When one of the worst natural disasters in history hit Haiti earlier this year I worried what sorts of alternative medicine “help” the Haitians might have thrust upon them. From around the world, health care workers with expertise in trauma and disaster relief offered their skills, realizing that anyone who came to Haiti must bring with them a lot of value—taking up valuable space, food, and water without providing significant benefit will hurt far more than help.
But others have used this disaster to benefit themselves and their own quasi-medical cults. There have been many reports of the Church of Scientology’s faith healers walking around in yellow t-shirts trying to “assist” people’s nervous systems. Homeopaths, the folks who sell water panaceas, have been offering to “help” as well.
Poor and less-industrialized countries are a target-rich environment for alternative medicine cults, but may conversely be a tough nut to crack. Since many alternative medicines don’t require an industrial base, they can be made readily available anywhere. Homeopathy is just water; if a homeopath can simply provide a water remedy that contains fewer fecal coliforms than the local water, they can get away with quite a bit before people realize they’ve been duped. In fact, unless a population has had exposure to real medicine, the altmed folks can fool people for a very long time. But hungry people can also be very pragmatic, and they know that eating grass will only give a false satiety. The same may be true of medical help.
When face with an immediate threat to life and limb, most people find out rather quickly the difference between real and fake medicine. In rich countries such as the U.S., people have the luxury of indulging in alternative remedies. We have good public sanitation and vaccination and so suffer more from diseases of excess rather than those of desperate poverty. If you have access to food and clean water, so much that you even consume to excess, then you may have time to explore fake cures. But when the feces hits the rotating blades… (more…)