What’s legal and causes the death and permanent disability of thousands of men, women, and children each year? Alternative medicine: the greatest natural disaster plaguing today’s society. Canadian federal and provincial policies toward naturopathic drugs and herbal remedies need to be reconsidered to protect patients from serious harms and misinformation.
With few exceptions, studies in reputable medical journals have consistently indicated that alternative medications are often dangerously toxic or entirely ineffective. These findings are hardly surprising, given that “alternative doctors” in Canada don’t necessarily have to have any particular standard of education or training, and that the medications they prescribe are not equally subject to Health Canada’s standards of safety and efficacy before they are marketed. Peer review and federal oversight of alternative drugs is weak, and the marketing laws surrounding alternative medications are far more lax than those of conventional medicine.
This incredible lapse in oversight and patient protection means that herbal remedies and naturopathic drugs can and do permanently injure patients. Even seemingly harmless herbal medications can interfere with traditional medications required to treat serious conditions like diabetes or HIV. Others have been found to have serious side effects on their users, which are not caught before licensing due to a lack of stringent testing. In 2009, the homeopathic drug “Zicam” in the U.S. caused over 900 people to lose their sense of smell before the Federal Drug Administration warned the public about its potential side effects.
Even when the drugs or procedures involved with alternative medicine do not cause harm, it remains that pursuing alternative medicine entails serious risks when it means foregoing or compromising traditional medical care. People die when they are told to halt their chemo and cure their cancer by simply taking the right combination of herbs and minerals. They die when they try to treat HIV with lifestyle changes and acupuncture alone. And they die when instead of regular visits with trained physicians, they resign themselves to the dubious care of individuals who may not be able to adequately monitor and diagnose symptoms of real and treatable illnesses.
While some forms of alternative medicine may be innocuous, others can threaten the health of the public at large by spreading misinformation and instilling distrust in conventional disease control. For instance, naturopathic medicine explicitly rejects many safe and efficacious vaccines for serious and preventable illnesses like TB. Such a stance on vaccinations threatens not only individual patients, but the entirety of Canadian society when we are forced to bear the burden of otherwise avoidable diseases.
Almost by definition, drugs outside of evidence-based medicine lack scientific data to support their claims of efficacy. An article in The Age, an Australian daily, suggests that the vast majority of homeopathic remedies are devoid of active ingredients. If there was evidence behind the claim that a few natural herbs can cure AIDS, believe me, we would have heard about it by now. This lack of supporting evidence is particularly problematic in the realm of medicine, which relies heavily on informed consent. Without a mechanism to ensure that the information disclosed to patients prior to treatment decisions is accurate, we cannot assume that patients have adequately consented to the possible harms.
It’s true that many suffering patients find refuge or value in alternative medicine, regardless of its weak evidentiary basis. People would probably stop turning to alternative medicine if they did not perceive it as valuable in some way.
At the same time, we must recognize that there is a difference between symptom relief and cure. Alternative medications may be effective at pain relief, but in many cases, so are placebos. There is a difference between pain reduction and actually curing a disease. Pain, anxiety, and emotional wellbeing may be subjective. Tumour growth and insulin levels are not.
It would be unrealistic – and perhaps unjust – to demand a federal ban on alternative medications. We let people engage in all kinds of activities that are harmful so long as they don’t harm others and there is sufficient consent. Smoking is permissible, and one is always free to refuse medical treatment altogether. What federal agencies should do is regulate the use of alternative medications more stringently, and protect children and other vulnerable groups. A child cannot consent to the risks and inherent opportunity costs involved with pursuing alternative medicine. The state should not allow a child to die because his or her parents think tea will cure their cancer or exercise is better at preventing tuberculosis than vaccines. Just like Jehovah’s Witnesses should not be allowed to deny life-saving blood transfusions for their kids, parents should not be allowed to deny life-saving treatments to their children or offer them untested, unregulated, and frequently unsafe drugs.
People often vehemently argue against the decriminalization of marijuana, because they fear it will do tremendous damage to youth. To be perfectly honest, I suspect alternative medications are far more dangerous.
Riva Gold writes in this space every week. Send her your leeches post haste at the address firstname.lastname@example.org.