Jeremy Laurance: The terrible harm that alternative medicine can do

Medical Life

Farewell then, Dr Beetroot. Your name will stand forever as a warning of the great damage alternative medicine can do.

Advocates of homeopathy, nutritional therapy and similar treatments often promote their remedies with the promise that, unlike conventional medicine, they are natural, kind and can do no harm. If only it were true.

The former South African Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who died before Christmas, advocated "natural" treatments for HIV based on beetroot, wild garlic and the African potato. Together with Thabo Mbeki, the former president, she was chiefly responsible for the African National Congress government's delaying for years the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs to patients with HIV and Aids. While Mr Mbeki publicly questioned the link between the virus and the disease, Dr Beetroot advised patients the cure lay in the cooking pot. Their policies, according to a Harvard University study, cost the lives of more than 300,000 people. Who would have thought beetroot could kill on such a scale?

It is not only in Africa that alternative medicine can be a menace. A niece of mine was recently planning a trip to India and faced the tricky question of what to do to protect herself against malaria. She was not keen to take powerful anti-malarials which could have "toxic effects" on her body, as she put it, and had read about a homeopathic drug that was claimed to do the job. She was about to buy it when we discovered her plan and stocked her up with the conventional anti-malarial Malarone, which she took happily, without ill effects.

Three years ago, a survey of ten clinics by Sense about Science found they offered homeopathic pills claimed to prevent not just malaria but other diseases including typhoid, dengue fever and yellow fever. The Hospital for Tropical Diseases warned at the time that it had treated people who thought they were protected and had contracted malaria.

One of the most memorable quacks I have come across in the last decade was Professor Charles Ssali, an ENT surgeon who qualified in England before returning to his native Uganda to "do research" into Aids. I visited his clinic in Kampala where he was handing out Mariandina, a concoction of vitamins made in Greenford, Middlesex, at £60 a month, four times the average monthly salary. He claimed to have treated 17,000 patients and obtained an 80 per cent cure rate. The "medicine" was refused a licence by the Ugandan government but he later promoted it in Britain, earning himself a rebuke from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, of which he had been a member, which posted a note on its website suspending him. Professor Ssali died in 2004.

There are serious dangers in the misuse of alternative remedies. One study of alternative websites giving advice on cancer found none of the 118 different cures they recommended had a demonstrated effect against the disease.

Swallowing a homeopathic remedy for a cold or upset stomach is unlikely to do harm. But stay away from the shark cartilage and apricot stones as an alternative to chemotherapy for cancer. It may shorten your life.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Account Manager (Junior)

    Negotiable: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Account Manager (Junior) Account ...

    Solar Business Development Manager – M&A

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Accountant,Reconciliations,Bristol,Bank,£260/day

    £200 - £260 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Accountant, Reconciliations, Bristo...

    Test Analyst

    £20000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Tes...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried