Archive Health and Medicine

Homeopathy takes another hit Michael Edmonds Nov 11

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On Friday 31st of October Dr Siouxsie Wiles from Sciblogs very own Infectious Thoughts blog gave an excellent interview of Breakfast TV explaining why homeopathy isn’t an appropriate treatment for ebola (or anything else).

Now Vicki Hyde from NZSkeptics has presented a thorough explanation of why homeopathy is not a valid medical treatment on CTV, including a demonstration of how homeopathy dilutions “work”.

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This is great because I think the best way to discourage people from using homeopathic remedies is to explain to them what it is.

Homeopathy not the solution for Ebola (or anything else) Michael Edmonds Oct 30


A petition calling for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “test and distribute homeopathy as quickly as possible to contain the (Ebola) outbreaks” is unlikely to gain much traction, given that the WHO, in August 2009, made statements indicating that homeopathy was not an effective treatment for diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoea or HIV infection.

Unfortunately, Green MP Steffan Browning does not seem to have been aware of this when he signed an on-line petition, asking the WHO to consider treating Ebola with homeopathy. Since this revelation the Green party has distanced themselves these comments with Greens co-leader Russell Norman stating that ”There are many New Zealanders who use homeopathy but I think even they would say it’s not the right thing to use for Ebola. It’s not something we support and it’s not Green Party Policy.” Mr Browning has also back pedalled his position suggesting it was “unwise” to sign the petition. However, it is noticeable that both Mr Browning and Dr Norman have been very careful in how they have worded their response so as not to offend those who believe in homeopathy.

The petition demonstrates a naivety about medicine and homeopathy with the petitioners requesting

We call on those within WHO in positions of authority and influence to:

1. Look at homeopathy’s record in the treatment and prevention of serious epidemic disease

2. Engage with qualified representatives from the homeopathic profession to formally identify the best-indicated remedies

3. Test those remedies to determine which are best for the treatment and prevention of Ebola

4. Obtain supplies of those remedies from waiting and concerned homeopathic pharmacies

5. Bring the outbreaks under control by distributing these remedies as quickly as possible throughout the affected areas.

Finally, please end the suffering of those in the Ebola crisis by using the tried and proven homeopathic option.


Repeated studies of homeopathy have already demonstrated that when it is tested properly it has no noticeable effect beyond the placebo effect, and when it is used instead of effective medicines it can put people’s lives at risk. Many of those who accept homeopathy may also be doing so under the misapprehension that it is a herbal medicine. It is not.

Homeopathy is based on a series of nonsensical suppositions. First, that a disease can be treated by using a substances that causes the same symptoms. Second, that by diluting this substance to the extent that none of the existing material remains, it creates a cure, and the more you dilute it the more effective it is as a treatment. Third, that between dilutions the striking (succussing) of the container in a certain way somehow transfers curative properties to the water.

Homeopathy arose 200 years ago, when medicine was still developing and was steeped in myth rather than science. At a time when doctors prescribed toxic concoctions such as mercury and arsenic salts and regularly bled patients, a magical bottle of water may have indeed been your best option for survival. However, modern medicine has now advanced to treat many diseases, diseases which homeopathy has not managed to treat in spite of having 200 years to do so.  To now suggest that homeopathy is an appropriate way to combat Ebola is naive and dangerous.

Pain, Pus & Poison – a fascinating series covering the development of modern medicine Michael Edmonds Oct 28

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I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of modern medicine, particularly the development of modern pharmaceuticals, so I was looking forward to catching “Pain, Pus & Poison – The Search For Modern Medicine” on Sky TV, however, managed to miss the first episode. Luckily I discovered the episodes are also available on Youtube

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The first episode covers the development of some of the drugs that have changed history – from ether and nitrous oxide for pain free surgery, aspirin for treating pain and fever, to some of the less spectacular developments such as heroin and chloral hydrate (the active ingredient of a Mickey Finn).

The first episode was an fascinating mix of science, history, and self experimentation, as producer, Michael Mosley demonstrated the effects of drugs including nitrous oxide and sodium pentothal (definitely don’t try this at home).

I look forward to watch the next few episodes.

Gluten Free & Pseudoscience Michael Edmonds Aug 10

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There is little doubt that some people have an intolerance to gluten and that a gluten free diet is an appropriate way to address this. However, the gluten free diet is also associated with pseudoscience in terms of what it can achieve and how it is diagnosed.

Take, for example, the recent news that tennis player, Novak Djokovic, has embraced a gluten free diet on the advice of his nutritionist. According to a recent article by Dr Joe Schwarcz, Djokovic was diagnosed as follows:

Djokovic’s “nutritionist” asked him to stretch out his right arm while placing his left hand on his stomach. He then pushed down on the tennis champion’s right arm and told him to resist the pressure, which he was able to do. Next, Djokovic was asked to hold a slice of bread against his stomach with his left hand while the nutritionist again tried to push down on his outstretched right arm. This time, he was able to push it down easily. The demonstration, Djokovic was told, showed that he was sensitive to gluten, which is why he had suffered so many mid-match collapses in his career.

