Current Affairs Science

Balancing act

What would you do if someone claimed that, because of “geopathic stress”, moving your bed could be the key to avoiding cancer? Well, if you’re the Irish Independent, you give that someone the most prominent picture and article space in a section about cancer prevention and treatment, with the bold headline “The truth about avoiding cancer”.

The man in the picture holding the magical pieces of wire is Brendan Murphy, and the article is little more than an advertising piece for his company, Positive Energy. Though the piece starts promisingly by pointing out that geopathic stress is “an area that is still open to debate”, sadly, it fails to deliver that debate. Instead, the reader is treated to a number of claims with a dearth of supporting evidence.

  • By ‘dousing’ (an ancient practice of using two wires to find underground waterways) Brendan can identify where water runs under a house and has found a strong correlation between that and illness.
  • If you’re constantly waking tired and unrefreshed it could be a sign that you’re sleeping over geopathic stress.
  • There’s a growing interest in how geopathic stress or ‘sick building syndrome’ affects health, with planners in several countries now considering geopathic stress lines when building houses. 
  • On the basis that electromagnetic waves affect the body’s ability to restore itself during sleep, Brendan advises also keeping mobile phones and electricity boxes an arm’s length from the bed – as well as keeping WiFI switched off at night.

The piece neither provides, nor suggests where you might find evidence to support the claims about Murphy’s dousing abilities (or anybody’s ability to accurately douse), or why electricity boxes and wifi might prevent your body from “restoring itself”, and if you found yourself wondering what planners are interested in geopathic stress lines, and how they could possible hope to avoid them all if they are as prevalent as claimed, you are not alone. A quick search through any academic database will cure what ails you – geopathic stress turning up only in low quality journals and those that focus on complementary and alternative therapies. Whatever strong correlations Murphy claims to have found between illnesses and these imaginary stress lines, it certainly hasn’t been documented in any research papers.

Continuing to largely ignore the seemingly fictional nature of the piece, the author concludes that there has been “little investigation into the area, but if something as small as changing where you sleep, or moving your phone, might impact on your health it could be worth thinking about.” A statement of equal legitimacy might be “there has been little investigation into the area of alien-induced head colds, but if something as small as wearing these protective alien UFO blocking nose plugs might impact on your health, it could be worth thinking about”.

Further down the page, nestled between largely sensible articles from an Irish Cancer Society representative and a dietician, Dr. Aileen O’Kane, now an Ayurvedic practitioner tells us that “if the digestive system is overtaxed the immune system is compromised and can’t gobble up the cancer cells that the body is always producing, the way it normally would”, and in a nod to the thoroughly debunked “alkaline diet” craze, that “Many people who have cancer have excess acid in the body.” The conclusion, highlighted for you in a section of its own, is to “keep acidic foods to a minimum”. O’Kane believes that any illness, including cancer, is the body’s warning sign that our lives are out of balance.

Our lives aren’t the only things suffering from a lack of balance – increasingly, in the name of journalistic balance, legitimate and accurate information is overshadowed by misleading quotes and scaremongering by those brought in to “balance” the piece. It’s one thing to include dissenting opinions when discussing the latest trend in fashionable shoes, or whether some movie lives up to the hype, but medical science isn’t about which opinion is more popular or compelling, it’s about evidence.

These articles might pay lip service to the lack of evidence by saying things like “still up for debate” or “Dr. Someone  believes that”, but placing these articles next to pieces by legitimate medical professionals lends them a degree of credibility which they often don’t deserve. When articles like these are published, the trust that is placed in well-respected and nationally read newspapers such as The Irish Independent is extended to the people who make claims about alternative therapies. They are claims that shouldn’t be trusted, claims for which they should have to provide evidence – but the mere fact of publication often means they don’t have to.

Every time an author discusses serious medical conditions like cancer, and decides that appearing to be “neutral” is more important than reporting accurately, they perpetuate the idea that alternative and unproven therapies are as legitimate as proven ones, and that when it comes to treating these conditions, everyone’s opinion is equal, even if those opinions come with no pertinent training, no supporting evidence, or an eye-watering price tag. Encouraging people to “think about” these alleged cancer causes and prevention methods essentially encourages baseless worry, reaching down to a fear of terminal illness and death that we all possess, and as no effort is made to draw a distinction between the sensible advice (eat a healthy, varied diet) and the more ridiculous advice (magical invisible lines under your bed), the overall impression one is left with is that each of these “truths” about cancer prevention are equally valid. Alternative therapies are alternative because they have either not been proved to work, or have been proven not to work, and including these therapies, simply so that you can call your piece balanced is irresponsible to the point of dangerous – a lesson which The Independent sorely needs to learn.

Current Affairs Science

Scapegoats and quackery

““The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Quack clinics are often quick to claim their victories, with the smallest improvement in a condition being hailed as irrefutable proof that the treatment works. When the treatment fails, however, and there is blame to be apportioned, it seems that everyone and everything but the treatment are to be targeted.

A few days ago, we heard about Olivia Downie, who sadly has become so ill that she is unlikely to live. Her family raised money to send her to the Hope4Cancer Institute in Tijuana, Mexico, so that she could receive Sono-Photo Dynamic Therapy. The unproven  treatment uses light and sound to fight cancer, and is not generally accepted as an effective treatment for cancer. The expense, difficulty, and stress of travelling to Mexico have been compounded for the family, as the treatment has not worked, and Olivia has deteriorated significantly. She is now too unwell to fly home without medical assistance, and will need a chartered flight with specialist care if she is to be brought home before she dies.

