Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 25 August, 2016.
These days, when you take a look at social media, you often see people sharing various ‘natural’ cures for diseases, promoting some form of ‘alternative’ medicine, or complaining that a cure for a specific vicious illness is being ‘suppressed.’ This has started to bother me quite a bit over the last few years, and whenever I confront someone about this, their usual response is something to the effect of “Oh, then it won’t hurt to try. What’s the harm?” Well, let’s try to answer that question, shall we?
As Dara O'Briain so famously put it, “Oh, herbal medicine's been around for thousands of years! Indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became 'medicine'. And the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri, so knock yourselves out.” So why has alternative medicine become popular? Well, medication and surgery are not a part of alternative medicine, and people tend to fear medication and surgery due to confirmation bias. After all, you only read about surgeries that went wrong, or people who suffered due to strange side effects of medication, and these all sound bad. But that is because the millions who were saved by surgery don’t warrant a news headline. The millions who can now walk and talk due to medication get ignored by the media.
True, there are risks with surgery and medication, and less with alternative medicine, but that’s mostly because alternative medicine does not work, and thus are not likely to cause any direct harm (not no harm, however!) Any reasonable patient should not have blind faith in a doctor, and be knowledgeable about their health. They should ask questions, and assume nothing. Seek a second or third opinion – not to get an answer you want to hear, but to confirm your diagnosis. Research is every patient’s responsibility – after all, it is your life.
Medical science also cannot always discover the cause of an illness, or relieve its pain. Sometimes when it does, it cannot offer a cure that’s guaranteed to be successful. Alternative medicine then often offers hope, even if it is hopeless. Unfortunately, since it’s not a cure, false hope often kills, whereas a treatment with even a 10% chance of success is better than death.
“But alternative medicine is natural! And cheaper!” Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but natural does not mean good. Some of the most dangerous substances are natural - ricin, abrin, botulinum, and strychnine. And while you could chew White Willow Bark to relieve your headache, medical science has extracted the ingredient that helps for headaches, and put it in a nice aspirin tablet for you to swallow. ‘Alternative’ medicine does not mean equally effective. And being cheap with your health often results in a much shorter, ‘natural’ lifespan.
“But these work! It’s just being supressed by the <insert conspiracy theory buzzword here> because it would make them more profit!” Sigh. So you think a cure would be supressed for money? Would you do that? If yes, then you obviously value money more than human life, and any cure you offer would suffer from that same lack of ethics. If no, then why do you think other people are different from you? People generally all have the same set of ethics required to function in modern society – your claims make no sense.
Even if they did, consider the following. Not all medical research organisations are for-profit. Researchers and their families can catch these diseases just like anyone else. A billion-dollar profit means nothing if your dying from a disease you could have cured. You think scientists value money over something such as a Nobel Prize and the acclaim that goes with a cure? In countries with a public health service, what would be the motive there? And wouldn’t health insurance companies be fighting against this, since they have to pay for continual treatment? Have you considered that there’s significant profit to be made from patenting a cure? And since there’s more than one for-profit company, they’d be glad to have a cure that could crater a competitor’s profits?
Well, since alternative medicine doesn’t work (since then it would be medicine), and all it does is provide false hope, then what’s the harm in giving it a try? Well, for one, it is wasting the resources of a person who needs help. Money spent on alternative medicine could instead be ploughed into paying for a scientific cure. This only helps the fraudster who tricked you, and will happily continue to trick the ill long after you’ve gone. It also supports ignorance, which can be downright dangerous. Spreading misinformation to the sick and the needy is both dangerous and unethical, and endangers lives. And of course, the doozy. People will try these ‘alternative’ cures for their diseases instead of actual ones. Telling someone to take these instead of actual evidence-based medicine is the worst kind of evil, as you are actually endangering a human life now.
At first, it will seem harmless. After all, recommending a homeopathic remedy for someone with diarrhoea will likely do nothing, and diarrhoea will stop eventually. Homeopathy is nothing but water, after all. Then you get natural detox pills, which in most cases simply causes diarrhoea to imply a ‘detox.’ Yet your liver detoxes your body naturally, and when you ask these practitioners what tests you can do to show the ‘toxicity levels’ before and after, they never give solid answers – because no test has shown that detox works.
And then you get the killers. The people who tell cancer patients to try cannabis oils instead of going to an oncologist. The research into cannabinoids are at a very early stage, and while tests have shown it can prevent some tumours from growing, it has also shown that it can encourage other tumours to grow, harm crucial blood vessels, and interfere with the immune system’s ability to fight those tumours. Research is on-going, and so far has only been done on mice and in test tubes with highly specific doses. Now you want patients to self-medicate without dosages and forgoing proven treatments that lengthen their lifespans? I rather doubt your altruism, and I detest your ethics.
Medical science has enriched all our lives significantly. Sanitation, antibiotics, anaesthesia and vaccines have enabled the human race to live longer and fuller lives. Today, a 72-year old has the same chance of dying as a 30-year old hunter-gatherer ancestor of ours. Since 1900, the global life expectancy has doubled, and today no country in the world has a lower life expectancy than the country with the highest in 1800. Instead of opting for false hope in alternative medicine, try the real hope that medical science has provided for so many.