Some readers will be aware of this “applied kinesiology” approach where the apparent “weakness” is the result of adjusting the angle of the pressure applied by the practitioner, not by the presence of a slice a bread. Hardly an appropriate method for diagnosing any disease or disorder.



Taking an Experimental Approach to Weight Loss Michael Edmonds Aug 03


I need to lose some weight.

The was the conclusion I came to on a Friday night just over a week ago when my bathroom scales told me I weighed 92.2 kg, which according to a BMI calculation for my height and weight puts me into the “overweight” category. Not the best place for someone who has a family history of heart disease and who is already exhibiting early signs of osteoarthritis.

Of course, I have known this for a while – prior to the Christchurch quakes I weighed around 85 kg, however, when the quakes stuck and took out my gym (and most of the others around Christchurch) for 6 months my weight increased, helped along with the comfort food consumed during this time. Even though I still go to the gym 3-4 times a week, I’ve never lost the weight I gained.  I’ve been meaning to do something about it for a while now, but on Friday a convergence of several factors helped me resolve to explore how to lose some weight.

One of these factors was watching a documentary by Michael Mosley called Eat Fast and Live Longer. In the documentary Dr Mosley explored the use of fasting to improve health and encourage weight loss. Various approaches to fasting were explored but by the end of the documentary Dr Mosley had settled on a 5:2 approach to dieting, whereby calorie intake was restricted to 600* calories a day for two days of a week, while one eats normally for the other 5 days. A book has now been produced based on this documentary outlining this dietary approach.

* that is 600 calories for men, 500 calories for women

So on Saturday, I decided to try to see what this fasting approach would be like. Porridge with half a banana and skim milk  for breakfast consumed 150 calories. Finding myself hungry by lunch a sandwich with soup took out 300 of my remaining allowance of calories. By evening I was hungry for more than the remaining 150 calories so had a reasonably healthy chicken and vegetable dinner of 386 calories.

So fasting wasn’t as easy as I thought, however, I had achieved a day of relatively low calorific intake. If I could sustain this surely I would lose weight? I decided to turn this into an experiment – if I continued on a restricted calorie diet would I lose weight? The short answer is yes.

In order to track my food intake, I decided to use an iPad app called MyFitnessPal which allows you to calculate your calorie intake using a database containing information on the nutritional content of a wide range of foods. Since last Saturday morning my calorific intake (measured in kJ) has been as follows:



The orange line is the number of kJ which the MyFitnessPal determined that I should be able to get moderate sustained weight loss with. The blue points indicate my calorific intake for each day (in kJ) with large increase on the 2nd of August due to a “cheat day” where I ate what I felt like, including some chocolate brownie ice cream. Some well known diets recommend a cheat day once a week as a treat. As well as relaxing for a day I was interested in seeing what effect it had on my weight.


Over the week I have had a significant weight loss. However, most interesting to me is what happened at the beginning when I went from a day (Friday) of poor eating choices to a restricted calorie diet. The drop in weight was quite substantial. Also, the morning after my “cheat day” my weight jumped by almost 1 kg. It is an interesting effect which I’m curious to explore further.

In conclusion, it would appear a restricted calorie diet is working for me. It will be interesting to explore further how varying my calorie intake affects the weight loss, and whether my body might attempt to adapt to this. I’ll let you know how it is going next week. In the meantime I off to have a mandarin and a glass of water :-)


Egyptian Army Claims Cure for HIV and Hepatitis C Michael Edmonds Jun 30

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Apparently the Egyptian army has developed a new cure for hepatitis C and HIV, described in the following video.

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The claims about this device contain many of the trappings of pseudoscience – a secretly developed device using “electromagnetic waves”, a conspiracy to suppress the invention, however, the obvious giveaway in this story is the inclusion of a device “invented” by the Egyptian military in 2010 to detect carriers of hepatitis C in a crowd. This detector, looks suspiciously like a device that previously has been sold as a bomb and drug detection device, despite the fact that it is little more than a modern dowsing rod (made up of a hinged aerial that waves from side to side).

Why the Egyptian military would be involved in such devices, I don’t know, but the potential harm is immense. Passing blood from the body, through a device and back again has associated hazards, and using the equivalent of a magic wand to determine who has hepatitis C and who does not, is horrifying. A misdiagnosis either way could have severe consequences for the patient, and society.

I hope someone in the Egyptian military and/or government comes to their senses quickly, to limit the harm that these devices could do.


Sir Peter Gluckman on New Zealand’s Childhood Obesity Epidemic Michael Edmonds Jun 09

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Yesterday on TV One’s Sunday programme there was an interview with Sir Peter Gluckman on New Zealand’s childhood obesity problems and his recent appointment to the Commission to End Childhood Obesity by the World Health Organisation. I thought it was an excellent interview (though personally I would avoid terms such as co-variates and multi-sectorial) highlighting the value of science in informing us about the issues involved.

