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
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
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

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

    £25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas