of effectiveness – an appeal to popularity! Buying their products leads to you unintentionally promoting a pseudoscience with the subsequent atrocities committed in far flung regions of the world. The WHO report might be music to the ears of the NICM and the CAM and TCM industry but spare a thought for the children whose ears are being cut off because of its purported “medicinal” value – they can’t hear the music.

Money, not evidence based science, makes the world go round. The CM industry partnering with media outlets – the logical next step?

(as at 25/10/2016 some of the funding information, most notably the $5 million received from Blackmores, has been removed from the WSU website for unknown reasons – here and here you can find screenshots as evidence that they did indeed received these donations).

A $2.9 million donation here, a $2 million there and for good measure an extra $5 million here. And just to make sure that Western Sydney University (WSU) understand who pulls the shots, add a couple of $300 000 cheques into the mix. This is the kind of funding that the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) received in the last couple of years from the complementary medicine (CM) industry. What does the NICM have to do in return? As an “independent” research institute they have to protect the CM industry with their lives and they have to provide “scientific evidence” for these companies’ products, which in turn will be used as a marketing tool. Our magical products “have been scientifically validated” or “scientifically tested” or “clinically proven” etc. What does the WSU get in return for hosting the NICM? They add the ~ $10 million under the umbrella term “industry income” and they list all the “scientific” publications under the umbrella term “scientific outputs” and so they climb the international world rankings – their only objective. Capitalism at its best, and truly a win-win situation for all.

But wait. What about the poor suckers who buy these products? There used to be a thing called consumer protection and there used to be a time when universities protected their independence because they are state funded enterprises serving the public. Clearly that time is from a bygone era and the notion that water has magical healing properties or that rhino horn is a lifesaving medicine is making a comeback, especially at WSU. And this in 2016. The problem with protecting (masterfully done by the NICM) the evil practices of homeopaths (if you can look a sick child in the eyes and sell them water as medicine, then I am content to call you evil) or to promote rhino horn as lifesaving medicine, is quite severe. The former gives credibility to the homeopathic industry and hence they will not only prescribe water for the treatment of minor or self-limiting conditions such as headaches, but because their products “work”, they will also prescribe it for life threatening conditions such as malaria and HIV. The impact on society? People die! The latter gives credibility to the pseudoscientific principles of traditional Chinese medicine. The impact? A hell of a lot of rhinos die!

It might be a win-win situation for the CM industry and WSU, but it is clearly causing a lot of misery, death and destruction for the public and wildlife alike. But can it get any worse? Unfortunately, it can. Most rogue nations (Nazis, North Korea etc.) are in full control of the media whereas democratic governments have some influence, but far less so. In democratic nations the problem is usually that big business runs the mass media and they pull the shots and decide what is fact and what is fiction. The influence of big business  in the media can be so extreme that they can determine where and with whom the next war will be. By controlling the media, just imagine what they can do to protect and promote their business interests.

It therefore stands to reason that the CM industry in Australia, who is reportedly worth $3.5 billion/annum, and who is already in control of a number of cash strapped universities, will now take the next step and buy their way into controlling or influencing the media. Because most of their products are pretty much useless, and some are quite dangerous, focusing on marketing seems to be their main goal and the logical, if not only, way to go – true to the capitalistic dream of ever increasing profits while ignoring the real cost to society. The target of their mass (misleading) marketing is not only Australia – with its small population- but specifically the massive Asian markets who is currently their fastest growth region. To achieve their goal there seems to be no better way than to “partner” with the international arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). A recent article reports the following:

“ABC International’s media service Australia Plus (A+) this week announced partnerships with Monash University, the Victorian State Government and Swisse Wellness. These ‘Foundation Partners’ receive branding and advertising opportunities across all Australia Plus platforms.”

“The brands will have exclusive advertising rights to reach 190 million people across Asia who can access online and television channels broadcast by Australia Plus.”

This article was published yesterday and unfortunately do not give specifics on the amount of money involved in this deal – but now that they have bought their way into the ABC we will probably never get to know this.

It is however interesting to note that the $15 million CM industry funding that La Trobe university accepted, received a huge amount of media attention early in 2014. The $1.3 million funding accepted by Sydney University, early in 2015, also made headlines and it was discussed for a number of days in the media. In July 2015, the CM industry donated $2 million to WSU and it barely made it into the newspapers, and then only in early 2016, six months later – let alone that it was being discussed in the media. The recent $5 million donation hasn’t even made it into any newspaper. Clearly there is a trend here, although a number of factors might play a role.

-The first three donations were publicised on the news sites of the respective universities, whereas the last donation wasn’t (hush hush, let’s keep it quiet – I wonder why?).

-WSU is the minion university amongst these three universities and it is big news when a prestigious university falls for the CM industry, but not so much when a minion university is involved (maybe the reason why the CM industry decided to target WSU?).

-That the CM industry floods universities with millions of dollars is just not newsworthy anymore.