This is a story which is all too familiar for many who read about alternative cancer treatments – though we are told at great length about the alleged successes of the treatment, more often than not, a family spends all that they have only to be separated from their loved one, and to potentially see them die alone in a foreign country. Several articles appeared today, detailing the fears of her parents that her life support machines will be turned off, because of delays in paying their medical bills. Surprisingly, instead of criticising the clinic for what is despicable, bullying behaviour, the blame has been placed at the feet of NatWest, saying that their banking problems, which caused delayed payments and account issues, are threatening Olivia’s life.

The Daily Mail opens their article by talking about the “innovative”,”life-saving”, “specialised” treatment, and gives no mention to its unproven nature (barely mentioning the fact that the treatment hasn’t worked). Later, we are told that the hospital deny making this threat, but that denial has come after a rushed payment was arranged by the family at the weekend.



The Daily Mail article quotes the mother as she spoke to the Telegraph, and the article which appears in the Telegraph is similarly uncritical of the clinic and the treatment, and eager to lay the blame with the banks.


The Telegraph is happy to tell us about the “life-saving” treatment which Olivia received at the Mexico clinic, and though Olivia’s mother, Linza, is quoted as saying that you “can’t blame the banks. It was bad timing, it was one of those things”, the Telegraph (among others) seem to be quite happy to blame the bank for threats to Olivia’s life support machines. In fact, as more articles appear, the focus seems to be on the role the NatWest problems may have played in the transfer of funds, and on nothing else.

I can only imagine how difficult and upsetting this time must be for Olivia’s family, but this doesn’t excuse the lazy, uncritical reporting which will almost certainly draw more attention to the clinic. The treatment doesn’t work, and it hasn’t been properly tested or proven. Andy Lewis blogged about Olivia, including a video which shows the doctors promising results that they cannot hope to achieve, lying about the effects of chemotherapy, and the effectiveness of their treatment, and articles discussing the treatment have been at best uncritical, and at worst, complimentary.

When a lone maverick sets up a clinic, because he or she has been persecuted by the mainstream medical community and Big Pharma, because they have a simple, non-toxic cure for all cancers, it all sounds a little bit too good to be true, and that’s almost invariably because it’s not true at all. The Hope4Cancer clinic is another example of this, and once again, the uncritical reporting serves only to harm the public. NatWest haven’t threatened the life of this little girl, the clinic which promised a cure based on wishes and dreams, and then threatened to pull the plug for purely mercenary reasons are the ones who should be at the receiving end of any backlash forthcoming, as they alone are responsible for what has happened.

Current Affairs Science

Curing Canine Epilepsy with Starvation

Pets can be wonderful companions, and the (often unconditional) love they provide can really lift your spirits when things are dark and difficult. Most people want to repay that joy by giving their pets the best training, toys, and food that they can, and for food in particular, the average pet owner is spoiled for choice. A popular pet food in the UK and Ireland is Burns, and make no mistake, it is legitimately popular, because it is a good and well-liked food. The person responsible for Burns Pet Food is John Burns BVMS Lic. Ac. MRCVS, a veterinary surgeon, and in addition to offering a range of foods, he and his team also offer nutritional and health care advice for your pets, and this is where I must sadly become less complimentary.

Burns Pet Food advertises itself as a holistic pet food, and offers advice on its website about holistic health care for your pets. The principles upon which this health advice is based are:

  • Good health is the normal state.
  • The body will tend towards a state of good health.
  • Healing will take place if it is possible.
  • Acute illness is a sign that the body is trying to heal itself.
  • Chronic illness is the result of failure or suppression of the healing process.

These principles raise alarm bells immediately for their similarity to a number of alternative medicine principles – namely the “healing crisis” myth (common in many CAM therapies, but homoeopathy and chiropractic in particular), and the idea of “optimum health” (common in many CAM therapies). A brief look into Burns’ “Guide to Natural Health Care (PDF)” provides a history of his education, and it becomes clear where these ideas have sprung from:

[…] A few years later, having read some impressive reports about acupuncture I decided to become an acupuncturist. The two-year course on Traditional Oriental Medicine attempted to unite ancient principles of health to our Western way of life. During this time I came to realise that acupuncture suffered from the same important shortcoming as modern medicine – the illness itself was being treated but the treatment did not address the cause of the problem.

At the same time I became a Student of the Macrobiotic movement which was in great vogue in Britain in the seventies but which has now virtually disappeared from view (in the UK at least). Macrobiotics attempted to apply and adapt ancient, traditional philosophy in a way which was practical and appropriate to our modern lifestyle.

At first, the advice given in the guide – based mostly around the idea that a balanced diet is best – seems sound. It isn’t long, however, before we tread into the nebulous region of “toxins”, and their effect on the body. Though the guide does not detail the toxins in question, it assures us that a build-up of these toxins (often a result of poor diet) can cause all sorts of illnesses, from hepatitis to heart disease. I asked Burns what these toxins were, and received some notes on the production of toxins, and a brief definition:

“Toxins” are
1.) The waste products of normal metabolism but which are produced to excess, in the form of mucopolysaccharides, cholesterol and fatty acids., urea.

2.) Pollutant chemicals which are absorbed from the gut, lungs, even through the skin.

3.) Bacterial endotoxins

4.) Ammonia from bacteria and protein metabolism

5.) Products of cell damage (inflammation, infection, free radical production)

6.) The products of fat oxidation i.e. rancid dietary fat but also oxidation of body fat.

These are the sorts of toxins that are regularly mentioned when discussing detoxification and the associated idea of optimum wellness, and they certainly sound legitimate, but even a cursory examination of the claims is enough to begin to debunk them.

