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Young Scientists Condemn CAM in the Third World

by Steven Novella, Jun 01 2009

As much as unscientific medicine is a problem in relatively wealthy Western nations, it is even more so in developing and third world countries. In the US so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) is largely consumed by the “worried well” – people with disposable income who use it to treat common everyday ailments or symptoms. CAM does also infiltrate the treatment of serious diseases, but to a much smaller degree.

In the third world, however, unscientific treatments for serious public health threats is a real problem. Malaria, HIV, TB, influenza, and childhood diarrhea are all epidemic in Africa and other locations, all exacerbated by the lack of adequate health care resources. The impact of this lack of resources is worsened by reliance on ineffective pseudoscience treatments, and sometimes (as with HIV) the denial of scientific treatments.

The World Health Organization (WHO) whose very purpose is to serve the public health worldwide, especially in developing and struggling nations, has failed to adequately address the problem of unscientific medicine. The WHO, unfortunately, is an imperfect political organization and as such is vulnerable to sectarian interests. It has a poor record on combating unscientific medicine, and in fact promotes it.

Their stance on “traditional medicine”, which is the term they seem to prefer, is that their role is to facilitate the “integration” of traditional medicine into “allopathic” medicine. Their use of the term “allopathic”, which is a derogatory term for scientific medicine, is very telling. The WHO policy appears to have been written by proponents of unscientific medicine.

A group of young scientists and doctors in training, The Voice of Young Science Network, have decided to prod the WHO into a more reasonable stance toward unscientific medicine. Specifically, they are publicly calling on the WHO to oppose the use of homeopathy to treat malaria, HIV, TB, influenza, and childhood diarrhea. In their open letter they state:

We are calling on the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. Homeopathy does not protect people from, or treat, these diseases. Those of us working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed. When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.

Many people in developing countries urgently need access to evidence-based medical information and to the most effective means of treating these dangerous diseases. The promotion of homeopathy as effective or cheaper makes this difficult task even harder. It puts lives at risk, undermines conventional medicine and spreads misinformation.

We are sure that you will recognise these dangers and ask that you issue a clear international communication condemning the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. We are sure, too, that you will recognise the urgency of our request, and look forward to your response.

They also give some specific examples of clinics in Africa pushing homeopathy instead of conventional medicine:

In Tanzania, Jeremy Sherr and Sigsbert Rwegasira run three homeopathic clinics and claim to have government support to establish a school of homeopathy. Rwegasira claims to treat “no less than 100 malaria patients per day.” According to Sherr’s promotional material, “conventional medicine only supplies temporary relief, often at a great cost financially, and with many severe side effects”.

For those who think that CAM is benign (which is never true, in my opinion) consider the impact of promoting  worthless snakeoil instead of effective scientific treatments for a serious infectious disease like TB.

I applaud these young scientists for taking a stab at the WHO – they absolutely should be called out for their promotion of quackery as legitimate health care. In my opinion, however, the statement does not go far enough. The WHO should be called upon to condemn all homeopathy for any indication. Homeopathy is pure pseudoscience and homeopathic “remedies” are nothing but placebos. The only ethical and scientific stance for the WHO or any such organization to have toward homeopathy is its eradication.

But I understand that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. I see the strategy in starting with the use of homeopathy for serious diseases that represent large public health risks in vulnerable populations. This is certainly the low-hanging fruit.

I will be very interested to see the WHO response, if any. Since it is clear that the foxes are already in charge of the hen house when it comes to CAM, I doubt the WHO will be moved by this open letter. Hopefully, however, it will spark some public discussion on the topic, and raise awareness of the utterly worthless and unscientific nature of homeopathy.

What this letter also highlights is that the entire scientific community needs to be called out on the subject of CAM. Being a “shruggie” (someone who recognizes the unscientific nature of CAM but does not feel it is worth any of their time or attention) is no longer ethically defensible. Scientistst and health-care professionals have a contract with society which includes defending the public from the threats of pseudoscience. Nowhere today is this more necessary than the infiltration and erosion of science-based medicine by unscientific sectarian interests.

9 Responses to “Young Scientists Condemn CAM in the Third World”

  1. Malachi Constant says:

    This is the sort of thing that pushes me toward Sam Harris’ idea that believing in woo can be truly genocidal.

    I don’t think the Jenny McCarthy’s or the Oprah’s of the world think about what effect their non-scientific beliefs have on a truly uninformed population. Homeopathy is great when you’re treating a problem in your head, but when you give it to people with a real medical condition in lieu of proper treatment it amounts to murder.

    I wish these media figures would look at how the nonsense they spout winds up killing people across the world.

  2. Kitapsiz says:

    OH NOES!!! Say it isn’t so, Dr. Novella!!!

    A “world” political organisation so easily corrupted by political graft?

    That along with group think could make this world … well … exactly what we see today.

    I think we need more media, that’ll do the trick.


  3. AndyN says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you Steven. Here’s an idea: maybe your last paragraph should be extended and reformatted into an open letter to universities and science academics around the world (in a similar way that the Australian Skeptics did to Pharmacists). Get James Randy and Phil Plait on the band wagon, and it might be a perfect storm.

    As you have already shown with the awesome SGU podcast, practicing science can no longer just be about wearing a white coat and staying in the lab 24/7, more emphasis needs to be given by every scientist to communicate science effectively to the wider community. Without it, pseudoscience threatens to fill the gaps in the media where credible science should be found. More charitable organisations like the London based “Sense about science” need to be encouraged.

    I sense that the tide has already started to turn against pseudoscience, but maybe we shouldn’t be complacent. After all, it could just be confirmation bias ;-)

  4. fluffy says:

    The WHO lost all credibility in my mind when they published this report extolling the virtues of acupuncture based on a number of studies which didn’t even pretend to be double-blind or even have a proper control group; without any critical discussion of the results themselves, it just lists out a large collection of conditions which “can” be treated by acupuncture, in the same way that they “can” be treated by saying magic words to will them away.

  5. MadScientists says:

    I think part of the problem is the severely misguided notion that you musn’t offend anyone. Don’t tell a nation that the bullshit cures they have used for centuries doesn’t work, you might upset them. However, that certainly does not justify promoting nonsense; instead they should be promoting proper cures as “better”. There is also this fear of condemning “traditional treatment” since a small number of traditional remedies actually work, but rather than promote all quackery WHO should demand that the traditional remedies be proven more effective than existing pharmaceutical products.

    I get myself into trouble all the time telling Chinese and Vietnamese friends that acupuncture is bullshit, but I don’t stop. What is it that the WHO fears?

  6. tmac57 says:

    In the category of “what’s the harm”: Just last night I heard an acquaintance say that he had a friend in another state that had non-hodgkins lymphoma, and was forgoing conventional treatment for an intensive 2 year homeopathic treatment. The friend was advised that he would not be able to work,so he quit his job and has to rely on friends and strangers to raise the funds to help pay for the “treatments”.
    I guess no further comment is necessary. Sad.

  7. DC says:

    >The WHO, unfortunately, is an imperfect political organization and as such is vulnerable to sectarian interests

    Where can I find our more about the politics behind the WHO and their sectarian interests?

    I am interested to know which members of the WHO have associations with what pharmaceutical companies – Does anyone know where I could find this out?

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  9. Joseph Putnoki says:

    Homoeopathy and acupuncture is put in the cross hairs. Before you pull the trigger and imagine you have killed a myth, pause for a moment, wipe off the froth around your mouth and listen for a change.

    Not being able to understand a phenomena is not the same as saying it can not exist. “The absence of evidence is no evidence of absence” may be a caution even if a clichee.

    Attempt to observe first hand cures of animals by acupuncture and homoeopathy. Maintain an open mind still vigilant. Of course a lot depends on the quality of the practitioner. Both camps have their charlatans though. And both camps maintain hostility and arrogance as to monopoly to truth.

    Exceptions exist when allopathic and integrative approaches complement each other for better outcomes.

    While it is an inconvenient fact possibly, let me poise the question theoretically this way: if you witnessed an animal cured by either method above what would you say?

    Many valid research can not be reproduced sometimes. One of my lecturer said at the time: we must go to the source to observe how it is being done, in case we may have missed something that could be crucial.

    Also you may want to look deeper into peer reviewed research findings and how practice guide lines produced. The whole process.

    Be well!