-Or maybe, just maybe, media outlets find themselves in a similar position than most universities – desperate for cash. And this is mainly due to the ever decreasing circulation numbers, stiff competition and subsequent loss of income from advertisements. Partnering with other industries, never mind who, therefore seems to be the way to go – even if you have to (further) sacrifice your independence. Can this explain the above mentioned trend? So when will we see the tobacco industry making a comeback? They sell their products legally, so why not?

Can we expect a “win-win” situation being created between media outlets and the CM industry, similar to the CM industry’s partnership with WSU? I think this is the future, so Blackmores, if any of you are reading this, this should  be your next strategic move – partner with a media outlet. The big loser, as usual, will be the public – but in this case not only the Australian public, but also the Asian public.

Rhino horn as lifesaving medicine – do the NICM really believe this? (the things people do for $10 million bucks!)

Rhino horn as lifesaving medicine – do the NICM really believe this? (the things people do for $10 million bucks!)

My previous blog posts (you can find it here and here) discussed the pseudoscientific traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) world in which all medicines are effective, including rhino horn and other endangered species, as opposed to the modern scientific world in which very few, if any, of these TCM modalities are effective. However, the main aim of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) is to ‘integrate’ these pseudoscientific healthcare systems (TCM, acupuncture, homeopathy etc.) with modern science based healthcare systems. This is very worrying to say the least. I can also confidently predict that this drive to ‘integrate’ these two opposing worlds will sooner or later be reflected in a new name for the NICM (again).

Because of the NICM’s true believe in the pseudoscientific basis of TCM or rather the prospect of tapping into the $170 billion TCM market, Western Sydney University approved a thesis in 2008 where rhino horn was being promoted as “remarkably” better for the treatment of vascular dementia as compared to the control group. The critique that I had on this thesis was that they should have given this aspect a critical scientific appraisal which they completely failed to do, and thus I labelled this thesis as nothing more than promoting Rhino horn as effective medicine and therefore they are contributing to the sharp rise in rhino poaching. The supervisors of this thesis might now claim that it was a simple oversight or that the external reviewers failed to pick up on this issue or even that they did not know about the controversy surrounding the use of Rhino horn – although I would strongly doubt the latter to be the case.

So I dug a bit deeper and I found the proceedings of a symposium held in Sydney in 1997 with the title “healthy people, healthy wildlife”. This symposium dealt exclusively with the use of endangered species, including rhino, as medicine in the TCM world. The supervisor of the above mentioned thesis was also present and gave a presentation; “responsible use of TCM”. Below is a couple of excerpts from the proceedings (you can find the full proceedings here).

“I have been using Traditional Chinese Medicine regularly for several years. There have been many times when the wisdom of Traditional Chinese medicine has helped me recover from a physical complaint and I know just how beneficial the results can be” (page 4)

RHINOCEROS HORN (XI JIAO) (page 9-10)

XI JIAO is the horn of the Rhinoceros unicornis L or R. sondicus Desmarest, or R. sumatrienses (Fischer) Cuvier (Rhinocerotidae)

TCM nature: Salty, sour and cold

Actions: Clear heat, subdue Yang and cool blood, relieves fearfulness, detoxifying.

Indication and application: High fever, sun stroke, trauma, mania, convulsion, sore throat, epilepsy, febrile disease, infectious disease, macula, bad skin conditions, subcutaneous bleeding.

Chemical composition

The rhinoceros horn contains keratin. The amino acid constituents include cysteine, and alkaline amino acids histidine, lysine and arginine. Thus it resembles wool and cattle horn in mainly composed of [eu]keratin. In addition the horn contains other protein’s, peptide’s, free amino acids, and guanidine derivatives.

Substitute

As the horns from rhinoceros, antelope and Buffalo (SHUI NIU JIAO) shared similar chemical compositions and amino acids, especially keratin, it has been proved that buffalo’s horn used as a clinical substitute for rhinoceros’ horn and antelope’s horn is therapeutically effective.

Alan Bensoussan’s presentation (page 23-29)

“At a recent conference in Hong Kong there was opportunity for practitioners and traders to express concerns related to the use of endangered species. It is worthwhile looking at these comments briefly. Some sentiments that I have heard expressed in Australia are also reflected in the comments of a TCM academic in Hong Kong: “The dilemma faced by TCM users, however, could only be better appreciated if we can step into their shoes and then make judgements if we ourselves or our beloved ones are suffering from ailments that modern medicine offers little or no help whereas products from these animals may offer relief”.

“It is important to table these views because herein lie the resistance to comply with the law, and to continue to sacrifice a constantly diminishing resource. It defies all logic. Even if we adopt the crudest perspective of some human right to continuously exploit natural resources, in this case if the medicine is valuable and in diminishing supply, the resource needs protecting. And in this sense alone the profession needs to do the utmost within its capabilities to cease all use of endangered species, and utilise alternative products, or farmed or cultivated species, at least until such time as the supply of the medicine is stable. “

Honk Kong TCM retailer

“According to CITES the trade of tigers, etc is prohibited and those TCM practitioners who use such medicines to treat and save peoples’s lives, pharmacies and traders of such medicinal resources are liable to punishment. Such international convention protects animals but harms human beings, makes animals more worthy than mankind, and degrades mankind as if they were lower than animals. It is questionable that whether such kind of rules worth existing”

“… the rights of human beings of using such resources to maintain their health, treat their diseases and sustain their survival, are ignored. The people who formulate such kind of rules are indeed ignoring human rights.”