Cholesterol, urea, and other chemicals/compounds/particles/etc can build up in the body and cause problems, but this is often something associated with other, more severe medical problems, rather than the cause of them. High levels of urea in the blood can cause a number of problems, such as vomiting, weight loss, etc., but high levels of urea are most often a result of kidney failure – something which is not caused by dietary (or process waste) toxins. Pollutant chemicals have a hard time affecting our bodies, because they must first pass through a number of barriers. The skin is our first line of defence against disease and “pollutant chemicals”, providing an excellent barrier which keeps out a tremendous number of substances. It keeps out any and all particles that are larger than ~40nm in diameter (pretty small!). Indeed, the development of transdermal patch medications has been limited as a direct result of the fact that many molecules (medicinal or otherwise) are simply too large to pass through the skin (and even if they do, they are diffused within the first few layers, before the molecule reaches the bloodstream). The gut is regularly assailed with foreign material, pollutant chemicals, and indeed, food, but before anything reaches the intestines (and absorption), it passes through the stomach. The low pH of the hydrochloric acid effectively kills many common bacteria, and anyone who has ever had the unpleasant experience of having food poisoning can attest to the body’s ability to expel matter that it believes damaging. These systems are not infallible, but nor are they the paper-thin,  sieve-like defences that many alternative medicine practitioners would have you believe. Dietary and stored body fat can be harmful to health, if there is a large amount of it, but it’s not “toxic”. Nor are the products of fatty acid oxidation, which is part of the process of using stored fatty acids for energy. As for the products of cell damage, protein metabolism, and other body functions, any waste material is processed by the body itself.

Just about the only really scary toxin on that list are the bacterial endotoxins – even very small amounts of them can cause severe illness in humans, and the majority of septic shock cases are caused by endotoxins. They are genuinely toxic, but so much so that no adjustment in diet will prevent them from affecting you (or your pet) . I strongly suspect that this particular entry made the list simply to add gravitas to the rest of the entries, because a pet food, no matter how good, will not prevent septic shock, and septic shock does not cause many of the “signs of elimination” discussed later in the guide (and this blog). The “toxins” listed above (even the bacterial endotoxins) do not build up in our body as a result of poor diet, and nor can they be controlled by diet. They are the waste products of normal bodily functions, or things that we encounter daily in our diet, but because of the functions of our liver, kidneys, digestive tract, skin, and other organs, we simply don’t experience toxin build-up unless there is some sort of more serious problem (e.g. kidney or liver failure, genetic disorders, etc.), and if a more serious problem exists, it’s unlikely that dietary change alone will fix it.

The guide, goes on to talk about the development of disease, stating that “as the build-up of toxins continues, the major organ systems will start to show signs of degeneration and failure. […] One may encounter: Heart Disease, Kidney Disease, Diabetes, Tumour formation”. This is a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse – toxin build-up doesn’t cause kidney disease, kidney disease results in build-up of chemicals such as urea. We’re also told that arthritis and rheumatism are caused by muscle tension which is due to:

(1) the accumulation of waste metabolic products in the muscles.
(2) weakness of a major internal organ system. This is a viewpoint which will be familiar to students of acupuncture, but suffice to say that certain muscles relate to specific organs e.g. a weakness in stomach function affects the muscles on the front of the (hind) leg or the lumbar muscles at the level of the stomach.

This, as you might expect, is in sharp contrast to the stated causes of arthritis, as you might find them in a biology or medical textbook – damage to the joint from disease, wear and tear, or in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation in the joints causing swelling and destruction of cartilage. There is a disorder which does cause joint pain as a result of things building up in the joints, but that’s not arthritis, it’s haemochromatosis.

Throughout the guide, there are plenty of mentions of toxins, and their underlying role in all aspects of animal health. It seems that most conditions are merely “signs of elimination” – the body getting rid of all of these toxins (for example, the warmer weather draws toxins to the surface of the body, which is what causes dogs and cats to moult – a sign of elimination. This is how they expel toxic waste matter.). Ultimately, the main message seems to be that good food will solve a number of behavioural and health problems, and I’m certainly not averse to anyone feeding their pet good food, but I draw the line at questionable medical advice. Moulting (and it’s causes) might not be the most life-threatening  or dangerous condition, but it’s not long before the guide reaches more serious conditions. Approximately half-way through the guide, I came across the following paragraphs, which so shocked me that I was rendered speechless:

Holistic Medicine views epileptic fits as a process by which excess energy is discharged. Generally, excess energy is discharged by increased mental and physical activity – hyperactivity or excessively boisterous behaviour. […]

Holistic treatment of epilepsy is by feeding a diet which is hypo-allergenic, chemical-free, low in protein and fat, and high in complex carbohydrate (brown rice is best for this). It is essential that the quantity of food meets but does not exceed the dog’s energy requirement.

Epilepsy is because you feed your dog too much, and it has excess energy to get rid of.

I can’t think of a more irresponsible thing to say to a pet owner, or a more irresponsible behaviour to encourage. A dog developes epilepsy, the owner thinks the food is exceeding the dog’s requirements and feeds less, the dog continues to have periodic fits, the owner continues to reduce the food given to the dog. I enquired as to whether there was a study I could read which might support this connection between overfeeding and epilepsy, and received the following from John Burns (via another staff member):

There is no source for this; it is my simply me musing on the nature of holistic health based partly on my understanding of traditional medicine, especially Macrobiotics.

