Poison for Profit

There is something rotten in the state of China, a country where greedy people are quite happy to poison their own citizens in the name of profit. Milk powder is assayed for protein content by detecting nitrogen levels. Melamine, being a nitrogen-rich compound, gives a return in this test which indicates for protein, so if you have a poor milk product or it has been watered down, melamine can be added to make the product look as if it is up to normal protein levels.

The Chinese have been down this path before when they used melamine in pet food and it caused similar problems with kidney stones.

They also have a history of adding effective western drugs such as Viagra and steroids to enhance useless herbal remedies.

Melamine is relatively non-toxic but is relatively insoluble so tends to precipitate out and form stones in any animal that has the ability to concentrate urine.

Some animals such as cats and dogs are at a higher risk than humans because their urine is acidic and melamine has a lower solubility in acid urine.

I recall a previous scandal in the Chinese health system where the chief culprit was convicted and immediately shot. Despite my reservations about capital punishment one is tempted to wish the same fate on the criminals who have visited so much illness and suffering on small children.

Herbal Remedies for long life?

Folk wisdom is often seen as being somehow superior to modern medicine. Inductive logic is frequently used as a justification for quaint belief, reasoning from the specific case to the general case. For example, Great Uncle Fred took arsenic every day and lived to be 100 so therefore…

A nutritionist found a book in her late mother’s attic and has used it on a website promoting folk remedies such as pepper for earache, plantain leaves for toothache and horseradish mixed with gin for premenstrual tension. (Just as an aside, do women have postmenstrual docility?)


You can even download the book, How to Live 100 Years. The nutritionist recalled her father treating her for mumps -“he put boiled onions on my neck.” This sounds remarkably like the medieval philosophy known as the doctrine of signatures where it was believed that God provided a ‘signature’ to plants as a sign for what ailments they might be useful for. An onion resembles the swelling of the neck with mumps so according to this doctrine an onion is the appropriate cure.

Marlborough Express 16 July 2008


An article in the Australian Medical Journal ( 2007; 187:337- 341) claimed to show that acupuncture was an effective treatment for allergic rhinitis. This struck me as absurd and also drew a sharp criticism from Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, University of Exeter. Ernst has experience of a wide variety of modalities such as acupuncture, spinal manipulation and homeopathy. Despite what you might expect of his appointment he has proved to be something of a gadfly for those who make claims about alternative medicine.

The study had a fatal flaw as outlined by Ernst. It was supposed to be a ‘randomised sham controlled trial’ as follows. Needles were inserted into acupuncture points and stimulated when ‘chi’ was elicited. Chi is the subjective sensation associated with the needling of an acupuncture point. In the sham group needles were inserted at non-acupuncture points, where according to acupuncture theory no chi would be experienced! Ernst commented: ‘Thus the intervention patients were experiencing chi, and the control patients were not. This means that neither the patients nor the therapist were blinded.’ (just as an aside, ‘ blinding’ could have been achieved with acupuncture needles – the ‘ King Lear’ trial).

Another study I came across had the grand title ‘Laser acupuncture in children with headache: A double blind, randomized, bicentre, placebo controlled trial.’ Some years ago, when I reviewed the literature on acupuncture, I found the most poorly designed trials were the ones claiming the greatest results. A similar trial claimed to show laser stimulation of acupuncture points produced a ‘dramatic’ relief of pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Some more sceptical people repeated the study and obtained the same improvement even when the laser was switched off!

Ancient Wisdom

While in Australia recently I saved an article from the Sunday Telegraph (21 September).

It claimed that the overburdened Australian Health System is causing large numbers of people to seek out traditional Chinese remedies.

According to Dr Alan Bensoussan, ‘The Chinese have linked particular signs together, connecting not only physical symptoms, such as the colour of the tongue and the quality of the pulse on the wrist, but also their predominant emotions, to make a diagnosis.’ What happens if you have a consultation straight after eating a raspberry ice block?

The article contains the usual anecdotal reports. A woman with asthma claimed that repeated courses of antibiotics had failed to cure chest infections which aggravated her asthma. She was cured by a one-week course of some unspecified herb.

The majority of chest infections in asthmatics are in fact caused by viruses so I have no argument there. As to the herb: probably as effective as powdered fox lung, a traditional English remedy for asthma.

Another person complained that he got the flu despite being immunised and taking a course of antibiotics. He now takes regular doses of herbal medicine and no longer gets the flu.

Immunisation is not 100 percent effective and as we all know antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. I wish journalists would challenge people on these issues instead of promulgating myths about antibiotics.

An example is given of the difference ( East vs West) between traditional Chinese and western medicine.

Six patients are found to have peptic ulcers and are all treated the same way by western doctors, regardless of sex, age and emotional state.

The Chinese traditional medicine practitioner however, takes into account differences in build, pulse quality, complexion, tongue colour, moods, sleeping patterns and length of nostril hairs. (No, I made that last one up). Each patient is diagnosed with a different root ( unintentional pun here) cause for their ulcer, based on their unique clinical picture.

I deliberately highlighted the last bit because this sort of treatment requirement is often quoted as a reason why such traditional treatments cannot be subjected to traditional drug trials. In order to give a patient an individual treatment they cannot by definition be randomised into a clinical trial. This often quoted as the ‘ plea for special dispensation.’ The other argument used is: ‘ we know our treatments work so there must be something wrong with your trial.’

However, I am mindful of the fact, pointed out by Professor Sir John Scott at last year’s conference, that a great deal of traditional western treatments and practices have never been put to the test. This is true but at least modern medicine is based on plausible ideas derived from scientific study of anatomy, physiology and pathology.

Chinese traditional medicine is based on highly implausible beliefs that defy logic and common sense.

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