They’ve done it again. Last October CTV Calgary News had (alongside an infectious disease expert) a homeopath espousing the virtues of discarding tried-and-true methods of fighting H1N1 – such as vaccination – in favor of ‘nosodes’, for which not one shred of evidence for its efficacy exists. Now this: On last night’s 6 o’clock news segue called Medical Watch (done by Karen Owen), a homeopathic treatment for food allergies was presented (link).
We’re not told at all how the ‘patient’ (Nathan) came to be diagnosed with having ‘food allergies’, but testing specific allergens involves placing suspected compounds in a sealed vial and seeing how the ‘patient’ responds:
“We’re doing organophosphates and we’re noticing his arm is not able to hold so he is allergic to this vial,” says Dr. Meghji who is still treating Nathan.
Huh? No testing for histamine-triggered inflammatory responses (which is what causes the symptoms of allergies)? Of course, since the vial is sealed, the ‘patient’ is not actually exposed to what is supposedly causing health problems. So how can there be a reaction to diagnose? And “Dr.” in the current context, by the way, means ‘naturopath’, not MD. Surprise, surprise.
So, just how does this procedure, known as the nambudripad allergy elimination technique (NAET), work? Placing vialed allergens near the ‘patient’ purportedly desensitizes the patient to the allergen. Does this involve an immune response to the allergen, causing a desensitization to the culprit compound over time by direct repeated exposure to small amounts? Oh, no. This is homeopathy. Any explanation for how it works must bear no relation to what we have evidence for. The explanation is much more grandiose than something as banal as an “immune response”:
Dr. Meghji says the homeopathy, combined with acupressure, seems to reprogram the brain and get rid of the allergy. “I’m still skeptical…but what I can tell you is it works.”
That’s right. The report actually claims that the ‘patient’s’ brain magically gets ‘reprogrammed’. Despite all the evidence and understanding of the biochemical pathways involved in allergies, it is all in the ‘patient’s’ mind. No one, it seems, has told Meghji that the real culprit histamine is produced in mast cells and basophils found in connective tissue and has nothing whatsoever to do with the brain. We know this from doing actual laboratory experiments. What laboratory and clinical evidence is there for this paradigm shift in our understanding of allergies? None.
Even worse explanations are available. In one case study, where a 3-year old suffering from food allergies to proteins found in dairy products was supposedly cured (without even a cursory attempt whatsoever to allow for other possible explanations) put it this way:
According to NAET therapists, an allergy is considered to be an energy imbalance between the electromagnetic energy of the person and the allergen.1
“Electromagnetic energy of the person”? That’s woo-speak. Totally meaningless jibber-jab. Prove it. All of the claims of NAET are made from case studies which – while interesting – are not a way to base conclusions on efficacy and benefit. For that double-blinded and properly-controlled studies are essential.
And I love that despite Meghji’s supposed skepticism she continues to ply this quackery at $600+ a pop when the only thing she can bring to the table is a bare assertion that ‘it works’. Color me unconvinced, but I find that insufficient.
Let’s make this perfectly clear – there is medicine, and then there is quackery. There is no such thing as ‘alternative medicine’ or ‘complimentary medicine’. These two belong in the latter category. Screw the euphemisms. Not a single claim made by homeopathy has ever been verified by double-blinded properly-controlled studies. Efficacy has never been demonstrated beyond the placebo effect. Diluted solutions of pathogens from which homeopathic preparations are made have never been shown to be anything other than water. The ability of water to hold the memory (whatever that means) of the active agent has never been demonstrated and has actually been falsified. No explanation for why mixing a homeopathic preparation at each dilution by striking it (termed “succussion”) increases potency has ever been given and that it actually does increase potency has never been shown. No one has ever explained how decreasing the dosage of a bio-active compound increases it’s effect. If I drink only water that used to have alcohol in it, will I get super-drunk? I doubt that. It simply goes against what we know about chemistry and biochemistry, things we can demonstrate in the lab and in the clinic. You know, those pesky FACTS.
And let us be equally clear as to where the burden of evidence lies – it lies on those making the claim that homeopathy works, especially since its claims violate long-standing and well-supported views on physiology and biochemistry. People who say things such as “Well, you can’t prove it doesn’t work!” haven’t a clue as to how modern medicine works. In medicine, a treatment must demonstrate efficacy and benefit through several levels of clinical trials and takes years of hard work that isn’t appreciated by the general public. We don’t allow the use of treatments for which efficacy and benefit has not been shown.
This is why the angioplasty treatment for multiple sclerosis is not in wide use. While it is an intriguing hypothesis, it remains only a hypothesis and replication demonstrating benefit must be done first. I feel for sufferers of MS, but this is the way it has to be. Angioplasty can have severe consequences if it goes wrong, and if it turns out that it is not effective in treating MS then an invasive procedure has been done needlessly with potentially serious harm as a consequence. We have these protocols for new treatments for good reasons. The so-called ‘alternative medicine’ group seems to ignore prudence.
Then there are the others who say “Well, doctors don’t know everything.”, as if that somehow translates to a validation of homeopathic quackery. It doesn’t. Of COURSE doctors do not know everything. They even make mistakes. But what they do know is grounded in science. Naturopaths and homeopaths are not grounded at all except in anecdote and make-believe and are essentially without any oversight to ensure that their claims are actually verifiable. Which one is better? Which is more likely to produce effective treatments beyond the placebo effect? Yet there are always those idiots out there exclaiming “Someone has to stand up to these experts!” as if that’s something worthy of more than mocking?
CTV Calgary News is supposed to present accurate information, not misrepresent ‘alternative medicine’ (there is no such thing – either it is medicine or it is not…) as being a valid option. People who are not science-savvy will take this story at face value and potentially suffer harm by opting for treatments based not on evidence as to efficacy, but on anecdote. The only disclaimer came after the segue – a single sentence saying the medical community doesn’t think this works. This is completely out of whack with the relative amounts of evidence for each side. What the medical community thinks of this quackery gets barely a passing mention (not even in the report itself – it was added by the anchorman almost as an afterthought) while a procedure with only anecdote in support gets several minutes of air time? What the hell? If anything, the news item should be warning people against such fraud! This peddling of credulous bullshit from an essentially unregulated service industry is irresponsible reporting and we need to call CTV Calgary News out on this.
1. Terwee CB. Succesful treatment of food allergy with Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques (NAET) in a 3-year old: A case report Cases Journal 1:166 (2008)