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Medical cranks: Why we fight

Never let it be said that I can’t match Mark Crislip in shameless self-promotion. The world might indeed need more Mark Crislip™, but I like to think that it needs a bit more David Gorski, too. So, in that spirit, here are the videos, recently released by the James Randi Educational Foundation, of Bob Blaskiewicz, myself, and some key SBM players that you’ve come to know and love. The first video is my talk at The Amazing Meeting in July about Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. It’s entitled Why We Fight (Part I): Stanislaw Burzynski Versus Science-Based Medicine. The second video is Bob Blaskiewicz, of Skeptical Humanities and The Other Burzynski Patient Group, It’s entitled, appropriately enough, Why We Fight (Part II): It’s All About the Patients. The third video is of the panel that followed to discuss Medical Cranks and Quacks. Enjoy!

Oh, and consider it a bit of a taste of what’s to come tomorrow…and don’t forget to pay attention to Bob Blaskiewicz’s plea at the end of his talk to contact him if you’re interested in becoming active. At TAM, he had a sign-up sheet that he discussed at around 21:06 in the video. Online, just mosey on over to The Other Burzynski Patient Group and contact Bob Blaskiewicz. We will very likely be asking you to help very soon.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The sad saga of an Amish girl with a curable cancer whose parents are refusing chemotherapy in favor of “natural healing”

Over at my not-so-super secret other blog, one common type of story that I’ve blogged about has been that of the “chemotherapy refusenik.” It’s a topic I write about here not infrequently as well. People like Suzanne Somers and Chris Wark come to mind, mostly people who had effective surgical therapy for their cancers and then decided to forego adjuvant chemotherapy in favor of quackery. Not surprisingly, they attribute their having beaten cancer not to the surgery that saved them but to the woo du jour that they chose instead of chemotherapy, not understanding that such chemotherapy is not the cure; it only reduces the risk of recurrence after surgical extirpation of the tumor. What I haven’t discussed as much here as I have over there are cases of children with cancer whose parents refuse effective chemotherapy to treat their malignancy (other than Daniel Hauser). Because most childhood cancers are not treated with surgery, chemotherapy ± radiation therapy really is the primary therapeutic modality for most of them; so refusing it has a very high probability of resulting in the unnecessary death of a child. Generally pediatric cancers have an 80-90% five year survival, and recurrences after five years are rare, which, as I described recently, is an enormous improvement over 40 years ago.

Sadly, there have been many such cases, such as the aforementioned Daniel Hauser, Abraham Cherrix, Kate Wernecke, and Jacob Stieler. All of these are stories of children who were diagnosed with highly curable cancers who refused either chemotherapy or radiation therapy and were supported in that decision by their parents. Indeed, of these, Cherrix, Hauser, and Wernecke ran away with their parents to avoid chemotherapy. They all came back, but with different results. Hauser came back, started chemotherapy again, and is doing well. Cherrix ultimately came back, but the court made a deal with his parents that let him be treated by an “integrative medicine” doctors who treated him with low dose radiation and a bogus “immunotherapy.” As a result, several years later his tumor recurred, and he was last seen earlier this year asking for money for treatment. His battle in the courts in Virginia also inspired the passage of a supremely bad law that basically allows open season on teens for quackery. Wernecke disappeared when her parents refused radiation therapy after having undergone chemotherapy and took her for intravenous high dose vitamin C. In 2007, her cancer recurred, but the recurrence appeared to have been treated successfully. It’s not clear how much conventional therapy she had received, at least as of 2010, which was the last time I could find anything about her online.

The latest of these cases that has come to my attention is the case of a 10-year-old Amish girl from Medina County in Ohio named Sarah Hershberger, who developed T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of lymphoma, underwent chemotherapy for a few weeks, and then decided she didn’t want it anymore. Her parents, convinced that the chemotherapy was killing her, instead of insisting that she undergo potentially curative therapy, which her doctors estimated to have an 85% chance of eliminating her cancer, refused to let undergo any further therapy. This led to a court case in which Akron Children’s Hospital (ACH) sued to obtain medical guardianship of the girl in order to make sure that she would undergo curative chemotherapy. The first ruling in the case in a Medina County court was for the parents. Then on appeal the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals ordered Medina County Judge John Lohn to take another look at the case, ruling that he had failed to weigh adequately which course would best serve her interests — the decision of her parents to withhold treatment (at her request) or to appoint a limited guardian to make medical decisions, as proposed by Akron Children’s Hospital. Amazingly, Judge Lohn reiterated his previous ruling, finding that appointment of a guardian would interfere “with Sarah’s need and desire to be cared for by her loving parents” and stating that “the guardianship will not promote Sarah’s interests.” One month ago, Judge Lohn’s decision was reversed on appeal to the 9th District Ohio Court of Appeals, which caused everyone’s favorite quackery supporter to lose his mind in rage.

Since then the case has only gotten stranger, as hard as it is to believe. Indeed, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, although discussing the case allows me to discuss a both the science and ethics of treating children with cancer using science-based modalities.
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Posted in: Cancer, Medical Ethics, Religion

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Chemotherapy doesn’t work? Not so fast… (A lesson from history)

If there’s one medical treatment that proponents of “alternative medicine” love to hate, it’s chemotherapy. Rants against “poisoning” are a regular staple on “alternative health” websites, usually coupled with insinuations or outright accusations that the only reason oncologists administer chemotherapy is because of the “cancer industrial complex” in which big pharma profits massively from selling chemotherapeutic agents and oncologists and hospitals profit massively from administering them. Indeed, I’ve lost track of the number of such rants I’ve deconstructed over the years. Usually, they boil down to two claims: (1) that chemotherapy doesn’t work against cancer (or, as I’ve called it before, the “2% gambit“) and (2) that the only reason it’s given is because doctors are brainwashed in medical school or because of the profit motive or, of course, because of a combination of the two. Of course, the 2% gambit is based on a fallacious cherry picking of data and confusing primary versus adjuvant chemotherapy, and chemotherapy does actually work rather well for many malignancies, but none of this stops the flow of misinformation.

Misinformation and demonization aside, it is also important to realize that the term “chemotherapy,” which was originally coined by German chemist Paul Ehrlich, was originally intended to mean the use of chemicals to treat disease. By this definition, virtually any drug is “chemotherapy,” including antibiotics. Indeed, one could argue that by this expansive definition, even the herbal remedies that some alternative medicine practitioners like to use to treat cancer would be chemotherapy for the simple reason that they contain chemicals and are being used to treat disease. Granted, the expansive definition evolved over the years, and these days the term “chemotherapy” is rarely used to describe anything other than the cytotoxic chemotherapy of cancer that in the popular mind causes so many horrific side effects. But in reality virtually any drug used to treat cancer is chemotherapy, which is why I like to point out to fans of Stanislaw Burzynski that his antineoplastons, if they actually worked against cancer, would be rightly considered chemotherapy, every bit as much as cyclophosphamide, 5-fluorouracil, and other common chemotherapeutics.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, History

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Redefining cancer

Blogging is a rather immediate endeavor. Over the last nine years (nearly), I’ve lost track of how many times I saw something that I wanted to blog about but by the time I got around to it, it was no longer topical. Usually what happens is that my Dug the Dog tendencies take over, as I’m distracted by yet another squirrel, although sometimes there are just too many targets topics and too little time. Fortunately, however, sometimes the issue is resurrected, sometimes in a really dumb way, such that I have an excuse to correct my previous oversight. This is just such a time, and the manner in which the topic has been resurrected is every bit as dumb as the rant by the Food Babe that Mark Crislip so delightfully deconstructed last Friday. Unfortunately, for purposes of snark, I’m not Mark Crislip—but, then, who is?—but fortunately I am known elsewhere (and sometimes here) for being a bit “insolent.” So let’s dig in. We’ll start with the idiocy and then use that as a “teachable moment” about cancer biology. Funny how I manage to do that sort of thing so often.

Abuse of cancer science for political purposes

I realize that we at SBM are supposed to stay, for the most part, apolitical, but the idiocy that’s leading me to revisit a topic is unavoidably political because it involves using a profound misunderstanding of science for political ends. Specifically, I’m referring to the misuse of a legitimate scientific debate about cancer screening and diagnosis for purely political ends. First, however, for those not living in the US or my fellow citizens who might be blissfully unaware (in this case) of recent events, during the first half of October, our nation underwent what can only be described as a self-inflicted crisis that could have caused worldwide economic turmoil if it hadn’t been (sort of) resolved at the last minute. The reason for the crisis boiled down to the extreme resistance of some of our more radically conservative Representatives to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, usually referred to as just the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or, colloquially, Obamacare. Normally when we write about Obamacare here on SBM, it’s to complain about how advocates of unscientific medicine and outright quackery have tried to piggyback their advocacy on the ACA in order to have health insurance plans sold through government exchanges cover modalities like naturopathy, chiropractic, and other so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine.” In related posts, I’ve examined the evidence with respect to the relationship between health insurance and mortality and whether attacks on Medicaid as not improving the health of patients insured by it have any validity. (Let’s just say they are oversimplifications and distortions.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Yes, Chris beat cancer, but it wasn’t quackery that cured him

Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties, SBM experienced considerable downtime yesterday. I therefore decided to delay publishing this post until now. Harriet’s normally scheduled Tuesday post will also appear later.

I like to think that one of the more important public services I provide here at Science-Based Medicine is my deconstructions of alternative cancer cure testimonials. After all, one of the most powerful marketing tools purveyors of cancer quackery have in their arsenal is a collection of stories of “real patients” with cancer who used their nostrums and are still alive and well. These sorts of analyses of alternative cancer cure testimonials began right near the very beginning of my not-so-super-secret other blog way back in 2004, metastasized—if you’ll excuse my use of the term—to SBM in 2008, and have continued intermittently to this very day, most recently with a bevy of posts showing why the testimonials of Stanislaw Burzynski’s patients do not constitute good evidence that he can cure cancers considered incurable by “standard” medicine. In other words, Burzynski’s “success stories” aren’t the slam-dunk evidence he and Eric Merola want you to believe them to be regarding the use of antineoplastons to cure brain cancers.

Sometimes, these patients who believe that alternative medicine somehow cured their cancers are so transformed, so energized, that they basically devote their lives to selling, in essence, their story, along with all the stuff they did to “cure” their cancer. I just came across one such person, a man by the name of Chris Wark, whose website and blog Chris Beat Cancer sells the idea that he beat his cancer with nutrition and “natural therapies” that he used to “heal himself.” All of this wouldn’t be quite so horrible—after all, there are lots of people who believe in woo and say so publicly—except that Wark is now also selling all sorts of misinformation about cancer, at $175 for a two hour phone consultation. Regular readers will recognize right away where Mr. Wark goes wrong in his story. Even so, I think it’s worthwhile to take a look because since discovering Mr. Wark’s site I’ve seen his name popping up all over the place promoting “natural” cures, and his site has become a repository of all sorts of “alternative cancer cure” testimonials, as well as credulously promotional material for quackery like Gerson therapy, the Beck protocol, and the Gonzalez protocol.

First, let’s take a look at Mr. Wark’s story. Since his story is so simple to deconstruct, I’ll then look at more of the material on his website. Right on the front page of Mr. Wark’s website, there is a brief blurb about him that reads:
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Posted in: Cancer

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Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Revisiting the epitome of “integrative” cancer care

Three weeks ago, I mentioned in a post that the week of October 7 to 14 was declared by our very own United States Senate to be Naturopathic Medicine Week, which I declared unilaterally through my power as managing editor of Science-Based Medicine (for what that’s worth) to be Quackery Week. One wonders where the Senate found the time to consider and vote for S.Res.221, which reads:

S.Res.221 – A resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.

I know, I know, it probably took all of five minutes to consider and vote for this, thanks to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who sponsored it. In any case, as October 7 approached, I thought about how I could keep my promise to blog about naturopathy this week, and I came up with a way to do it. It’s a bit roundabout, but I think it fits. The idea derives from a discussion I was having a while back about one of my “favorite” hospitals, namely the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, in which a colleague of mine questioned why there were so many CTCA ads on NPR and why CTCA is sponsoring shows on PBS such as the upcoming The Emperor of All Maladies by Ken Burns. Although I can’t wait to see this particular series, I am a bit worried that the infiltration of quackademic medicine will make an appearance, given that CTCA is a major sponsor. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Homeopathy, Naturopathy

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Obamacare, the Oregon Experiment, and Medicaid

Tomorrow, as mandated by the Patient Protection and the Affordable Care Act (PPACA, often called just the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, or “Obamacare”), the government-maintained health insurance exchanges will open for business (that is, assuming the likely government shutdown doesn’t stop them temporarily). We here at SBM have written about the ACA quite a few times, but I would like to write about it in perhaps an entirely different context than you’re used to now that the biggest change mandated by the law is here. Just to see the contrast, I’ll mention that Jann Bellamy has written about the ACA in the context of how provisions have been inserted by promoters of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) could potentially provide an “in” for requiring reimbursement of CAM practitioners for their services by insurance plans sold through the exchanges or even how CAM practitioners might promote themselves as primary care providers (PCPs) under Obamacare, as did Matt Roman. I myself warned about legislative meddling that might permit funding of religion-based health care in the exchanges, and Kimball Atwood sounded early warnings about insertion of the provisions that Jann warned about. Instead, view this discussion as a follow-up to a post I did almost a year ago that used a statement by Mitt Romney during the height of the Presidential campaign as a jumping off point to look at the relationship between health insurance status and mortality. While we at SBM try to remain more or less apolitical, in some cases (licensing of naturopaths, for example) it is not possible to disentangle science from politics, and we have to dive in. Also, politics is the art of the possible; so, policy-wise, what is best as determined by science might well not be what is possible politically.

