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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.