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
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
i100... with this review
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Cover Supervisor

    £75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

    Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

    Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

    SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

    £1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam