It is one of the pleasures of travel to read the local newspapers of places I visit. I wholly agree with In a Sunburned Country author Bill Bryson, who observed,
It always amazes me how seldom visitors bother with local papers. Personally I can think of nothing more exciting – certainly nothing you could do in a public place with a cup of coffee – than to read newspapers from a part of the world you know almost nothing about. What a comfort it is to find a nation preoccupied by matters of no possible consequence to oneself. I love reading about scandals involving ministers of whom I have never heard, murder hunts in communities whose name sound dusty and remote, features on revered artists and thinkers whose achievements have never reached my ears, whose talents I must take on faith.
In a Sunburned Country chronicles Bryson’s travels in Australia, which I recently visited, along with New Zealand. Lovely places both – friendly people, jaw-dropping scenery, delicious food and wine. And a welcome vacation from American political wars, American economic wars and American war wars.
Oh no! Not CAM again!
It was not to be a vacation from “complementary and alternative medicine,” as it turned out. Upon settling into Auckland, I picked up a copy of The New Zealand Herald, which was that very day beginning a series on “alternative relaxation and remedies.”
Today: Greek leech therapy
Tomorrow: Koran jimjjibang
Thursday: Indian ayurveda
Friday: Thai yoga massage
Saturday: Japanese ganbanyoku
I read this in the comfortable surrounds of the Auckland Langham Hotel which touted, in addition to the upcoming Seafood Festival, “Chuan Spa’s Traditional Chinese Medicine Wellness Retreat” via which I could start the new year “revitalized.” Included in this “holistic approach of Chinese medicine” was “a TCM consultation with our qualified TCM practitioner” who would interpret my “state of wellbeing,” followed by “a TCM treatment to restore any imbalance in the equilibrium of Yin and Yang.” As well, I would receive a “Micronised Marine Algae Wrap” [ewww!] to relieve my “muscular fatigue, boost circulation, detoxify and re-balance” my metabolism. All this for just NZ $1,186 per person for the two-day retreat, or NZ $1,746 for the three-day version. I decided to go sight-seeing instead.
But the NZ news media was not content to stop at five days worth of CAM. Even after that steady diet, I still had homeopathy, quantum physics and Vitamin C to go. So it came to be that I followed Kiwi CAM through Auckland, Rotorua, the Tongoriro River, Dunedin, Queenstown, Franz Josef and Christchurch. Although some of the featured modalities were unfamiliar, the rhetoric was not. Nor was the credulous reporting.
The Herald series started out with Greek leech therapy. (The article also reported a survey revealing a majority of New Zealanders believed in “alternative remedies.”) According to Mehdi Jaffari, an Auckland practitioner at Life Clinic Hirudotherapy, the first recorded use of leech therapy was by Greek physician Nicander in 200 B.C. Jaffari claimed the leeches can treat problems ranging from arthritis, diabetes, endometriosis, hepatitis, and “high blood pressure to bronchitis.” And leeches can reduce wrinkles to boot. They are no less than “nature’s gift to mankind to keep us in good health.”
On Wednesday, there was Korean jjimjilbang, which translates literally as “heated bathrooms.” I am all in favor of heated bathrooms but the literal translation doesn’t really do the place justice. We in the “west” we would think of a jjimjilbang as more of a spa. And like U.S. spas, there were outsized claims to go along. Treatment begins in a heated bath, which “circulates magnetic waves,” followed by a trip to the sauna and steam rooms “to flush out bad toxins and promote circulation.” Then there is the room with heated stones (in this case tourmalines) to aid in “skin rejuventation, enhanced circulation and [to] cut body odour.” In other words, it’s Eastern + magnetic waves + detoxification + rejuvenation + circulation promotion + B.O. eliminator. While the rest are familiar CAM claims to fame, I must admit the B.O. is a new one.
On Thursday, a reporter wrote up her visit to a practitioner of “the ancient natural healing system” ayurveda. Apparently, in New Zealand one can go straight to an ayurveda practitioner instead of a “Naturopathic Doctor,” which at least eliminates the fiction that ayurveda has been vetted by a “medical” school and is therefore somehow evidence-based. This practitioner said that ayurveda is “the most holistic health science system in the world.” Science? I don’t think so. And the most holistic? Are the other systems just partially whole? How can that be?
According to this practitioner:
The human body is made up of five basic elements, and whenever there is any disorder, these elements become imbalanced and they affect bodily channels and tissues, creating illnesses in the system.
[Ayurveda is] about finding out the cause factors responsible for the imbalances, and getting that balance right, which is different for every individual.
Improper digestion can also create toxins in the body system, and these travel into deep tissues that leads to disorders in vital organs. Treatments include panchakarma (body cleansing), chakra (energy centre) balancing, meditations, yoga, massage with stimulations at 107 neuromuscular points and shirodhara, an oil treatment to stimulate the brain. . . . Besides relaxation, ayurvedic massage also removes toxins from deep tissues, cleanses the body and rejuvenates internal systems.
One hundred seven neuromuscular points seemed like an awful lot, but ayurveda has nothing on Friday’s topic, something called Thai yoga massage, “believed to have first been performed more than 2500 years ago.” The “theory” (their term) of Thai yoga massage is that the body is permeated with air, which, once it is inhaled into the lungs, travels along 72,000 pathways. Seventy-two thousand! They must be really, really tiny. The massage stimulates these channels and moves the air through the body with a “pumping action.”
What, no homeopathy?