I thought that the comments on epilepsy were quite irresponsible, but a few pages on, and I’ve found something equally questionable:

Many pet owners who are interested in holistic medicine or who are concerned about using drugs and chemicals on their pets are reluctant to have their pets vaccinated. In theory if a pet has the correct diet and lifestyle it will be naturally resistant to disease and therefore need not be vaccinated.

However, theories do not always work in practice. My policy is that a puppy/kitten should be vaccinated by conventional methods in the usual way. Distemper, parvovirus and leptospirosis are too dangerous to be treated lightly and I do not have sufficient confidence in Homeopathic vaccination.

You don’t have sufficient confidence in Homeopathic vaccination? Why would anyone have any confidence in homeopathic vaccination, let alone someone who is medically trained?

The guide finishes with an overview of a holistic lifestyle, which includes many more typical alternative medicine ideas and phrases, including lots of mentions of “Western Medicine”, and the suggestion that our society is “fragmented and ill-at-ease”, because we have “replaced the problem of infectious disease with that of degenerative disease”. We are also treated to an overview of Macrobiotics and the Seven Levels of Judgement that it is concerned with. Both sections are too long to include here, so I suggest that you consult the guide to read them.

When it comes right down to it, pets are an easy target for alternative medicine. Adults who choose alternative medicine for themselves may have been taken in by the advertising and false mysticism associated with it, but they have made that choice for themselves. Adults who choose alternative medicine on behalf of those less able to decide (young children, pets, etc.) muddy the waters, as the recipient of the treatment must naturally assume that their primary care-givers mean only the best, and that the treatment will work as promised. In this scenario, pets bring an additional complication – they can’t tell you that it isn’t working, that they are sick or in pain, or that they would rather you medicated their epilepsy than starved them for it.



Since posting my blog, Burns have responded by pointing out that I’m obviously skeptical of alternative medicine. They also have let us know that they can’t share their miraculous healing stories with us for “legal reasons”…

(Sadly, this image was stored on the Twentyfirst Floor server, and as such, is not accessible any more. I’m trying to find a local copy that I can replace it with, as the post also seems to have disappeared from the Facebook page in question)

Current Affairs

Aiding dogs… with Reiki?

Would the principle of an organisation prevent you from donating money/time/items if you disagreed with those principles? This is a question I posed a short time ago on Twitter, when I wondered if atheists felt that they couldn’t donate to religious based charitable organisations, because of the conflict in belief. There was a mixed bag of answers, though many seemed to think that, as long as they were providing valuable aid, and not leaning too heavily on the bible-bashing, that it was worth donating money to help those in desperate need. Leaving religious clashes aside, is there ever a point at which you would question your charitable donations, based on your knowledge of what the organisation will do with that money? For me, this question was raised again yesterday, when I discovered that a dog sanctuary in Ireland regularly uses its donations to fund alternative therapies for its animals (see note below – 16/11/11).

Dogs Aid is an animal sanctuary in Dublin, primarily for dogs, but also housing other animals on occasion. The following is from its website:

Dogs Aid is a charity set up by three ladies in 1987 to help dogs that were unwanted and abandoned in Dublin, Ireland. Since then we have helped rehabilitate and rehome hundreds of dogs. Dogs Aid has a no destruction policy so we never put a recoverable dog down, and as a result the sanctuary is a permanent home for many forever dogs that are “too old or too bold” to be rehomed. From time to time we also take care of other animals including rabbits, bats, birds, foxes, feral cats, hedgehogs etc.

Dogs Aid is entirely staffed by volunteers and entirely funded by public donations, and all of our money goes to help the animals. We are currently in the process of building a new sanctuary on our permanent site and look forward to moving the dogs to their new home later this year.

Dogs Aid, like many animal sanctuaries, is funded by public donations, and they are the kind of organisation that I would have donated to in the past, but yesterday, while looking through their website, I found the following paragraph describing the condition of one of their “forever dogs” (emphasis is my own):

When Daisy came into us it was clear that something wasn’t quite right. The vets diagnosed her with brain damage and blindness resulting from the brain damage. After regular meals and regular reiki healing she’s doing really well. Daisy doesn’t spin as much as she used to and is a happy, confident girl.

At Dogs Aid, Daisy benefits from regular reiki healing.

Reiki healing focuses on the manipulation of chi, in conjunction with meridian lines and chakras. The practitioner can use many techniques (but often a “laying on hands” approach) to manipulate the chi and flow chi energy into the patient in order to heal them of many ailments. Despite repeated attempts to demonstrate the effectiveness of reiki, it is widely discredited as having no stronger effect than a similarly administered placebo. In 2008, a review of clinical trials involving reiki concluded that there was no evidence to support its efficacy for any condition, and serious methodological concerns were noted with regard to the trials (many of which were so poorly constructed that they had to be excluded from the review).

One, off-hand mention of the use of reiki might not be enough to discourage one from donating to, or otherwise helping, Dogs Aid, but a look at their “Useful Links” page was enough to discourage me. Pride of place, above even links to Veterinary services, is a link to a Pet Healer, who practises “Small animal healing, specialising in Reiki and Seichem which is great for relieving stress, boosting energy, vitality and immune system responses.”

The Pet Healer in question is Marese Hickey, and she treats both animals and people. In people, she uses a combination of therapies that she has learned, mixing hypnosis with other “energy medicine” techniques. In animals, she uses both reiki and seichem, which she says allows her to safely perform “psychic surgery”. Further examination of her site yields a story of her own cat, who outlived her expected death by several months – a situation which Hickey attributes to her own healing, and to homoeopathic remedies prescribed to her by Emily McAteer, a homoeopathic vet. The cat in question suffered from cancer of the ear (squamous cell carcinoma) and chronic renal failure, and in the last 6 months of its life, received no treatment for either condition.

