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Back in January Jann Bellamy who blogs over at Science Based Medicine had the (mis)fortune of being in our fine country during the week the NZ Herald chose to run their series on ‘alternative relaxation and remedies”. She has written a fine piece giving her take on the series*.

You might remember many of us got a little peeved here at Sciblogs over the incredibly unbalanced articles. So peeved in fact that Michael Edmonds and I both wrote op-ed pieces that the lovely folk at the NZ Science Media Centre offered to the Herald but alas they didn’t run them. So, rather belatedly, I’m posting my piece here for all to read. Let’s just say I was playing bad cop!

Articles such as the NZ Herald’s recent series on ‘alternative relaxation and remedies’ do readers a potentially life-threatening disservice. Over five days we were introduced to a variety of ‘relaxation therapies and health treatments, once practised only on distant shores’ which are now being offered in New Zealand. Starting with hirudotherapy, or leech therapy, the series also explored Japanese ganbanyoku, Indian ayurveda, Korean jimjjilbang and Thai massage. It was disappointing to see the NZ Herald provide a platform for the practitioners to make a number of unsupported claims, many of which date back to the pre-scientific era, and are known to be implausible or just plain wrong.

Let’s take leech therapy. Popular in medieval times, the medicinal leech was used to remove blood from a patient to ‘balance the humours’ (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). The prominent Roman surgeon Galen, born in AD 129, believed it was essential for the ‘humours’ to be kept in balance for the human body to function properly. It is ironic that most people in this day and age would consider the idea of Galen’s ‘balancing humours’ archaic but accept the three ‘dochas’ of Ayurveda or the flowing ‘lom’ of Thai massage without question. Just why are ‘foreign’ ancient beliefs more attractive than those that were the basis of modern ‘western’ medicine?

In fact, modern medicine has embraced the medicinal leech for use in a narrow range of well-defined and scientifically-grounded cases, including reconstructive surgery and wounding. I agree that leeches are amazing. Their saliva contains a cocktail of medicinally useful substances, from a natural anaesthetic to antibacterial compounds, anti-inflammatory agents and anticoagulants.

But leeches also commonly carry bacterial sidekicks which help the leech digest blood. These bacteria can cause very nasty infections in people, which is why patients who are going to be treated with medicinal leeches are often put on a course of antibiotics as a preventative measure. It is also why scientists are trying to identify the beneficial compounds within leech saliva, so that they could be used without the need for the leech itself.

We heard nothing of the risks of infection, or of prolonged and excessive bleeding, in Lincoln Tan’s article. Instead we were pointed to the North Shore clinic of Mr Medhi Jaffari, who claims to be able to treat a wide range of conditions, from ‘arthritis, diabetes, endometriosis, hepatitis and high blood pressure to bronchitis’. On his website Mr Jaffari even goes so far as to say leech therapy can be used to treat cancer.

And this is where the danger really lies. Because many practitioners of ‘alternative remedies’ believe they can treat almost any disease, despite there being no evidence to support these claims. They will certainly present plenty of testimonials on their websites. And people may genuinely feel better after visiting such a practitioner. But if it was something like cancer they were being ‘treated’ for, this won’t last and may cause life-threatening delays to starting genuine medical treatment.

The human brain is remarkable in its capacity to self-deceive and to see patterns where there are none. Modern evidence-based medicine works by designing trials that remove such human foibles to find out whether a given treatment is actually effective. It doesn’t matter whether the treatment uses balancing ‘dochas’ or leeches. Instead, what is needed is an outcome that can be measured, and to compare the treatment with a placebo, where patients believe they are getting the treatment, but in fact aren’t.

What is very clear is that in almost all cases, when tested under these criteria, ‘alternative therapies’ do no better than placebo. Edzard Ernst, previously Professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University in the UK, and Simon Singh have written a very readable and enlightening book on this very subject called ‘Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial’.

As comedian Tim Minchin so eloquently put it, what do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.

*And, I’m pleased to say, has also applauded my efforts to call out the bollocks that is those homeopathic quantum biophotonic energetic anti flea pendents that Charles Anderson interviewed me about for his article in the Sunday Star Times (Scientist hot under the collar over flea remedy, 22nd Jan 2012). I don’t think I shall ever surpass the following quote, and no, I wasn’t misquoted :)

This raised every red flag of being bollocks. When you read it, it is just a load of nonsense.