The reason I wanted to revisit this topic is because of a political battle that went on for quite some time over the last several months to expand Medicaid in Michigan according to the dictates of the ACA. The reason that this battle is occurring in many states is because when the Supreme Court ruled last year that the individual mandate requiring that citizens have health insurance was Constitutional, one provision that it ruled unconstitutional was the mandatory expansion of Medicaid in states participating in the Medicaid program to cover all people under 65 up to 133% of the federal poverty level. States thus had to decide whether or not they would accept the Medicaid expansion. In our state, Governor Rick Snyder supported the expansion. Even though he is Republican, he is also a businessman and realized that it was a good deal, with the federal government covering 100% of the cost for the first three years and then phase down to 90% of the cost in 2020. The bill to expand Medicaid managed to pass the House of Representatives, but then it stalled in the Senate. Unfortunately—and this is what got me involved—my state Senator Patrick Colbeck led the opposition to the Medicaid expansion in the Senate, much to my chagrin and disappointment. His argument, which is being repeated elsewhere in the blogosphere, is that Medicaid is worthless and doesn’t improve health outcomes. Instead, he endorsed an alternative that (or so he claimed) places Medicaid-eligible patients into in essence low cost, high deductible concierge practices, with health savings accounts. This was a plan promoted by practices like BlueSky Health. Ultimately Mr. Colbeck lost, and Medicaid was expanded in Michigan in a plan that was characterized by John Z. Ayanian in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine as “a pragmatic pathway to link Republican and Democratic priorities for health care.”

However, the whole kerfuffle got me to thinking. In my post a year ago, I basically asked what the evidence was that access to health insurance improves health outcomes, but I didn’t really stratify the question into kinds of health insurance. Rather, I just looked at being uninsured versus having health insurance. After my little Facebook encounter with one of my elected representatives, I wondered what, exactly, was the state of evidence. So I decided to do this post. In the U.S., currently we have in essence three kinds of health insurance, broadly speaking: private insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Medicare, for those of our readers from other countries, is a plan that covers the medical care of people 65 and over and those receiving Social Security disability benefits. It is funded through payroll taxes and directly paid for by the federal government. Medicaid, in contrast, is a plan designed for low income people who fall below certain income levels. Also in contrast, it is jointly funded by the states and the federal government with each participating state administering the plan and having wide leeway to decide eligibility requirements within the limits of federal regulations that determine the minimal standards necessary for states to receive matching funds. Indeed, the loss of this leeway to determine the income level at which a person is eligible for Medicaid is one of the reasons the provision for Medicaid expansion was part of the Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. These days, most Medicaid plans hire private health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to provide insurance. Finally, what needs to be understood is that, compared to private insurance, Medicare reimbursement rates tend to be lower and Medicaid reimbursement rates are lower still, which is part of the reason why a lot of doctors don’t accept Medicaid. Increases in reimbursement under the ACA might well help this situation. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Obesity, cancer, and chemotherapy

In medicine, particularly oncology, it’s often the little things that matter. Sometimes, however, the “little things” aren’t actually little; they just seem that way. I was reminded of this by a story that was circulating late last week in the national media, often under titles like “Obese cancer patients often shorted on chemo doses”, ”Are obese people with cancer getting chemotherapy doses too small for them?”, and “Obese Cancer Patients Not Getting Full Doses of Chemotherapy Drugs”. It’s also interesting to me because it stands in marked contrast to something I’ve written about a lot on this blog: The overtreatment of cancer. In this case, this story is about the undertreatment of cancer in patients who are obese, and it’s a problem that has definite adverse effects on an obese person’s odds of surviving cancer.

I’ve been aware of this issue for some time and had been thinking of blogging about it for at least three years. The reason is that the oncologist who is best known for sounding the alarm on this issue is Jennifer Griggs at the University of Michigan and, being local and all, I’ve seen her speak on the topic several times at local breast cancer conferences. Now that I work with a statewide breast cancer care quality improvement initiative, I’m becoming more aware of her work. Indeed, I was rather puzzled why this issue bubbled up enough to be reported widely on the national news last week when the Nature Clinical Oncology paper by Gary H. Lyman and Alex Sparreboom that drew attention to the issue was published in August, and the original American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) guidelines were published last year. Whatever the reason this issue has been getting more attention, it’s a good thing.
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Posted in: Cancer

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Is U.S. cancer care “in crisis,” as the Institute of Medicine proclaims?

Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle…When you, here, everyone of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.

General George S. Patton, Jr. was famous for his flamboyance and aggressiveness going on the attack, among other things. He was also known for a number of pithy quotes made throughout his lifetime, particularly during World War II, such as the one above in which he declared how much Americans love to fight. I sometimes wonder whether he was more correct in that assessment than he knew in that we seem to view almost everything through the lens of war and a crisis that calls for a war. In medicine, for instance, we have the “war on cancer” and the “war on obesity.” We have a propensity for likening problems and their solutions to war, where the goal is to destroy the enemy.

Similarly, but less dramatic (although only slightly so), we have various crises. Indeed, Americans seem to love to compare problems to crises as much as they love to compare them to war. Of course, the two are closely related, as a crisis of some sort is a necessary prelude to a war. We can argue about the definition of a “crisis,” but one thing is certain. No matter how one defines it the word “crisis” implies an urgent problem and further implies that something must be done now—or at least very soon—to prevent the catastrophic consequences of that problem, which usually involve a breakdown of a current system. It was with these thoughts in mind that I approached the Institute of Medicine (IOM) consensus report released last week, Delivering High-Quality Cancer Care: Charting a New Course for a System in Crisis. It’s a behemoth of a report, weighing in at 360 pages, and it does indeed paint a picture of some very serious problems in cancer care that should be addressed. It is subdued in that it doesn’t engage in that oh-so-American tendency to declare “war” on every problem, but is cancer care “in crisis”? Of that, I’m not so sure, but it’s definitely got problems. But, as I’ve said, the system’s had problems for a long time, as the IOM itself documented in its 1999 report Ensuring Quality of Cancer Care, which concluded that “for many Americans with cancer, there is a wide gulf between what could be construed as the ideal and the reality of their experience with cancer care.” The report also recommended steps to improve cancer care and the evidence base for cancer care, and to overcome barriers of access to high-quality cancer care. As the introduction to the current report states:
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Posted in: Cancer

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Naturopathic Medicine Week 2013, or: Quackery Week 2013

[Ed. Note: This is an extra "bonus" post from Dr. Gorski's not-so-super-secret other blog. He thought the topic would be of interest to SBM readers as well. Fear not. There will be a post on Monday, as usual.]

The vast majority of ideas and treatments that make up the “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) specialty known as naturopathy are quackery. There, I said it. No doubt I will be castigated for being too “blunt,” “dismissive,” or “insulting,” but I don’t care. It is my opinion based on science, and I’m sticking to it.

The problem with naturopathy, of course, is that it is so diffuse and encompasses so many different forms of quackery that it’s hard to categorize. Basically, it’s anything that can be portrayed as “natural,” be it traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy (which is an integral component of naturopathy, something that should tell you all you need to know about naturopathy), herbalism, energy healing, Ayurvedic medicine, the four humors, or whatever. Add to that a number of bogus diagnostic modalities, such as applied kinesiology, live blood cell analysis, iridology, tests for imaginary “food allergies” and “nutrient deficiencies” that conventional medicine doesn’t recognize, plus an overwhelming emphasis on purging the body of “toxins,” unnamed and named but all unvalidated by science, and it rapidly becomes apparent that naturopathy is a veritable cornucopia of pseudoscience and quackery. Seemingly, there is no quackery that naturopathy does not credulously embrace, which is why the success of recent efforts of naturopaths to achieve licensure in several states and even obtain limited privileges to prescribe real pharmaceutical drugs is so alarming, as are their efforts to become recognized as primary care providers under the Affordable Care Act. Basically, naturopathy is a hodge-podge of quackery mixed with science-based modalities magically “rebranded” as “alternative” and “natural.” In that, naturopathy is the ultimate in “integrative medicine,” in which quackery is “integrated” with science-based medicine. As I’ve pointed out many times before, integrating quackery and pseudoscience with real medicine does not elevate the quackery and pseudoscience, but it does contaminate the real medicine with quackery to no good benefit. Unfortunately, it’s insinuating itself into the law.

With that introduction in mind, did you know that the week of October 7 through 13 is Quackery Week in the U.S.? No, seriously, it is. The Senate just passed a resolution declaring that this is so. Oh, it’s true that the Senate didn’t actually call it that. Instead, the resolution (S.Res. 221) was passed, and it declares the week of October 7 to 13, 2013 to be Naturopathic Medicine Week, which is the same thing as declaring it Quackery Week:

S.Res.221 – A resolution designating the week of October 7 through October 13, 2013, as “Naturopathic Medicine Week” to recognize the value of naturopathic medicine in providing safe, effective, and affordable health care.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Science and the Media

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