Hong Kong TCM practitioners:

“People, however, should not work towards wildlife protection but neglect the protection of human lives.”

On rhino horn: “Reasonable application should therefore be allowed and it is inappropriate to ban the medicine entirely,” “The normal traffic of species for medical use should be set strictly aside from profit-deriving business trade.”

Singapore Chinese Doctors association

“TCM practitioners are working for the good health care for all mankind. It is not fair to treat us like profiteers or put the law on us.”

End of excerpts.

TCM nature: Salty, sour and cold. Actions: Clear heat, subdue Yang and cool blood, relieves fearfulness, detoxifying – clearly TCM is a pseudoscience!!

Although this conference discussed the use of substitutes in place of endangered animals and the use of the latter is quite clearly rejected, there seems to be strong resistance coming from the TCM practitioners and retailers. They truly believe that Rhino horn is an effective, lifesaving medicine and that it cannot really be substituted by anything else – and so does Alan Bensoussan.  Replacing rhino horn with any other horn would be equivalent to admitting that it doesn’t really work – and this is unacceptable in the TCM world. Granted, they all agree that endangered animals need to be protected but there is however one important aspect that you will not find in the symposium proceedings.

That is the extremely important question that most members of the public would ask: ‘are any of these endangered animals truly effective for the treatment of any disease?’ and as a scientist you might add ‘where is the scientific evidence that rhino horn is a lifesaving medicine for the treatment of infectious diseases etc?’ or ‘what is the mechanism of action of rhino horn and specifically keratin?’ etc. etc. Surely, these aspects should at least be discussed and TCM practitioners should be educated accordingly? In general, you first need to provide scientific evidence and then only can you go and sell your medicine!

These questions aren’t even being asked, mentioned or discussed and this again proves that in the TCM world everything is active. It is a given! The reason for this is rather simple. The person who dares question the effectiveness of a specific TCM modality, in effect questions the pseudoscientific principles of TCM. The implication of this, especially for the NICM, will be that they weaken or even lose the opportunity to tap into the $170 billion TCM market. This market only exists for the true believers and thus the NICM will not risk being exposed as a semi-or non-believer. Asking these type of questions makes you suspect! In the TCM world (and the NICMs world) rhino horn is thus seen and promoted as a lifesaving medicine for the treatment of just about anything, from sunstroke to infectious diseases! That it is a banned substance doesn’t matter because as long as the underlying believe exist that Rhino horn works, and this believe is not questioned by scientists at the NICM, then they will continue to kill the rhino for its remarkable “lifesaving medicinal properties”.

So why didn’t the NICM add one or two sentences in the thesis published in 2008 about the use of the excepted substitutes in place of rhino horn? Because it is too risky! They run the risk that TCM practitioners might see them as implying that rhino horn is ineffective and that it can or should be replaced by the horns of any animal or even your fingernails. They would put a question mark behind the very principles of TCM. The NICM is thus fully aware of the controversy surrounding the use of endangered animals but they chose to fully support the pseudoscientific world as reflected in the thesis. One can argue that the symposium was held 20 years ago and that the NICM has since changed their tune but unfortunately this doesn’t happen with pseudoscientists. One tell-tale sign of this is the inability to progress, for example: new scientific research provided conclusive evidence that homeopathy is no better than a placebo and that people put their lives at risk if they continue to use it – the well-known NHMRC report. The NICM’s response? Nope, we can’t accept this report because part of our funding comes from homeopaths. They stick to their story. You can read about it here.

At the end of the day this has nothing to do with science but, as usual, it has everything to do with money. And the NICMs perseverance is starting to pay off! In the last year or two the NICM has received in excess of $10 million dollars with the most notable single donation from the well-known Australian complementary medicine company, Blackmores (my next article will deal with this aspect in a bit more detail). Although I might be jumping the gun here, I find it strange that neither the NICM nor WSU reported this news, the biggest donation in WSU’s history, on their respective news sites! Maybe because the donation of Blackmores will be used by the NICM for ‘integrative medicine research’ or in other words how to ‘integrate’ pseudoscience with science? And because Blackmores also want to tap into the $170 billion TCM market it paid the NICM on a consultancy basis to assist in their ‘Blackmores TCM Development Program’. Problem is, the only way to tap into the TCM market is to be a true believer of the pseudoscientific principles of TCM and that includes supporting the notion that rhino horn has remarkable lifesaving medicinal properties. Wouldn’t it be nice if a large company like Blackmores make a small donation towards the rhino conservation effort? After all, it is quite dangerous and expensive, some might say futile, to keep all the poachers at bay who feeds the pseudoscientific TCM market that the NICM, WSU and Blackmores support.