It’s clear from her own website that Hickey believes her cat lived as a result of her healing, and the fact that she consulted a homoeopathic vet cements her attachment to alternative medical treatments. Many people point to the response of animals to alternative medicine (such as homoeopathy) as proof that it works, stating that animals cannot know about placebo responses and other explanations for feeling better after alternative medical treatment, and therefore must be healed by the treatment in order to seem better. It is true that animals probably aren’t aware of the concept of placebo treatment, but it is also true that their owners are susceptible to confirmation bias – simply, the owner expects the pet to  improve, and so sees an improvement. This effect may be enhanced by the owners behaviour toward the pet – the owner’s behaviour may change, and the pet may respond to this change by also changing its behaviour. Finally, if a pet is receiving no treatment for a serious medical condition, it is possible that pain and sickness will cause it to change its behaviour, and that this behaviour will be misinterpreted as an improvement in condition (e.g. pet moving around much more attributed to an improvement in the condition, but could equally be due to the pet’s discomfort and inability to find comfort in any position).

I’m afraid that this is, absolutely, enough for me to question further donations to Dogs Aid. I don’t support alternative, unproven therapies, directly or indirectly. It is clear that, at least some of the volunteers there do support these therapies, and will continue to use them, and advertise them as a viable method of treating your sick pets. As a donor, I can’t stipulate where my money goes – I can’t simply phone Dogs Aid and say that I will only donate money toward veterinary bills with real, qualified vets using actual medicine – so the only choice left is to raise an objection, and withdraw support. Sorry, Dogs Aid, but I’m out.


Update: Dogs Aid have been in touch to clarify their position, and state that “Marese Hickey comes to the sanctuary regularly to volunteer her reiki skills, entirely without cost to Dogs Aid.”.

Current Affairs

Burzynski in Ireland; arguing with believers

Earlier this morning, I tweeted a link to this very sad article, in which we are told that a toddler has passed away after a battle with cancer. Though devastating for the family, the story would be otherwise unremarkable, except for the brief mention of the treatment the toddler received. According to the article, the family opted to refuse the chemotherapy (due to the high risk), and instead, opted for Burzynski’s treatment.

I have spoken here before about Burzynski’s treatment, and the fact that I believe it to be ineffective. While I accept that some people will want to supplement conventional treatment with things that help them to maintain a positive outlook, I believe that it is dangerous to eschew conventional (and proven) treatments in favour of unproven and/or dangerous quack treatments, and I believe that it is wrong when this decision is made, not by adults for their own treatment, but by adults, on behalf of children. I realise that this is occasionally a controversial opinion to hold, and this was reaffirmed today, when I tweeted the link to that article, saying:

A #burzynski victim from Ireland – a toddler has passed away after eschewing chemo for quackery.

This prompted a series of increasingly irrational responses from a twitter user known as mrs_bopp, aka, Kate Bopp. I’d like to address some of the arguments that she made in greater detail than twitter will allow, so to my blog I’ve come. I’ve used Storify to capture the conversation in full, and you can see it here, but for the purposes of clarity, I’ll extract some individual tweets/arguments below.

  • You have no first hand experience with cancer, and therefore are ill-informed

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that my father is battling cancer for the second time, thus providing me with plenty of experience with cancer, its treatment, etc., this is a weak argument. I also have no first hand experience with Hogwarts, but I can assure you that, having thoroughly read and re-read the Harry Potter series, I am extremely well informed about it. Even if there was no one in my family or circle of friends who had ever had cancer (and extremely unlikely situation), merely having been around someone with cancer does not magically make you well informed. Research, keeping up with medical journals, reading about clinical trials; these things will help you to be informed about cancer.

  • Someone close to me died of cancer, so my opinion is more valid

Without meaning to sound callous, is there a single one of us out there who has not had a brush with cancer? I too have seen family struggle with cancer, and have seen friends die of cancer. I have had the unfortunate experience of seeing a child who I babysat occasionally succumb to cancer, and of comforting her friend (whom I also babysat), on the evening of the funeral. Cancer is extremely prevalent, and while I don’t mean to diminish the upset that anyone might feel upon losing a friend or a relative, the loss of a friend or relative does not make your opinion more important than someone else’s, nor does it make it scientific fact.

  • People who have made this difficult choice don’t need to hear your negativity

It’s true that reading comments or articles that question the legitimacy of Burzynski’s treatment will not help, in that they will not bring the child, parent, husband, sister, etc. back from the dead, nor will they cure the cancer of anyone considering undergoing treatment with Burzynski. The aim of my comments, blogs, or any other input, is not to upset grieving families, or to “steal hope” from those who have been told that the prognosis with conventional treatment is bleak. My hope is that people who research alternative therapies will also come across information about the controversies surrounding those therapies, and perhaps think the better of spending their life savings, and their last few months, on a treatment which will ultimately leave them unfulfilled, and not cured. My hope is that people will realise that convincing patient anecdotes are not necessarily proof of efficacy, and that they will not be taken in by them.

In recent weeks and months, several people have been taken to court to face charges ranging from criminal mistreatment to manslaughter. The reason? Rather than bring their child to a medical professional, they opted to use “faith healing”. In the case of the Hickmans, this resulted in the death of their son. Is it better that we spare these parents the difficulty of agonising over their choice, than inform people so that others will seek medical treatment? Is it better that we don’t discuss these cases, and stay silent while more people are allowed to succumb to treatable conditions due to their reliance on alternative medicines and faith healing? I have no doubt that the loss of a child is absolutely awful, and I have no wish to bully the parents of these children, but I also do not believe that we should hide from the controversy surrounding these treatments merely to prevent upset.

