NZ Herald’s Alternative Therapies week: Letter to the Editor

By Siouxsie Wiles 11/01/2012

This week the NZ Herald is running a series on “alternative relaxation and therapies”. They promise:

Tuesday: Greek leech therapy
Wednesday: Korean jimjjilbang
Thursday: Indian ayurveda
Friday: Thai yoga massage
Saturday: Japanese ganbanyoku

So starting with the little suckers… Lincoln Tan tells us all about leech therapy and introduces ‘Dr’ Medhi Jaffari

who says medical leeches can treat problems ranging from arthritis, diabetes, endometriosis, hepatitis and high blood pressure to bronchitis.

He even claims to treat cancer on his website.

I agree with Mr Jaffari. Leeches are amazing. Their saliva contains a cocktail of medicinally useful bioactive molecules (1) from a natural anaesthetic, antibacterial compounds, anti-inflammatory agents and anticoagulants. No wonder the medicinal leech is currently being used in a narrow range of well-defined and scientifically-grounded clinical applications, including reconstructive surgery and trauma cases (2). But not cancer. Or hepatitis.

So I’ve written a letter to the editor:

Dear Editor

It is disappointing to see the Herald running a series on alternative therapies this week. I wouldn’t object if the series did not stray into presenting the therapies as medical treatments, but in the very first installment we had Mr Medhi Jaffari presenting the use of leeches as treatment for an array of diseases, including bronchitis and hepatitis. It was also surprising, given the media’s usual requirement for balance, that no mention was made of the risks of leech therapy which can include infection and excessive bleeding. Today, the medicinal leech is used in reconstructive surgery and trauma cases, with the leeches considered as biohazardous waste and destroyed after use. I hope this is also the case in Mr Jaffari’s North Shore clinic, so as not to run any risks of spreading blood-borne infections like HIV and hepatitis between his clients.

Leaving leeches behind, Wednesday’s installment moved on to the Korean jjimjilbang. Lincoln Tan started off well but then couldn’t resist imbuing his article with reason-defying hocum (heated baths circulating magnetic waves?) and that old chestnut of “flushing out toxins”. I wait with bated breathe for the installment on Ayurveda.

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

Somehow I doubt it will be the only one I write this week!

1. Zaidi SM, Jameel SS, Zaman F, Jilani S, Sultana A, Khan SA. (2011).A systematic overview of the medicinal importance of sanguivorous leeches. Altern Med Rev. Mar;16(1):59-65.

2. Porshinsky BS, Saha S, Grossman MD, Beery Ii PR, Stawicki SP. (2011). Clinical uses of the medicinal leech: a practical review. J Postgrad Med. Jan-Mar;57(1):65-71.

0 Responses to “NZ Herald’s Alternative Therapies week: Letter to the Editor”

  • Drat! I missed the bit about cancer when I had a go at deconstructing the Herald article. What on earth has happened to investigative journalism?

  • Crumbs, the claims on that web site alone calls for a complaint to Advertising Standards and anyone else that might take notice, let alone the advertorial the article provides.

    It’s scary how the media often doesn’t even do a basic bit of research so consumers can have some idea of the risks and that the claims made for the treatment are baseless (that leeches may be used medically in some very specific circumstances is NOT evidence it can work in any other form of illness).

  • That was what really annoyed me – that the claims made for leeches (in this case) were treated so credulously. No evidence of critical thinking at all.

    I was a bit disappointed in Prof Spoonley’s comments too. Just because more people know about something like CAM, doesn’t mean it actually works (or, as aggested by the original Massey paper, should become widely & officially accepted.)

  • That’s awesome Siouxsie. Usually there is a problem with balance and science stories but in this case they just credulously throw out the balance principle in favour of nonsense. These low-level feel good type endorsements are the very entry level style beliefs that lead to the cancer quackery and anti-vaccine rubbish that costs lives. What is the role of journalist these days? Hitchens would be turning in his grave.

  • Siouxsie, well done, I’m thinking of writing one myself.

    JOJO, The advertising standards authority complaint idea is a good one if you can identify parts of the website that breach the code of practice. It can all be done on line in about 20 minutes at the asa website. I would recommend you lay a complaint if you think there are grounds to. The more pseudoscientific website we can get rid of the better

  • I vaguely remember an episode of Blackadder that informed us that the modern use of leeches for most illnesses is to “place two on the tongue and let them gently dissolve.”

    For many of the uses promoted by Mr Jaffari, I suspect that the leeches would be just as effective if they were taken orally!

  • Apologies Alison, your post wasn’t visible on Sciblogs when I wrote mine or I would have linked to it! I emailed Lincoln Tan to ask if Mr Jaffari was medically qualified but not had a response. I also emailed Andrew Koubaridis who underwent the treatment to ask if he paid for it and if he knew what happened to the leeches afterwards. No reply yet….

    • Reply from Lincoln Tan re using the title Dr:

      “Thanks for your email and concern. I have checked with the Ministry of Health about the title of “doctor”, and I’ve been told that the ministry does not have an issue with practitioners of alternative medicine to identify themselves as doctors – as with academics with doctorate degrees

      It only breaches the rules if they profess to be medical doctors practising western medicine.”

      Very interesting.