“Swallowing It!” The ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ takes a look at the Australian vitamin and supplement industry. And the NICM’s role in all of this?  

“Swallowing It!” The ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ takes a look at the Australian vitamin and supplement industry. And the NICM’s role in all of this?  

Swallowing it: How Australians are spending billions on unproven vitamins and supplements.” A catchy title and a very important subject to investigate. It is however unfortunate that the term ‘unproven’ is used, instead of ‘disproven’. There is a major difference between these two terms.  The former means that vitamins and (mineral) supplements has not been tested, and therefore it is unknown if it is beneficial or not, whilst the latter indicate that it has been tested, to infinity and beyond, and it was shown not to be beneficial for most people, but for a select small group of people and for very specific conditions (e.g. vegans, pregnant women etc.). In reality, it has been tested, over and over – very little benefit and it might even carry a risk. It is therefore mainly disproven.

Herbal supplements are somewhat different. Many, such as St Johns Wort and Gingko biloba, have been tested thoroughly, whilst many haven’t. Therefore, we have a combination of unproven and disproven herbal supplements and very few that might actually be beneficial. Having said that: this does not matter one iota for the Complementary Medicine (CM) Empire – they just couldn’t care less. Why do I call them an Empire? Because of the remarkable similarities between their modus operandi and that of the well-known gangster, Al Capone. You can read about it here and here.

To say that a specific CM does not work, and that the public should stop taking it, is for these people totally unacceptable.  Here is a simple example of how it works:

A large clinical trial, called SELECT, (involving more than 35 000 men) was conducted to test if Vitamin E and Selenium prevents prostate cancer. It was stopped prematurely because not only did it not prevent prostate cancer (no benefit), there were, although not significant, “….more cases of prostate cancer in men taking only vitamin E” (indicating that it might actually be harmful). Based on this information, any responsible scientist will now conclude that the benefit of taking this supplement for the prevention of prostate cancer has now been disproven (no benefit and it might even be dangerous). Simple stuff.

Therefore the ‘National Cancer Institute’ in the US provides this information on their website; “Should men take vitamin E or selenium supplements for cancer prevention?  No. Scientists do not understand how these supplements really work and more importantly, the interactions that these supplements have together or with foods, drugs, or other supplements. There are no clinical trials that show a benefit from taking vitamin E or selenium to reduce the risk of prostate cancer or any other cancer or heart disease.”

Although the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), in Australia, did not take part in the SELECT trial, they felt compelled to release a press statement regarding the trial outcome. Whenever a negative (no benefit) result is published that might influence the sales figure of their main sponsors, they will react. In a long, and somewhat confusing, statement the NICM reaches the following conclusion and recommendation “….the precautionary principle would suggest that men over 50 and any man over 40 with a family history of prostate cancer should avoid selenium and vitamin E supplementation at doses that exceed recommended dietary intakes if not prescribed by a health professional.”

In other words; continue to buy the stuff that our sponsors sell. The well-known Australian supplement company, Blackmores, who has given the NICM more than $5 million in 2016, happily continues to sell these supplements to the Australian public. Asking Blackmores online Naturopath about the products for men with prostate issues, this is what they recommended “Blackmores has a product called Prostate Health Formula which contains both vitamin E and selenium along with a few other ingredients. Here is the product link for your information:  https://www.blackmores.com.au/products/prostate-health-formula. Frank, if you require any further information please contact the Naturopathic Advisory Service at advice@blackmores.com.au

So, is the naturopathic advisory service the ‘health professional’ that the NICM refers to in their statement?

This is a simple example of how it works. These people (and I have to exclude those very few that are conducting unbiased research into CAM’s) cannot accept that most CAM’s doesn’t have any benefit, some are dangerous and very few might be beneficial. If they do, and advise the public accordingly, their whole empire will collapse. And as usual; it is all about money and therefore it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the share price, before and after the Four Corners program airs, of the main producer of these products in Australia, Blackmores. It just might give us an indication if this program will have any sort of impact.

The Four Corners program airs tonight (13/02/2017) at 8:30 pm (AEST) but will also be archived on their website, that you can find here.

The NICM’s undeclared conflicts of interest. Is there some ministerial interest in this? An update.

‘Competing interests: The authors declare that they have no competing interests

-‘Conflict of interest: There are no known conflicts of interest and no competing financial relationships exist.’

-‘Competing interests: The authors of this article do not have any financial and personal relationships with other people or organisations that could inappropriately influence their work.’

Three examples (of the many that do exist) where no Conflicts of Interests (COI) were declared. In my previous post, it was made clear that being involved as consultants, with a ‘for profit’ organisation who donated a substantial amount of money to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), is a clear COI. Something that has to be declared and yet this is intentionally not being done. You can read about it here.