As it turned out, it was only a matter of time. Several days later, the New Zealand Sunday Star-Times ran an article noting that, according to a recent survey, 51 percent of New Zealanders believe that homeopathy has been scientifically proven. Fortunately, this paper’s reporter had the good sense to ask a real doctor about homeopathy. His assessment: “It’s absolute nonsense.” This was countered by a Christchurch homeopath, who retorted, “we constantly get that it’s never been proven and it’s not working but that is not true.”
And what’s the evidence? Well, according to the NZ Council of Homeopaths, there are the accounts from the 1918 influenza epidemic and cases of success in homeopathic hospitals. Then there is the case of a NZ homeopath who gave a homeopathic remedy to a woman having trouble conceiving. And guess what? A few weeks later she was pregnant! Who can argue with that kind of success?
On the very same page, the Star-Times reported on the “Pawtect,” a pet flea and tick collar which, according to its developer, uses “proven bioenergetic technology” as well as combining “quantum physics and homeopathic principals to stimulate pets’ natural processes to return them to a harmonious state.” It was not made clear why this harmonious state would have any deleterious effect on fleas or ticks. In fact, one would assume fleas and ticks prefer pets in a harmonious state and therefore less apt to scratch away furiously when bitten.
Here’s how the collar, um, “works:”
Every living thing carries a frequency and there is a counter frequency that repels it. . . . [T]he frequencies that repel ticks and fleas were ‘imprinted’ on the Pawtect collar using a computer. Another frequency that supported a healthy immune system was also imprinted.
Of course, there was also the ubiquitous testimonial, this from an Auckland dog owner who found the “Pawtect” flea collar worked like a charm.
Fortunately, the story quoted Dr. Siouxsie Wiles of Auckland University, who said that when she saw some of what passed for “scientific” she “nearly choked.” Dr. Wiles decried people such as the flea collar developer who “used the language of science without any of its method.” She added, “it’s frankly offensive considering the time I spend writing papers so my peers can pull them apart.” Dr. Wiles summarized the “Pawtect” collar nicely as “bollocks” and “just a load of nonsense.” Well said, Dr. Wiles!
A letter to the New Zealand Journal Medical Journal criticizing alternative medicine was also mentioned. According to the news story, the letter’s authors lamented that “there were a plethora of different alternative medicine therapies and products, but that the ‘vast majority (were) either not biologically plausible and/or not supported by research evidence.’” The New England Journal of Medicine could take a lesson here from the New Zealand Medical Journal.
Disturbingly, the news story ended with the flea collar developer’s statement that “there are plans to launch a similar product for humans next year.”
The final NZ news story about CAM was a sad one. As reported in the Star-Times, NZ physicist Sir Paul Callaghan, who has terminal colon cancer, started high-dose intravenous vitamin C infusions, a highly touted alternative cancer treatment, in June, 2011. He made clear that he was never an advocate of the treatment, just curious, as scientists are. Of course, this didn’t stop alternative medicine advocates from using his experiment to promote this unconventional treatment in a misleading way, a fact that caused Callaghan some concern.
He tracked the treatment’s effectiveness via a blood test for protein carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which indicates cancer levels, according to the news report. Callaghan has now announced an end to his experiment, stating “I have, as a result, learned enough to say that there is absolutely no evidence of any beneficial effect of high-dose intravenous vitamin C in my case.” He said he wanted to make the results known because of the risk that his use of vitamin C would be used to falsely promote it, adding that the way people promoted products without evidence was “quite repellent.”
A protest against quackademia
Fortunately, the trip ended with some really good news. Back in Australia, according to a story in The Sydney Morning Herald (and Dr. Novella yesterday on SBM), a group of more than 400 doctors, medical researchers and scientists have formed a group, Friends of Science in Medicine, to pressure universities to stop teaching alternative medicine. The Institute for Science in Medicine, which includes a number of SBM posters among its founders and members, is supporting the new group in its efforts.
As it stands now, several Australian universities award degrees in complementary medicine, chiropractic, naturopathy, herbal medicines, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. There are also individual courses in homeopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy.
The Morning Herald reported that the newly formed group wrote to the universities at the end of January, stating that by giving “undeserved credibility to what in many cases would be better described as quackery” and by “failing to champion evidence-based science and medicine” the universities are damaging their reputations. Harvard Medical School, take note. The group is also asking that government and private health insurance providers stop covering alternative medical treatments.
The news report noted that soon it would no longer be possible in Great Britain to receive a degree from a publicly-funded university in any type of alternative medicine, including homeopathy and naturopathy. As well, German and British health insurers are in the process of ending coverage of alternative therapies. In Australia, the federal government is looking at ways to get the Therapeutic Goods Administration to enforce more stringent criteria for proof of efficacy for CAM products.
What I learned on my summer/winter vacation
Although some of the practices and products are different, CAM down under is depressingly similar to CAM at home. Wildly implausible treatments and products marketed with pseudoscientific explanations of their supposed mechanisms of action. Use based not on science or evidence, but rather on (supposed) antiquity and popularity. “Eastern” versus “western” medicine. Credulous reporters. The one true cure for everything. And, of course, quantum physics.
There were encouraging signs of a push-back, more so than in the U.S. — demands to end university CAM courses and degrees as well as health insurance coverage for CAM, and possible strengthening of regulations to reign in CAM claims. And scientists there are willing to go on record in calling CAM quackery, nonsense and bollocks, at least when reporters bother to ask.
It’s all a part of the whack-a-mole experience of fighting CAM. Smack down university reflexology courses. Up pops Greek leech therapy. Smack down Vitamin C infusions. Up pops Thai yoga massage. Smack down bioenergetic technology-based pet flea collars. Up pops bioenergetic technology-based human flea collars. It’s exhausting. I simply must get revitalized.