The interview can be found here

“Legal Highs”, Testing, & Political Point Scoring Michael Edmonds Apr 29


The removal of “legal highs” from shelves in two weeks, and the debate over using animals to test them, has science taking a backseat to politics as political parties line up to score points with the public.

“Legal highs” are being withdrawn from the market because they have never been tested in terms of their toxicity (which begs the question why were they ever made legal?). Politicians from the major parties are now saying they do not support testing of these drugs on animals (with accompanying video footage of them petting a cute furry animal) which leads to a catch 22 situation. How can you effectively test these substances without animal testing?

Several politicians have trotted out the “fact” that drugs can be tested using computer modelling and in test tube tests, however, this does not provide the full story. Even if such tests are carried out, animal testing will still be necessary to see how these drugs affect a living animal. It makes sense that you would need to test psychoactive substances which have the potential to be addictive on something with a nervous system (e.g. a living animal) at some stage during the testing.

Of course, there is an alternative to using animals – if these substances are made illegal they will go underground with people buying and using them most likely with little knowledge of what they are using, how pure it is, and what is a safe dosage. Couldn’t another possibility be to do medically monitored testing on volunteers to see what the effects are? If they are likely to use these substances anyway, why not use them in a controlled way?

One of the reasons legal highs have become popular is because cannabis is illegal. These to me seems rather absurd – people are using untested synthetic substances because they aren’t allowed to legally use a natural substance for which the effects are reasonably well researched. Perhaps if human testing were allowed, then cannabis could be tested along side these “legal highs”.

Personally, I would prefer it if these substances didn’t exist. I think any psychoactive drug must carry dangers with it – you are after all altering the chemistry of the brain when you use them! Unfortunately they do exist and whether legal or illegal people will continue to use them. No politician is brave enough to ban them outright. Instead they have chosen to use this catch 22 around requiring testing but not allowing testing on animals in order to offend the least number of voters.

The removal of these substances in such a short time frame has some mental health organisations concerned about the number of people they may have to deal with as they go through withdrawal from the legal highs. One has to wonder whether public health is also taking a back seat to politics.

Anyone would suspect it is an election year.




Energy Drinks in Schools – Let the Propaganda begin Michael Edmonds Jan 23


This morning on Breakfast TV they talked about a recent proposal to ban energy drinks in schools. Having taught for a short period in high schools this seems like a good idea to me – teaching high school students can be hard enough without having some suffering the effects of drinks which are both high in caffeine and sugar.

Katherine Rich, spokesperson for the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, an industry lobby group, was interviewed and during the interview stated several times that there was less coffee in energy drinks than in tea or coffee. This sounded wrong to me, as in the past I have had my students analyse the caffeine content of various drinks. So I wandered over the the supermarket this morning, checked a few cans of energy then consulted the literature. From this I constructed the following table:

Drink Average serving (mL) Amount of caffeine/serving
Brewed coffee (strong)


140 mg

Instant coffee


98 mg

Brewed Tea


58 mg

V double hit


155   mg

V blue


80 mg

V maximum



80 mg*

160 mg*

Lift + (green)


79 mg

Monster energy


176   mg

Red Bull




80 mg

107 mg

150   mg

Mother energy


160   mg

*contains guarana 300 mg

As you can see that if we were talking about the same serving size then Ms Rich is correct with regards to a strong or medium strength cup of coffee, though not with regards to tea based on the figures I obtained.

However, she has overlooked the fact that many energy drinks are sold in 500 (and one in 550 mL) cans. These deliver a dose higher than  your average cup of coffee, and much higher than tea.

Another oversight is that drinks such as V maximum also contain guarana and it is not clear to me from the labeling whether the stated amount of caffeine takes into account the caffeine which would be present in the 300 mg of guarana they add. If not the caffeine content should be higher than stated!

Of course comparing the amount of caffeine in energy drinks to that in coffee and tea is a bit of a red herring as I don’t think many schools would encourage students to drink tea or coffee. But then maybe this is simply an attempt to “normalise” the idea of caffeine consumption by children by linking it to commonly consumed drinks by adults.

Either way, it would be nice if people didn’t put a spin on the actual facts in such debates.



Fox News and GMO’s Michael Edmonds Dec 31


I saw this clip on TV this morning (I didn’t realise what we see from Fox on Sky is a month old) and was “impressed” with the degree of muddled science and scaremongering they managed to put into such a short clip.

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inaccurate science (confusing viruses, bacteria with genes) – check

oversimplification of the science (“food made in a petri dish”) – check

overhyping/misrepresenting animal studies – check

conspiracy theories (“aren’t these people eating these foods?”) – check

typical poor reporting from Fox – check, check, check.

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