Popularity of complementary therapies has soared. Now, following a coroner's warning, the BMA calls for stricter regulation

The death of a baby whose parents shunned traditional medical treatment in favour of homoeopathy, has highlighted concerns over the growing number of people seeking complementary medicine.

The death of a baby whose parents shunned traditional medical treatment in favour of homoeopathy, has highlighted concerns over the growing number of people seeking complementary medicine.

Cameron Ayers, who suffered from a rare but treatable hereditary condition, died last May. He had an unspecified "in born error" in his metabolism, which was aggravated by honey and vinegar, but had never visited a GP, been immunised against common diseases nor given a vitamin supplement injection. At his inquest this week, Alison Thompson, the coroner, recording a verdict of death by natural causes, warned parents of the dangers of turning their back on orthodox doctors. "If this child had been given the advantages of conventional medicine, this rare condition would have been identified and he could have been treated," she said.

The growth of complementary medicine has been one of the most powerful social trends of the last decade. There are an estimated 40,000 alternative therapists in Britain, 3,000 more than there are GPs. Studies show that 40 per cent of GPs now offer homoeopathy, acupuncture, massage or osteopathy. This figure is expected to increase after Newcastle became the first medical school to require all its trainee doctors to study alternative therapies.

The growth has been fuelled by increasing disillusion with conventional medicine, which has proved ineffective against many of the chronic illnesses of modern times.

Critics see it as the triumph of superstition over science.Eighteen months ago the New England Journal of Medicine,one of the world's most influential medical journals, attacked complementary medicine, warning that its untested, unregulated remedies could pose serious risks to patients. It cited the case of a nine-year-old girl with a brain tumour who died after her parents insisted she was treated with shark cartilage instead of chemotherapy. The Journal said: "There cannot be two kinds of medicine. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not."

Last year however the equally influential British Medical Journal launched a guide for doctors to complementary medicine aimed at providing evidence on what worked and what didn't. Use of the therapies was so widespread, it said, that they could not be ignored.

The British Medical Association says the industry needs to be regulated to prevent untrained people practising. It has submitted a report to the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords calling for a regulatory body to keep lists of practitioners and run a complaints procedure.

Dr Vivienne Nathanso, head of health policy research at the BMA, said: "We recognise an increasing demand for complementary medicine and doctors are increasingly using it themselves. However there are caveats. It is essential patients be diagnosed by a conventionally trained doctor and their treatment co-ordinated to avoid clashes." She said homoeopaths should be licensed and more research was needed.

Sarah Griffin, 36, from Twickenham, in London, uses homoeopathy in tandem with conventional medicine. She used alternative cures when her son Thomas, three, had eczema that conventional medicine did not alleviate. On another occasion she resorted to traditional medicine and he had surgery for his "glue ear" after cranial osteopathy and homoeopathy failed to work.

She said: "I would rather use complementary medicine because I think the practitioners are gentler. Doctors tend to dole out antibiotics to children. But I would use conventional medicine as a last resort. Doctors can save your life."

Frederick Cole, president of the Homoeopathic Medical Association, believes its current code of ethics is adequate. He said: "We don't believe in statutory regulation. We feel self-regulation is the best way forward. There are a lot of people out there who have had full training and are doing a lot of good."

According to Government guidelines, homoeopathic medicines which are sold in pharmacies, health stories and supermarkets are required to be authorised by the Medicines Control Agency, which is part of the Department of Health. It states: "Homoeopathic products authorised and placed on the market will have been examined for quality and safety."

However, practitioners can manufacture "unlicensed" remedies for their patients after a personal consultation.

A spokesman for Nelson's, Europe's oldest manufacturer of homoeopathic remedies, said: "As with all medicines, traditional or complementary, and especially in the case of children it is strongly recommended that if a child or adult is unwell and symptoms persist they are best assessed by a qualified medical practitioner."

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