This COI information was send to three journal editors where the NICM published some of their acupuncture papers. It was also send to the Director of the acupuncture clinics to ask for clarification regarding the NICM’s role and any (financial) benefits coming from this – past and present. And to find an answer to a relatively simple question; is there anyone working at Western Sydney University (WSU), who hosts the NICM, that understands the problem at hand (pseudoscience being promoted and protected at WSU and the subsequent detrimental impact on science and on society) and who are willing to do something about this? The only way to find out is to ask. Therefore, this COI information was also send to about 1500 employees of WSU to ask for their opinions.

So, what happened since?

Only one journal responded, first by telling me that the info has been passed on to their ‘production team’, and a second message; that this matter is being investigated and the outcome of the investigation will be passed on to me – and hopefully the NICM and WSU. No response has yet been received from the two other journals and as for the Director of the acupuncture clinics – no response from either the director, who was send this information twice, nor from the clinics general email address.

That leaves us with the employees of WSU – but first a bit of stats. The number of views that a particular post generates is logged, as well as the country where these views originates from. Another interesting aspect is when you send this large number of emails, approximately 10-20% will immediately bounce back with an automatic out of office reply. Using these two parameters it is possible to see if the emails have actually been send and how many people (you don’t know their identities) have actually read it – or at least clicked on the article link. So, you can make a rough estimate of the number of people at WSU who have accessed your article. So, of the roughly 1500 emails (of the 4000 that I have), about 300 unique visitors viewed, on average, two articles each. The remaining 2500 emails could not be send because the out of office responses suddenly and completely dried up and the number of views from Australia flattened out. And this can only mean one thing; my email address has been blocked. This has happened before but at least a couple of hundred WSU employees have seen this information. So, the question is; did anyone respond?

A grand total of five people responded whereas four of the responses was a simple ‘please remove me from this email list’. The remaining response contained useful and thoughtful comments on this particular issue. Thus, there is at least one person, of those who have accessed this information, that was prepared to give this issue some thought. Is there anyone else out there at WSU who has some thoughts on this matter?

Great, so one might argue that it is mainly silence as usual with not that many people appearing to care much about this or all other issues raised in this blog. But there is some good news. Some journalists made contact, granted not solely because of this COI issue, but rather because of the bigger issues facing Australia regarding complementary medicine. Hopefully this will lead to something happening. But then there is a potential humdinger. Normally one would not expect the minister of health to just send you a letter out of the blue and yet this happened. Again, granted I have send all ministers of health letters regarding the NICM’s modus operandi, but that was almost a year ago – at the time some replied but most did not. So, what is going on here? Why now?

Any politician will be (or should be) concerned if the government dished out more than $600 000 to conduct another controversial acupuncture study. This particular study was even called a ‘wacky waste of cash’ in the media when it was announced. If it now turns out that this study, and most other acupuncture studies conducted at the NICM, has serious COI issues, then this has the potential to make headlines (there is a lot of taxpayers’ money involved).

And if that happens, then it is usually the minister of health that will be grilled. Hence, a simple way of avoiding this would be to say that the matter is under investigation, or that they are still gathering more info or that the matter has been deferred to a different department who can, or should be able to, better deal with this issue – importantly, this needs to be done before it makes headlines. But, the good news is that they might actually be investigating this matter. Hopefully, the investigation will not be limited to this COI issue but the whole modus operandi of the NICM and WSU and the subsequent impact on science, scientific education and the impact on society. Only time will tell.

So, no concrete progress yet, but the ball is starting to role. Let’s see if anything happens in the next week or so.

The NICM and the missing $5 million. Where did it go?

Now you see it and now you don’t. Where is the $5 million donation that the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) received from the controversial supplement company Blackmores? And for that matter, where are the two separate $300 000 donations received from the very same company? A number of weeks ago it was listed on Western Sydney University’s (WSU) researcher portal, under Prof Alan Bensoussan’s projects, but now it has been deleted. Maybe because we have written an article about this controversial issue a while ago? It puts us in a spot of bother because the said article had to be updated to clarify that this information has now been deleted from WSU’s website.

The only remaining donation from Blackmores is their scholarship funding program to the value of $330 000. The likely reason why this hasn’t been deleted is because these scholarships were reported on in the news, and once that happens it is always difficult to get rid of the information (and yes, scholarship funding is somewhat different than a fist full of cash to be spend on refining your techniques of how to hoodwink people). The same goes for the $500 000 received from the extremely controversial Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies – this was also in the news and hence it is still listed. But this is also the reason why neither the NICM nor WSU published a press release proudly telling the world about one of the biggest ‘industry’ donations ever received by WSU – once it is in the news it is difficult to get rid of the information.

Clearly the NICM and WSU doesn’t want a public outcry similar to what happened after La Trobe university accepted millions of dollars from Swisse Wellness and more recently when the University of Sydney accepted money from Blackmores to establish a chair in complementary medicine. These two events did indeed cause a stir and there were even commentary and concerns coming from as far as the UK. No, this is not what WSU wants, so they simply delete this information and hope that no one would notice (they actually hoped that no one would notice that it was listed in the first place).

