A series of reports published in the New England Journal of Medicine describe how a nine-year-old girl with a brain tumour died after her parents insisted she was treated with shark cartilage instead of chemotherapy. A boy, aged 15, with another cancer, Hodgkin's disease, insisted on treatment with a herbal remedy and accepted conventional drugs only when his condition suddenly worsened.
In some cases the alternative medicines were themselves dangerous. Investigation on a 43-year-old man taken to hospital with "agonising" stomach pains found high levels of lead poisoning caused by an Indian herbal remedy he had been given for diabetes. A separate analysis of 260 Asian medicines found one-third contained undeclared pharmaceuticals or heavy metals.
The editors of the journal, Marcia Angell and Jerome Kassirer, say the uncritical acceptance of alternative medicine by medical schools, hospitals and the public must be challenged. "There cannot be two kinds of medicine - conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not."
In a stinging attack on the herbal medicine and health food industry, they say companies have elevated their labelling to an "art form of double speak", to get round legal restrictions that prevent them making medical claims for their products, a law that also applies in Britain.
Although most herbal remedies are probably harmless, their use could lead to delays in getting effective treatment for serious illness as well as sometimes being dangerous in their own right. The danger signs may not be recognised because people assume that what is natural must be safe.Reuse content