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Potential dangers and dubious history of alternative medicine are often unknown to its consumers

Chairman Mao Zedong
REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV
Traditional Chinese medicine began as the dream of Chairman Mao Zedong back in the 1940s.

Anyone who uses homeopathy, acupuncture or other alternative over-the-counter “therapies” — particularly if they use them on their children — needs to read two recently published articles on the topic.

One of the articles, published last week in the Boston Globe’s health website STAT, takes an in-depth look at the incredibly troubling story behind a popular homeopathic teething product that harmed hundreds of children in the United States before it was finally pulled from the market last fall.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently reviewing the cases of eight babies who died after taking the product.

The other article, published earlier this year on the Science-Based Medicine website, describes the rise of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in both China and Western countries. It describes how TCM began as the dream of Chairman Mao Zedong back in the 1940s, but is receiving a renewed global push this year by the current Chinese government, in part to cover up major failings in China’s medical system, but also to protect the profits of the country’s multibillion-dollar traditional pharmaceutical industry.

Both articles underscore how people often abandon their skepticism and their reason to embrace bogus alternative-medicine practices that are not only a waste of time and money, but also potentially harmful.

The articles also rip apart the prevalent David-and-Goliath myth regarding alternative therapies: the idea that alternative-medicine manufactures are small, noble companies who only want to bring inexpensive, natural remedies to people in need, but who find themselves battling the big, bad profit-driven pharmaceutical industry.

The truth is much less attractive:  Alternative medicine is now a huge profit-driven, multibillion-dollar industry, too. And parts of it are owned by the pharmaceutical industry.

Homeopathic harm

For the STAT article, reporter Sheila Kaplan used the Freedom of Information Act to seek and review FDA records for homeopathic teething pills marketed by Hyland’s, a 114-year-old private, Los-Angeles-based company that sells more homeopathic products than any other company in the U.S.

A review of those records revealed that during the 10-year period 2006-2016 the FDA received reports of 370 children who had experienced adverse health events after using Hyland’s homeopathic teething tablets or gel. The reports are grim, says Kaplan:

Babies who were given Hyland’s teething products turned blue and died. Babies had repeated seizures. Babies became delirious. Babies were airlifted to the hospital, where emergency room staff tried to figure out what had caused their legs and arms to start twitching.

Medical experts believe toxic levels of the teething tablet’s main ingredient — the herb belladonna — may have poisoned the children. 

Despite those reports, “it took four years until the FDA pushed Hyland’s to reformulate its remedies,” writes Kaplan. And even after that reformulation, there was “a steady stream of reports of adverse events tied to Hyland’s homeopathic teething products,” she adds.

An inconvenient truth

The Hyland’s teething tablet saga raises issues that most consumers of homeopathic  — and other alternative “therapies” — are unaware of, as Kaplan explains:

Homeopathy has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Its products are big sellers around the world, and popular with adherents from Cher to Prince Charles. The industry also has political clout: It has been able to exempt itself from many rules proposed by Congress and the FDA over the years.

Unlike pharmaceutical company-produced drugs, homeopathic products don’t have to prove that they are effective at treating anything in particular before going on the market. It is left to the FDA’s drug division to determine whether they are unsafe after they are on the market — a difficult task since the adverse event reports are generally considered to represent only a fraction of the actual incidents and may lack sufficient information to allow for thorough investigations. …

In some cases, parents assume that products described as natural remedies, as is the case with Hyland’s tablets and gels, could not possibly result in complications, and never mention their use to a doctor. Without sufficient evidence of a problem, the FDA lacks what it needs to use the enforcement tools it does have.

Hyland’s has stopped making its teething tablets, but only after the FDA recommended last September that consumers not use the product (or other homeopathic teething products) while the agency investigates more cases of possible serious reactions among babies.

Kaplan tells a harrowing story in her article — one all users of homeopathic medicines would be wise to read.

A dubious history

The Science-Based Medicine article also contains background information that is likely to surprise most consumers of another arm of alternative medicine  — TCM. Acupuncture is by far the most popular TCM therapy, at least in Western countries, but TCM includes many other treatments, include herbal “medicines.”

As Dr. David Gorski, a columnist for Science-Based Medicine and a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, explains in the article, acupuncture has been appropriately described as “a ‘theatrical placebo,’ with no detectable difference in effect compared to sham or ‘placebo’ acupuncture.”