Apparently, they have learned from the mistakes made by other universities – or did they? If they did they would not have accepted this money, so no, the only thing that they have learned was to keep this information quiet – to fly under the radar, something that the other universities did not do. So, they decided not to be transparent and publicly defend their dubious decision, but at least they can now continue to mislead the public in peace and quiet without anyone noticing – or so they think (if any journalist reads this, please ask WSU what the hell they are doing – they are becoming an embarrassment for Australian science).

But the question remains – where did the money go? Maybe Blackmores decided to pull out? Unlikely, because the contract has been signed making it difficult to pull out without facing some sort of penalty. Did WSU and the NICM suddenly grew a conscience and decided to put science and the well-being of the public first?  Well, a leopard never changes its spots so this is never going to happen. The NICM will never part with a single dollar, so the money is likely still there but they have just hidden it somewhere.

Maybe it is hidden under the name of a different researcher at the NICM? Unlikely, the more money you bring in as an individual researcher relates directly to the number of gold stars you get on your forehead from the Vice Chancellor – and Alan loves his gold stars. So, looking under the names of different NICM researchers did not yield any information, as expected. Maybe they moved it from ‘projects’ to ‘consultancy’? – nope, no luck there either.

Thankfully, there is a thing called screenshots. If it wasn’t for these screenshots, that you can find here and here, nobody would have known about this $5 million funding. Searching the WSU website using the project reference number (P00023564) gave one result where this project is described. The only problem is that there is no mention of the value of the project. The same goes for the $300 000 donations. All these projects are there but none include the monetary value of the projects. The millions of dollars from Blackmores therefore remains to be hidden out of sight and this is of course done intentionally – they simply do not want the public to know about this. Strange, isn’t it?

You have to ask yourself why this is. What are they so afraid of? Well, if you read the other articles on this blog site you will see what they are afraid of. They are intentionally misleading the public, causing harm and even death, for the sake of money and they want nobody to know about this. And hence they will gladly accept the money from Blackmores as long as nobody to knows about it. If the public finds out they might receive unwanted attention which might lead some people asking probing questions that neither the NICM nor WSU wants to answer.

So, what will be their next move? It does indeed look a bit suspicious when a university delete information, especially if its information regarding millions of dollars received from a controversial company. Will they now list these projects again after this article is published? Let’s see what happens.

Complementary medicine and the NICM. What do we want to achieve with this blog site?

This blog site is not about complementary medicine as such but rather about a specific Institute, the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM), Australia. There are a number of valuable blog sites and resources that deals with complementary medicine in general, of which the blog site of Prof Edzard Ernst is highly recommended. You can find it here. Friends of Science in Medicine also provides valuable information and insight into the world of complementary medicine. You can find it here.

The reason that we focus on the NICM is not only because one of us has worked there for a number of years but rather that we have first-hand knowledge of what happens when a university allow pseudo-sciences to get a foot in the door. The NICM is therefore not the real problem but rather a result of a much deeper underlying issue. When the gatekeepers of science let their guard down for the sake of external income and international rankings then we are in serious trouble – the NICM, using complementary medicine as their vehicle to achieve their dubious objectives, is a prime example of this.

We therefore aim to address both these issues.

  1. It is too late to prevent society from being flooded with unproven and disproven complementary, alternative and integrative medicines (due to the efforts of the NICM and the like) under the guise of ‘evidence-based’, but we should aim to reverse this trend. The only way to do this is to continue to publicly expose how the NICM mislead the public, regulators, lawmakers and all other stakeholders. The public should, with the information provided on this blog site and others, start to put pressure on all these stakeholders for true reform. This is obviously easier said than done. We can, unfortunately, only provide information on how this truly shocking game is being played at the NICM and what the (future) impact on society will be if it goes unchecked.
  2. To address the second issue is much more complicated. Very few university’s will ignore millions of dollars from the complementary medicine industry for the sake of protecting the integrity of science, scientific education and the well-being of society – which is alarming because most universities are funded mainly by the public. Unfortunately, and even after repeatedly being warned about these dangers, this is exactly what has happened at Western Sydney University (WSU). We therefore aim to publicly expose how WSU play the game and what the (future) impact of this is on science, education and on society.

As a secondary aim, we request anonymous information about any verifiable information exposing any wrongdoing at the NICM or WSU (we already have enough data to keep us busy for a very long time but you never know what might turn up). This is preferable although we do welcome information from other fields of science and also from other universities (let’s call this “academic-leaks”). Information regarding how to send anonymous emails or documents can be found here. We do not care about who you are, as long as the information provided can be verified and that it clearly contains information about any wrongdoing e.g. data falsification, fabrication, cover ups, bullying etc.  If the information can be verified, it will be published on this blog site as is. This is needed to put pressure on universities, especially WSU, to make a true effort to return to unbiased scientific research and student training as their main objectives. Yes, it will take a long time but it can, and should, be done!!

Information can be send to: charlademia@gmail.com

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.