by David Lambert
By all accounts, post-earthquake Port-au-Prince was hell on earth. Already suffering from crumbling infrastructure and poor housing conditions, the Haitian capital was perhaps the least equipped city on Earth to withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Within hours, thousands of international rescue workers and doctors were pulling people from the rubble and setting up makeshift hospitals under plastic tents. Their efforts saved lives. But there was one group that almost certainly did nothing besides get in the way. At the cost of $400,000 dollars, a wealthy donor in Los Angeles airlifted 80 Scientologists trained in using “the power of touch” to “reestablish communication” within the bodies of trauma victims. As if the Haitian people were not suffering enough.
Scientology is an easy target. But there is not much difference between “assist,” the Scientologist method of healing, and most other forms of alternative medicines popular in the west. And though some, at times, may have their merits, mixing alternative medicine with global health is both useless and dangerous. Unfortunately, the Scientologists are not the only ones bringing their favorite treatments abroad.
It may sounds like satire, but the group “Homeopaths Without Borders” actually exists, and operates in six countries, Haiti included. Homeopathy is a popular form of alternative medicine that emerged in the 1800s before germ theory. It involves creating elixirs of natural substances diluted to the point that the odds of a single molecule being present in the end remedy are astronomical. Homeopaths—as they call themselves willingly—believe that water molecules “memorize” the substances and act as a cure. As this flouts not only what we know of medicine but also physics, homeopathy is little more than magic water, not a high priority in disaster zones.
Those working in global health tend to be more accepting of alternative forms of medicine than most doctors. Introducing science-based medicine into underserved communities can conflict with traditional beliefs on sickness and health. Some medical anthropologists even view the spread of western medicine as a form of colonialism. As a result, doctors working abroad tread with caution when it comes to critiquing alternative forms of healing, and generally welcome traditional practices as beneficial to the healing process in a principle known as complementarity.
As long as it isn’t directly harmful—like faith healers laying their hands on Ebola victims and thus contracting and spreading the disease themselves—complementarity is a great idea. Rituals and beliefs can comfort a patient, acting as a respite from the cold, technical approach to healing that western-trained doctors sometimes take. Moreover, clinical trials are beginning to uncover evidence that, for some afflictions, simply believing in a treatment can be as effective as the treatment itself. Though the placebo, as it is known, has a negative connotation akin to deception, it can be as powerful of a painkiller as morphine, and has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. As we’re learning, the brain has its own pharmacy to treat illness, and by suggestion can be encouraged to release substances like endorphins (to treat pain) or dopamine (which Parkinson’s disease destroys).
Just a caveat, the healing ability of the mind does not mean that biomedical treatments should ever be discarded. The benefits of placebos are limited and remain contentious among the medical community.
Labeling all forms of traditional medicines as placebos actually shortchanges them. In the Andes, for example, natives would often eat clay dirt to ward off stomach pains, a practice visiting doctors discouraged as inefficacious and unsanitary. What the doctors didn’t know was that the dirt was rich in attapulgite, a mineral used in modern stomach medicines. There are a myriad of other cases in which traditional medicines hold up to the rigors of clinical testing.
The same cannot be said for popular forms of alternative medicine practiced in wealthy countries. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is part of the National Health Institute, receives around $125 million per year in taxpayer dollars—this is more than we devote to autism research—to study every alternative remedy thrown at them, including homeopathy, qi gong, reflexology, and even long-distance physic healing. Since its inception, NCCAM has yet to prove a single alternative therapy is more effective than a placebo.
So at its most benign, bringing alternative medicines to the developing world is a waste of money. The benefits they possess are almost certainly due to the placebo effect, which again can be powerful, yet is something that local alternative remedies do just as well. But there is also a darker side. Proponents of a specific form of alternative medicine sometimes express bewilderment when doctors take a different approach, leading them to the frightening conclusion: Western medicine is evil.
The alternative medicine subculture in the US is a hotbed for conspiracy theories. Here are some headlines from Natural News, a popular alternative medicine site:
– White House admits staging fake vaccination operation to gather DNA from the public
– Polio ‘global health emergency’ entirely fabricated by W.H.O. to sell more vaccines
– Pharma pushers want to conduct Ebola medical experiments on entire population of West Africa
Not all proponents of alternative medicine deny basic science and spread hysterical conspiracy theories, such as the popular myth that vaccines cause autism. But like politics and religion, the radicals are the ones to worry about, especially when they bring their nonsense abroad.
In 2002, a German herbalist named Mathis Rath traveled to AIDS-stricken South Africa convinced that Big Pharma created the disease deliberately to sell antiretroviral drugs, which he claimed were toxic. Sincerely or not, he also claimed that his vitamins could cure AIDS. Rath eventually swayed top officials in the South African government and unleashed a propaganda campaign to convince HIV-positive patients to replace their antiretroviral drugs with his vitamins. Thousands of people took his advice, and lived a much shorter life as a result.
History is repeating itself with the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The fear engendered by Ebola has created an opportunity for quacks everywhere to pitch their beliefs and sell their supplements. In a move reminiscent of the Rath fiasco, Rima Laibow, the “medical director” for a company called Natural Solutions Foundation, sent a letter to top African health officials claiming that “There is good reason to believe that there already is a natural solution for, and prevention against, the terrifying novel Ebola virus.” Laibow goes on to encourage them to use “nanosilver,” which coincidentally, her company sells.
A campaign launched by several homeopathy groups to convince Ebola victims “to immediately seek out their nearest homeopathic healer” gained enough momentum that it prompted the WHO to tweet, “There is no evidence base that #homeopathy can cure #Ebola. Severely ill patients require supportive care.”
Many young people and progressives view alternative medicines as a cool, natural substitute to corporate dominated healthcare. But the reality is that until something is proven efficacious, using it as a medicine is an act of faith. Let’s pretend that a Christian organization encouraged AIDS patients in developing countries to abandon antiretroviral and instead pray to Jesus for a cure. Pretty infuriating, right? Is there much difference between this and what people like Matthias Rath do?
Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, once wrote that “quackery will always prey on the gullible and uninformed.” Let’s not let it prey on the poor as well.