  • Do you have kids?

In the last paragraph, I mentioned that I don’t doubt how awful it is to lose a child. I can’t be certain of how I would feel in this circumstance, because I don’t have a child (or children) of my own, and therefore, have never lost a child. The “Do you have kids” argument is often thrown out as a hook – you reply that you do not, and are told that you, therefore, couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to have a sick child. While I don’t understand the exact specific feelings one has when their child is sick, I do understand that this argument is weak, and essentially baseless. The fact that I haven’t got children does not change the outcome of clinical trials, the misinformation spread about alternative medicinal cures, or the evidence upon which their debunking is based. The fact that I do not have children proves just one thing: that I don’t have children. Another twitter user (@Saoili) replied to this one, and though the tweet isn’t included in the storify, I wanted to include it here, because I believe it speaks volumes:

  • Oh yeah? Well chemo costs lots of money, and natural cures are just being held back by big pharma because they can’t make a profit on them.

Late in this conversation, some spectacular back-pedalling occurred, when @mrs_bopp, having first brought the issue of the cost of chemotherapy into the conversation, attempts to turn it around, and say that she never mentioned such things. Unfortunately, the exact free/cheap phrase is one I took from her own tweet, whereby she claims we are naive because we don’t know how much chemotherapy costs.

This is a familiar tactic – chemotherapy exists only to make money for big pharma, and other cures are suppressed to the detriment of the public. Of course, mrs_bopp, like many others, refused to be drawn on the fact that Burzynski’s treatment is far from cheap or free. Even after multiple deflections, and plenty of question dodging, there was no acknowledgement of the fact that, this treatment at least, costs rather a lot. If someone is truly convinced that there is a big pharma conspiracy, there is little that can be said which will change their minds, so the best one can hope for is to point out the logical flaws and call them on the back-pedalling.

  • You’re just close-minded

If in doubt, question my ability to believe things which are, obviously, beyond my comprehension. Ultimately, if clinical trials prove that Burzynski’s treatment (or any other alternative treatment) is effective against cancer, I will be delighted. It will represent a significant step forward in the treatment of cancers, and an improvement in the condition of patients while they are being treated. I look forward to the day when chemotherapy is not the gold standard of cancer treatments, and when there are more effective, and less toxic alternatives available. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Clinical trials have not proven the efficacy of a whole host of alternative treatments, and chemotherapy remains the gold standard because it works, and has been proven to work. I agree that patient anecdotes are compelling, and the videos and pictures do paint a very rosy picture of Burzynski’s treatment, but until I see some real clinical data, I find it difficult to believe that it is the miracle cure it is purported to be. It is important to keep an open mind, so that when new evidence arises, which contradicts beliefs that you previously held to be true, you can look at the new evidence with an objective, critical eye, and decide if it is conclusive enough to change your beliefs. It is important, also, to make sure that your mind is not so open that all your brains fall out.

The arguments that I saw this morning are by no means atypical, but they continue to be wheeled out whenever someone asks for proof, or evidence, or even just some common sense, so let me be quite clear. I am not out to make sure that people abandon all hope. I am not trying to upset families or ruin lives. I value the truth, even if that truth is not something that I particularly like, and I will continue to do so, regardless of how many people around me do or do not have cancer, regardless of whether I have children, and regardless of how many times I am accused of being heartless, or of lacking integrity. You are entitled to your opinion, and so am I, but neither of us are entitled to our own facts, and nor are we entitled to fill in the perceived blanks in scientific knowledge with whatever nonsense we chose to make up. I will continue to publish my opinion, and will expect that a percentage of people reading will disagree – and if you also wish to publicise your opinion, you too should expect some debate and disagreement – but the mere fact of your disagreement will no more detract from scientific fact than it will stop me publishing those facts.

I typically finish up my blog posts with a summation paragraph, and an attempt at some sort of dry wit, but in this case, I’m going to leave you with a Tim Minchin beat poem which resonates deeply with me (and not just because of these rose quartz healing crystals I’ve been carrying).



Current Affairs

Alternatives to the Quack Stuff

Today, I sent the following letter to the Irish Times.

Regarding “Alternatives to the Pink Stuff” published on Tuesday, March 8th.

A chara,

I find it disappointing and disturbing to note that a well renowned and regarded paper would publish what amounts to a puff piece promoting a form of quackery that has been debunked countless times. I refer, of course, to the Alternatives To The Pink Stuff article of March 8th. This article is a shameless promotion of homoeopathy, a non-medical treatment that is regarded as quackery by prominent doctors and scientists around the world. Its claims have been proven groundless time and time again.

We are told that, if a child is unwell, Ni Chinneide would treat them with fast-acting belladonna. Homoeopathic belladonna, aka Deadly Nightshade, is proposed as a cure because taking belladonna will give you a fever. Homoeopathic dilutions render the solution so dilute that it contains nothing but water. I’m not certain which is more laughable as a cure, but I am sure that neither will work.

Ni Chinneide herself says that if a child is in danger, one should see a doctor. Surely if her cures were as legitimate as this article makes out, one would have no need of a doctor?

The letter is in response to an article published on March 8th, called “Alternatives to the Pink Stuff“, and while I would have liked to go into more detail in the letter, I was advised that brevity is the watchword if one wishes to be published. Luckily, I impose no such restrictions here.

I was surprised, and more than a little disappointed to see that the Irish Times, a paper I would have previously regarded as being fairly upstanding, had published what amounts to a promotional puff piece, vaunting homoeopathy as a natural, safe, panacea-style alternative to all those nasty medicines that we stuff into our children.

