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Doctors warn parents of potential dangers alternative ‘medicines’ pose to children

Parents who use alternative therapies with their children because they view them as a more “natural” option are often unaware of the potential dangers posed by such treatments.

Many parents used alternative therapies with their children because they view such therapies as a safer, more “natural” option to conventional medicine.
CC/Flickr/TheKarenD

A four-year-old British boy was hospitalized in London with calcium poisoning after his parents “treated” his autism with supplements prescribed by a naturopath, according to an article published last week in the journal BMJ Case Reports. 

The story underscores the potential dangers associated with using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, especially in children.

Also, last week, a study in the journal Pediatrics reported that children who see CAM practitioners, particularly naturopathic physicians, homeopaths, acupuncturists or chiropractors, were less likely to receive an annual flu vaccine. Previous research has shown such children are less likely to be immunized against other vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles and whooping cough — and are also more likely to come down with those diseases.

A dozen supplements

The British boy arrived at the London emergency room with a range of symptoms, including vomiting, loss of appetite, excessive thirst, constipation and sudden weight loss (six pounds in the previous two weeks).

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The child had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but he had no other significant medical history and was taking no physician-prescribed medications. 

A blood test revealed that the boy had hypercalcemia — an abnormally high level of calcium in the blood — as well as a high level of vitamin D. The child was admitted to the hospital, and further tests, including an ultrasound of his abdomen and an MRI scan of his brain, were conducted to try to determine the cause of the elevated levels of calcium. (The most common cause of hypercalcemia is a noncancerous tumor on one of the parathyroid glands, but several blood cancers and other diseases can also lead to the condition.)

After several days, the child’s mother revealed that the boy had been taking 12 different holistic supplements for several months on the recommendation of a naturopath, who said it would help with his autism. The supplements included calcium, vitamin D, cod liver oil (which contains vitamin D), camel milk (which contains calcium), silver, zinc and Epsom bath salts.

Because the other tests had come up with normal results, the hospital’s doctors believed the supplements were the most likely explanation of the boy’s symptoms. He was treated with fluid rehydration and several drugs aimed at lowering his blood-calcium levels. After two weeks, he was able to return home, and has had no further problems.

He’s also no longer taking the supplements.

“His parents were devastated that something they had given to their son with good intent had made him so unwell,” write the authors of the case report.

A common problem

Many parents used alternative therapies with their children because they view such therapies as a safer, more “natural” option to conventional medicine. This may be especially true of parents with children diagnosed with autism. One small U.S. study found that 74 percent of parents of children with autism were treating their child with various CAM therapies.

Most parents are unaware of the potential dangers posed by such treatments.

“Although families often report that they use CAM because of fear of side effects with conventional medicine, there is limited data regarding side effects of CAM practices themselves,” the authors of the BMJ case report write.

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“Nutritional supplements are not regulated as drugs, so there is little oversight regarding quality control,” they add, “… and, as our case demonstrates, there can be significant adverse effects.”

Flu vaccine

In the Pediatrics study, researchers looked at medical information on 9,000 children, aged 4 to 17, whose parents had participated in the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. They determined which children had received various CAM therapies, and then compared those findings with the children’s flu vaccination history.

The data revealed that children who had ever used any type of “alternative medical system” (such as homeopathy, naturopathy or acupuncture) or “manipulative and body-based therapies” (such as chiropractic manipulation) were less likely to have been vaccinated against the flu within the previous 12 months than other children.

That finding was not true for children who used multivitamins, however. They were slightly more likely to have been vaccinated against the flu.

Specifically, 33 percent of the children who had received alternative medical system therapies and 35 percent of those who had received manipulative and body-based therapies had been vaccinated against the flu within the previous 12 months, compared with 43 percent of those who had never used any kind of CAM and 45 percent of those whose only CAM therapy was being given multivitamin supplements.

“These specific types of CAM [homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic manipulation] may require contact with CAM practitioners shown to have vaccine-critical viewpoints, advise against vaccination, or advise vaccine schedules different from those recommended by the federal government,” the study’s authors write.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Pediatric Association, recommend that all children over the age of six months receive the annual flu shot. So far this year, flu vaccination rates among children have remained steady, but only children aged 6 months to 2 years exceed the CDC’s goal of 70 percent vaccination coverage. 

FMI: You can read the case report of the British boy’s bout with hypercalcemia on the BMJ Case Reports website. An abstract of the Pediatrics study can be found on that journal’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.