Alternative health care – there are better alternatives

During my recent overseas trip I had two stopovers in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post (3 October) reports that demand from patients has led to a policy where acupuncture treatment will be allowed for patients recovering from stroke and cancer. This is rather an unfortunate move because a very recent study found no difference between acupuncture and sham acupuncture in their ability to perform daily activities of living or in their healthrelated quality of life. The study involved 116 patients who received 12 treatment sessions during a two-week period. [Park J and others, 2005: Acupuncture for subacute stroke rehabilitation. Archives of Internal Medicine 165: 2026-2031, 2005].

Skeptical readers familiar with the scientific literature will know already that acupuncture is ineffective. Herbalists were reported as being upset at being so far excluded from the new treatment guidelines. The Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association president, Dr Tat-Ming, expressed concern that unproven remedies were being endorsed. I can only echo his concerns but this development will soon be repeated in many locations where political considerations conspire against the weight of scientific evidence.

White-Tail Spider Bite Hysteria

Doctors in New Zealand as well as Australia continue to diagnose ‘white-tail spider bites’ as an explanation for all sorts of unexplained skin conditions. In New Zealand this is frequently a ploy so that costs of treatment can be shifted to ACC. I have personally seen one patient with a typical boil who told me that she had no idea what had caused it but the GP went ahead and diagnosed a white tail spider bite. This sort of nonsense has assumed the proportions of an urban myth. Dr Geoff Isbister, an Australian, has published two large studies of alleged spider bites and concluded that reports of death and tissue damage were based on “weak circumstantial evidence.”

Credulous Reporters

A blind woman has reportedly baffled scientists by demonstrating an ability to distinguish colours by touch. She described her ability as being ” a combination of pure learning and concentration.” As Homer Simpson would say: Doh! (Hey guys – perhaps she’s not really blind?)

In Moldova, bank clerks have been hypnotised into handing over money to a bank robber who puts his victims into a trance, leaving them with no memory of handing over the cash. Why is it that the word “accomplice” springs to mind?

Christchurch Press, 15 October

Deer Velvet

Many years ago when I was an active hunter it was astonishing how much money could be had from selling deer velvet. This industry is now worth $30 million with most exports to Korea where it is used as a “wellness tonic”, often mixed into a broth with ginseng and liquorice. Have any readers tried this?

Dr Tong Ren Tang has set up a company promoting the use of deer velvet in traditional Chinese medicines, which are being promoted and sold in Asian countries. He quoted its use 2000 years ago by a Chinese emperor worn out by too many concubines. Given that the majority of traditional Chinese medicines are either useless or dangerous I am happy that we can export an equally useless product such as deer velvet. The industry is however struggling due to low prices and the high value of the dollar. Why not give the Asians a taste of their own medicine? We should promote velvet for the treatment of say impotence and arthritis and adulterate it with viagra and ibuprofen. After all, such Chinese medicines have been sold in New Zealand. These products would obviously really work and would revitalise the deer velvet industry.

Noni Juice

Have any readers tried this stuff? I have not seen it in health food shops but it seems to be gaining in popularity and sells for about NZ$10 for 1.5L in the Cook Islands and up to £150 in the Northern Hemisphere. It is claimed to have benefits for everything from high blood pressure to senility. This absurd range of indications is the hallmark of quackery. In the US the FDA has taken action against the distributors for making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. Similar claims in NZ would be a breach of the Medicines Act and one firm has already been warned for claiming that Noni juice could make cancer tumours disappear.


A few years ago I was at a conference where Ken Ring gave a terrific exhibition of cold reading and showed how you could ‘read’ any part of the body because the whole thing depends of course on the ‘patter’. Jackie Stallone (mother of Sylvester) has taken to reading buttocks (NZ Woman’s Weekly, 14 February)! Is this where Jeremy Wells got his idea from for reading “pubic auras”? Jackie believes our buttocks are as unique as our palms and she claims to have done such readings for the British Royal family. Her abilities extend to other members of the family. Her psychic dogs predicted that Dubya would win the US Presidential election. Jackie was recently kicked off a television program but I have an idea for a new programme for her and her family. How about “Lifestyles of the rich and stupid” for a title?

Echinacea Flunks

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that Echinacea is a placebo (Marlborough Express, 28 July). This comes as no surprise but will make little difference to sales of this product that is promoted for the relief of colds. The people who buy these products do not read or understand scientific studies. There seems to be no correlation between intelligence and the use of these products. It remains to be seen whether the World Health Organisation will remove their endorsement of this useless product.

Water Quackery

Water is such an essential item that it is a good source for any quack enterprise. Take homeopathy for example. Suckers are encouraged to buy ‘healing’ solutions that are actually pure water. Cheap, harmless and very profitable.

Ecoworld NZ Ltd sold units which were claimed to treat water but contained no mechanism or filter apart from a sealed unit containing ‘living water’ from an Austrian glacier. Tests (those pesky tests!) however, showed no difference between ‘treated’ water and untreated water. A Judge said that promotional material “contained inconsistencies, quackery and pseudoscience” and fined the company $60,000. The Ecoworld Company directors are clearly not up to the task and are as dumb as the people buying their product. If you are selling a useless product the last thing you want is to attract the attention of the Commerce Commission.

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