After an opening paragraph which sets the tone for the article, “Applying the homeopathic, holistic principle of treating the whole person, not just the symptoms, she proposed more individualised methods of temperature control, specifically in childhood illnesses.”, we are introduced to Lee Ni Chinneide, a homoeopath working in the “Elbow Room” clinic in Dublin. Sadly, not two paragraphs in, and the contradictions and apologetic tone come to the fore. We are told that Ni Chinneide would treat a fever with “fast acting belladonna”, a delightful oxymoron. Just previously, however, we are warned that “if a child has suspected meningitis or could be in danger, do not delay seeing a doctor”.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here – either your medicine works, or it doesn’t. You can call it whatever you wish – alternative, natural, homoeopathic – but it all falls into one of two categories; the stuff that works, and the stuff that doesn’t. If fast acting belladonna provides fever relief, and the principles of homoeopathy are sound, then why preface your assertion with a “get out” clause? If homoeopathy worked, then you wouldn’t need to see a doctor if your child was in danger, as there are homoeopathic cures for virtually every ailment (including several purported cures for meningitis, such as belladonna, ferrum phos, bryonia, helleborus, and zincum metallicum). Of course, if one were certain that the medicine being administered was safe, and would cure all ills, then why caveat at all? It is an admission that the cures being administered will cure nothing at all, and that when the fast acting belladonna doesn’t take down the child’s fever, you’ll have to seek real medical help.

I’m not saying that everyone should rush to medicate their children at the slightest hint of a runny nose, but common sense should dictate that when your child has fallen more seriously ill, you should treat them with something more potent than water. Croup, diarrhoea, ear infections, and “tummy upsets”, may be common enough childhood illnesses, but that does not mean that they should be disregarded. Croup can cause rapid, and sometimes lethal, narrowing of the airways. Diarrhoea and “tummy upsets”, if prolonged or frequent, can be indicative of allergies or severe digestive problems which, if left untreated, can lead to the child becoming malnourished. Ear infections, left untreated, can result in ruptured eardrums, hearing loss, and bone infections. While these are undoubtedly the worst examples of complications from common illnesses, they are all possible. If a child begins to exhibit symptoms that indicate that he or she is not succeeding in fighting the infection themselves, and a parent chooses to seek homoeopathic treatment in lieu of real medical treatment, those complications become far more likely.

It goes without saying that all of the homoeopathic remedies mentioned in the article are extremely unlikely to cure anything, since they contain no active ingredients, and many of the purported ingredients have not been proven to be effective even when actually included in medication. Perhaps it needs to be said that, when it comes to children, doctor knows best.


And it continues with a campaign

As a result of my dealings with Boots, and my general attitude toward homoeopathic products, I’ve decided to take a leaf out of the book of the 1023 campaigners in England, and launch a similar campaign here in Ireland. The website for the campaign is now live, and I’d love it if you would all take a look, pass the link on, and consider supporting the campaign.

The reason I’m posting this is twofold – firstly, to let everyone know that the campaign is now starting, and that I need your support, and secondly, to talk a little bit more about why I’m doing it.

I think that everyone should have freedom of choice when it comes to their health. The decisions you make can affect the rest of your life dramatically, so it’s important to make the right ones. With so much advertising, it can be a bit tough to siphon out the useful information from all of the advertisement chaff when it comes to healthcare, so many people turn to their pharmacist for advice. And this is really where the problem starts. You could argue that it is someone’s choice to use homoeopathic remedies, and indeed, it is a choice that we should be free to make. But when that choice is made with incomplete or inaccurate information, then it’s not really a choice at all. Unless your pharmacist is specifically telling you that there is nothing in these remedies at all, then you are not making an informed decision.

Another oft-heard argument is that it’s not doing any harm to anyone to have them on sale, or for people to take them. After all, the placebo effect is a demonstrable phenomenon, and surely if that’s enough, we should leave them be? While I would typically refer these people to a number of cases where people have died unnecessarily due to carers withholding conventional medicine in favour of homoeopathic medicine, in this case, I’m going to look a little deeper.

The relationship between patient and pharmacist or doctor is a delicate thing. The doctor/pharmacist relies on the complete honesty of the patient in order to diagnose or treat correctly, and the patient has to trust the doctor/pharmacist enough in order to be completely honest. When this relationship fails, people are wrongly diagnosed and don’t get better. In order for a placebo drug, such as a homoeopathic medicine to work, the doctor/pharmacist has to lie to the patient. They have to say that it is a real medicine, that will cure what ails the patient. Every doctor and pharmacist would have to agree to treat homoeopathic medicine like a giant “emperor’s new clothes” conspiracy, and simply not mention the fact that there’s nothing in it, and lie to the patient if they ask directly. And when the doctor/pharmacist lies to the patient, that delicate bond of honesty and trust is broken.

In addition, it is often forgotten that the placebo effect is not limited to placebo medicines. For example, when you go to a doctor, and they prescribe you with a conventional medicine, the expectation is that you will get better, so you will experience the same placebo effect, along with the conventional treatment. Again, this relies partly on that bond between doctor/pharmacist and patient – the patient has to believe that the doctor/pharmacist is not lying to them and that the medicine will do them good. To return to a world where doctors and pharmacists lie to patients is to take a massive step backwards in the way we look after ourselves, and it shouldn’t be encouraged. In order for doctors and pharmacists to be honest, they need to let people know that there are no active ingredients whatsoever in the homoeopathic remedies that people are purchasing. Currently, this isn’t happening, and people are spending money on useless remedies.