Furthermore, acupuncture is not even “ancient,” as Gorski explains:

The technology to make such thin needles didn’t exist two thousand years ago, [and], as recently as a century ago, acupuncture was … brutal and primitive, using nothing like the thin, shiny needles acupuncturists use today.

But the problem with TCM, he says, is not just acupuncture, “it’s the whole ancient, prescientific system of medicine.”

Take Chinese herbal medicines. Even if the herb itself is innocuous (and not all are), medicines imported from China have been found to contain undeclared ingredients, including pesticides, heavy metals (such as lead and arsenic), antibiotics, decongestants — and the DNA of endangered snow leopards. (Animal parts, including those of endangered animals, are often used in traditional Chinese medicines, says Gorski.)

The presence of toxic materials in these medicines is not a minor matter. Recent studies have suggested that herbal medicines are the leading cause of drug-induced liver failure in China and other countries where TCM is rapidly becoming popular, such as South Korea and Singapore, Gorski points out. 

Making quackery legitimate

Like other forms of alternative medicine, TCM is built on a myth. Gorski explains:

[T]he exportation of TCM to the world was quite deliberate, as part of a strategy [by the former Communist leader of China, Mao Zedong] to popularize it among the Chinese. There was a problem, however. There was no such thing as “traditional Chinese medicine” per se. Rather, there were traditional Chinese medicines. For many centuries, healing practices in China had been highly variable. Attempts at institutionalizing medical education were mostly unsuccessful and “most practitioners drew at will on a mixture of demonology, astrology, yin-yang five phases theory, classic texts, folk wisdom, and personal experience.”

Mao realized that TCM would be unappealing to foreigners, as even many Chinese, particularly those with an education, understood that TCM was mostly quackery. For instance, in 1923, [the Chinese writer] Lu Xun realized that “Chinese doctors are no more than a type of swindler, either intentional or unintentional, and I sympathize with deceived sick people and their families.” Such sentiments were common among the upper classes and the educated. Indeed, … Mao himself didn’t use TCM practitioners. He wanted scientific “Western” medicine. The same was true of educated Chinese. It still is. TCM is far less popular among educated middle class and affluent Chinese than conventional medicine.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the current Chinese government from passing a new law, which goes into effect in July, that mandates the integration of Chinese and “Western medicine” throughout their country.

The purpose of the law, says Gorski, is to elevate the status of TCM to the equivalent of Western medicine — and thus provide a cheaper way of delivering medicine to China’s overrun medical system.

“One also can’t help but notice that a lot of this new law goes towards protecting the business interests of the TCM industry in a manner that, if it were done for the pharmaceutical company, would provoke howls of outrage from [alternative medicine] proponents — and rightly so,” writes Gorski. 

FMI: You can read Gorski’s article on the Science-Based Medicine website. Kaplan’s can be found at the STAT website.

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Comments (4)

Bravo!

Very important points.
The FDA's enabling legislation should be rewritten so that it can regulate everything that purports to provide medical benefits.

The comments you made here,

The comments you made here, Susan, are nonsense. The anecdotal report from parents saying their child had a seizure may have been from any number of things - including (and most likely) vaccines. The children over the more than 50 years we've had these teething tablets have NEVER suffered any problems, and to infer that's the reason for this nonsense is poor journalism and fear-mongering.

The other issue with your article is that you are mixing multiple modalities. Which are you complaining about, herbs, homeopathy, or prescription drugs? By far the one that has caused the most injury and deaths (and the 3rd leading cause of death in this country) is prescription drugs, given and taken as prescribed!

It is a sorry state of affairs that you reword the studies. 'Finally pulled' is sensationalism. And the picture to go with the story? Unbelievably silly, all in all.

Deeply biased "journalism"

This is just a sloppy and gratuitous assault upon all things holistic. How much is PhRMA paying you to criticize harmless therapies that can do a lot of good while you ignore the endless string of dangerous pharmaceuticals that do real harm every single day? This issue is but a reflection of the broader societal trend of corporate domination. Big Medicine and its lemmings want to eliminate all competition and it certainly doesn't want people to wake up and take control of decision making regarding personal health issues. Holistic therapies like homeopathy, acupuncture, TCM, and herbal medicine are the wave of the future.

Hi Susan,Can you please give

Hi Susan,

Can you please give the exact link that reports the FDA suspect eight deaths from homeopathy. I can't see it on the FDA pages.