Attacks on complementary therapies and vaccine critics are not evidence-based

The medical establishment has always ruthlessly attacked forces it perceives to be a threat to its power and influence. Doctors bitterly opposed the formation of the NHS, which took away consultants’ dominance in hospitals and deprived them of private income. Recent events have demonstrated this more strongly than ever. In the past few months we have witnessed strong condemnation of complementary therapies (particularly homeopathy and chiropractic) and those attempting to establish the truth about the MMR vaccine.

In December of last year David Colguhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at University College London and renowned alternative medicine basher, wrote an editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). He used this influential platform to dismiss acupuncture, a therapy that has been used for two millennia, as "a rather theatrical placebo, with no real therapeutic benefit in most, if not all cases." Herbal remedies took a similar hit, being described as "giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety." Inevitably Professor Colgujoun could not resist putting the boot into 'evidence-based medicine's' favourite target -  homeopathy - describing it as "giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever." Three months later, in March of this year, the BMJ published another editorial warning of the risks of infections transmitted by acupuncture needles. This scaremongering ignores the reality that serious side-effects, such as infection, from acupuncture are extremely rare, and pale into insignificance compared to the side-effects of drugs prescribed by doctors on a daily basis.
For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), widely used for arthritis and other painful conditions cause over two and a half thousand deaths every year in the UK. Antidepressants prescribed to millions appear to increase – rather than decrease – the risk of self harm and may increase the risk of suicide.

The House of Commons Science and Technology committee reported earlier this year on homeopathy and concluded that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy which it described as a placebo treatment that involved deceiving patients. The committee chose to ignore the evidence presented to them of nine systematic reviews and 87 randomised placebo-controlled trials demonstrating the effectiveness of homeopathy and arguing strongly against it being no more than a placebo. From reading the report some people have concluded that the committee had made their minds up against homeopathy from early on.

Writer Simon Singh won his appeal against the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) which had sued him for libel after he had accused the BCA of "happily promoting...bogus treatments". While I wholeheartedly support the right of anyone to question the value of any intervention (and let's include orthodox interventions such as vaccination as well as complementary therapies here), this ruling was interpreted in some quarters as an endorsement of Singh's accusations. It was, of course, no such thing; it merely upheld his right to make the accusations. Chiropractic has not been found to be bogus.

In a similar vein, the alarming and outrageous punishments handed down to Andrew Wakefield and John Walker-Smith by the General Medical Council were not judgements of the safety of the MMR vaccine, which is still far from proven. They were found guilty of acting dishonestly and irresponsibly; in particular it was found they carried out invasive tests on vulnerable children that caused these children distress and were not in their best interests. This finding is particularly extraordinary as not one of the children’s parents complained about the treatment to their children and many campaigned in support of the accused doctors.

So by all means let's look at the evidence which tells us that:

Acupuncture is an effective and safe treatment for a number of conditions. See my acupuncture site for lots of references.

Chiropractic, despite limited research, appears to be effective for several conditions.

There is plenty of research showing that homeopathy is not just a placebo.

Arrogant scientists should bear in mind that simply because we are currently unable to explain how homeopathy works does not mean that it doesn't work.

Added on 16 Aug 2010