I hope that, by organising this protest, I’ll be able to show some people that there really is nothing in homoeopathy, and that they shouldn’t waste their money on it. And I hope that I can show Boots that we would rather know the truth about our medicines than be lied to. If you agree, I hope that you’ll join me in the demonstration.


It started with an email…

Yesterday, I emailed the Boots customer care address, about homoeopathic products. I did this because I discovered that Boots was selling homoeopathic remedies in their stores in Dublin. The store that I visited was in the Jervis Street shopping centre, and it had prominent displays outside promoting the pharmaceutical advice and products available. I was pretty shocked, then, to find that they were selling useless sugar pills alongside actual effective medication. I was shocked enough that I was prompted to write a quick note, as follows:

To whom it may concern:

On visiting a local Boots store over the weekend, I was shocked and horrified to discover homoeopathic remedies for sale in the store (Jervis Shopping Centre branch). This particular store had a heavy emphasis on the pharmacy side of the business in its advertising, so I would not have expected it to also be selling unproven and essentially fake medicine to people, alongside useful drugs.

Homoeopathic remedies contain no actual substance other than sugar pills and/or water. They are diluted beyond the point where one molecule of the original substance can be in the final product, and that is scientifically proven. I cannot understand, therefore, why you would choose to sell such products alongside legitimate medicines.

On a personal note, I’m extremely disappointed to find that a store which I used to enjoy shopping in is continuing to sell these products.

Today, I received a reply from Boots:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding your concerns over the retail of Homeopathic and Alternative remedies.

At Boots we take our responsibilities as the leading Pharmacy-led Health & Beauty retailer in the UK very seriously and as part of this we?re [sic] committed to providing our customers with a wide range of healthcare products to suit their individual needs.  We know that many people believe in the benefits of complementary medicines and we aim to offer the products we know our customers want.

Our Pharmacists are trained healthcare professionals and are on hand to offer advice on the safe use of complementary medicines. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain issues guidance to pharmacists on the correct selling of homoeopathy, which our pharmacists adhere to. We would support the call for scientific research and evidence gathering on the efficacy of homoeopathic medicines as this would help our patients and customers make informed choices about using homoeopathic medicines

We take the concerns of all of our customers very seriously and we thank you for the time you have taken to give us this feedback.  Please be assured that I have shared your comments with our Healthcare and Pharmacy teams.

Yours sincerely

Boots Customer Care

I would hope that, in the light of the recent 10.23 demonstrations, Boots would be receiving many emails complaining about their sale of homoeopathic products, so I expect that the reply is a standardised form letter by now. What their letter says is that, even if they are aware that the products are useless and pointless, they believe people want to buy them, and so they have no problem selling them. I do have a problem with a brand that is so associated with healthcare selling products which are not only ineffective, but which could well damage people if taken instead of conventional medicine when sick.

It is my opinion that it’s not enough to merely support the call for research while also profiting from the sale of useless pills and tinctures. Hundreds of studies have already been done on a wide range of homoeopathic remedies, and the results are almost unilaterally negative. Why ignore those studies in favour of future research, when the evidence is already there? The answer: profit.

I think it’s dangerous and misleading for a healthcare professional to recommend or advise on the use of homoeopathic remedies, as it lends credibility to a completely incredulous field. The only advice that “trained healthcare professionals” should give about homoeopathic remedies is “don’t take them”.

So, with the above in mind, I replied to Boots:


Thank you for your prompt reply.

My concern is precisely that Boots is considered a leading pharmacy, and that many people would turn to staff in store for health advice. If the advice given to them includes advice about homoeopathic remedies, then it undermines the advice that is being given.

Homoeopathic remedies contain no active ingredients whatsoever. Most remedies are sold at 30C dilution, which equates to 10 to the power of 60 dilution, or 1 part of the molecule in 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 parts of water. This means, essentially, that it is physically impossible for even a single molecule of the original substance to be present in the final product. What you are selling, as medicine, is essentially sugar pills with drops of water added. When people eschew conventional medicine in favour of homoeopathic remedies, there can be disastrous consequences. I refer you, for example, to the recent case of Thomas, Manju, and Gloria Sam.Gloria Sam was an infant who suffered from severe eczema. Rather than use the conventional medicine and creams which were recommended by their healthcare professional, her parents, Thomas and Manju Sam, chose to turn to a homoeopathic healthcare professional. As a result, Gloria’s condition continued to deteriorate rapidly. By the time the child was seen by a conventional medical professional, a doctor she was so ill that they had to immediately put her on morphine simply to manage the pain. Due to systemic infections, and a total lack of legitimate care, she died after 3 days in the hospital. This is a death that could have easily been prevented had the parents followed the advice of their healthcare professional. This case is just an example of the kind of thing that will continue to happen for as long as large institutions, such as Boots, are seen to support homoeopathy as a legitimate and effective choice when it comes to dealing with health problems.

Unless your healthcare professionals are informing people that no active ingredients are present in the homoeopathic remedies, and that they will have no effect on their health, then you are not helping them to make informed choices. Making an informed choice can only happen when all of the information laid out is correct.

I implore you to reconsider your support of homoeopathic medicine, to examine the evidence which has already shown that these medicines are ineffective, and to help your customers make a truly informed choice.

With all of the above in mind, I have decided to organise a ten23 event (mass homoeopathy overdose) in Ireland. I will set a date, and I would ask that any people who wish to join in get in touch with me at jkeane [at] zenbuffy [dot] com.
Watch this space for further updates on the correspondence with Boots, and on the upcoming ten23 event in Ireland.