Having our say on natural health

As part of the Memorandum of Understanding between the National and Green parties, the Ministry of Health has been developing proposals for a natural health products scheme to regulate such products on the New Zealand market. To kick this process off the ministry has produced a consultation paper setting out high-level proposals for the scheme and called for submissions on it. The NZ Skeptics were among those who sent in a submission in time for the closing date on 17 May. Vicki Hyde and Michelle Coffey were the principle authors, with contributions from several other society members.

In general, the NZ Skeptics support the scope, purpose and principles of the proposed legislation. We think it’s important that the industry has some regulatory oversight to support consumer protection, particularly in the area of claims and proof of efficacy, as well as safety, marketing material and labelling. The use of terms such as ‘natural’ concerns us as it is used to imply benign, which is not a supportable claim.

In addition we are concerned that there appears to be very little in the way of supervisory oversight or quality control in this industry, particularly with regard to imported products. This is potentially of major concern as, on the rare occasion when such checks have been made, product quality has been found to be severely compromised.

Some ‘natural health products’ have been found to have significant levels of contaminants such as heavy metals, or to contain pharmaceutical products, such as viagra and paracetamol, deliberately introduced to give the product a measurable effect not obtainable from the ‘natural’ products.

We believe that informed choice for the consumer is critical in this area, as in all areas relating to health. Labelling requirements need to be clearly defined to ensure that the natural health industry does not use archaic, misleading or inappropriate terminology to boost its claims to the detriment of consumer understanding.

Also, the definition of ‘natural health product’ needs careful deliberation. This industry has been seen in the past as quick to claim any and all modalities that suit their business. ‘Natural health’ should be regarded as a marketing term, not a scientific one. The extension of this business into ‘synthetic equivalents’ gives this industry even more scope for misleading consumers (cf the claims of BZP as providing a ‘herbal’ high).

There is a link to the full submission on the NZ Skeptics home page (www.skeptics.org.nz).

After the overdose

NZ Skeptics link up with a British campaign against homeopathy.

On January 30 there was a concerted global mass overdose – but no-one died because the ‘medication’ was homeopathic. The event grew from the UK-based 10:23 campaign (www.1023.org.uk), which was planning a mass homeopathic overdose to protest against the Boots pharmacy chain stocking homeopathic products.

At a Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub meeting (skepticsinthepub.net.nz) four days before the planned date, one attendee asked if the NZ Skeptics were going to be involved. After all, we had asked a number of times over the years for the professional pharmacy bodies to supply a conference speaker to talk about the ethics of selling products of doubtful efficacy. Things swung quickly into action…

We held the mass overdose in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, with about 40 people taking part. The event also included an ‘underdose’ – homeopaths believe that the more dilute things are, the more potent they become, so we were careful to try that approach. There are also claims by product manufacturers that, in fact, dosage doesn’t matter at all – whether you take one pill or 100 – the important thing is the frequency of dosage. We covered that base too. No ill effects were reported, apart from a distinct drop in the level of cash in various wallets. While several members were keen to take part, many said they couldn’t in all good conscience bring themselves to buy the stuff in the first place. For the demonstration, we reluctantly purchased two boxes of tablets and a 25ml spray from a Unichem pharmacy, costing $51.95. That’s a lot to pay for less than two tablespoons of water and not much more than that in lactose milk sugar.

One of the homeopathic products downed by the participants had a label saying it contained chamomilia, humulus lupulus, ignatia, kali brom, nux vomica and zinc val. But those substances were actually in homeopathic dilutions, meaning that the kali brom, for example, was present in a proportion comparable to one pinch of sugar in the Atlantic Ocean – that is, not actually present at all.

Reaction

The pre-publicity from the Christchurch Press saw the New Zealand Council for Homeopaths admit publicly that their products had no material substance in them (our emphasis).

Council spokeswoman Mary Glaisyer said (maryglaisyer.com/2010/01/press-release-mass-overdose): “there’s not one molecule of the original substance remaining” in the diluted remedies that form the basis of this multi-million-dollar industry. This point was picked up by a columnist in the Guardian, who referred to the NZ homeopaths as finding “amusing and creative ways to dig themselves deeper into a hole”.

We got a flurry of interest in the first press release from TV, radio and print media, as well as great support from members, Skeptics in the Pub folk and others concerned about this issue.

TV One ran a very short news item on it; there was a longer, more thoughtful piece on TV3 News.

On TVNZ the Pharmacy Guild was quoted saying of homeopathic products: “there’s a place for them so long as customers are told they only may help”. We believe that that is unethical, and certainly that comment was not made at any of the pharmacists we visited to purchase these products.

TVNZ’s Close Up national current affairs programme covered the story on February 12. They spent two hours filming us swallowing pills, spritzing sprays, demonstrating how a homeopathic dilution is made, talking about the health and safety issues of relying on water as a medicine and a whole host of other issues, in the cosy confines of The Snug at the Twisted Hop, the bar of choice for the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub gatherings.

That sterling effort was then diluted to a very short intro followed by a short interview sequence involving Vicki Hyde and Mary Glaisyer. Following on from this, we decided to put up a challenge of our own to the NZ Council of Homeopaths to join the campaign to call for pharmacies to stop selling homeopathic products, as both groups are opposed to the practice, albeit for different reasons.

The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths and others in the trade have stated that their customers require lengthy personalised sessions to “match the energy of the potency of the remedy with the person”. According to Mary Glaisyer, this involves matching symptoms with the huge range of materials on which homeopaths base their ultra-diluted preparations. For example, causticum, more mundanely known as potassium hydroxide, is said to manifest its homeopathic action in “paralytic affections” and “seems to choose preferable [sic] dark-complexioned and rigid-fibered persons”.

Pharmacists who sell homeopathic products in the same way they sell deodorants and perfumed soaps are clearly not meeting basic homeopathic practice. When a number of pharmacies in Christchurch were checked by purchasers of these products, no pharmacy staff asked about symptoms; one simply asked “do you want vitamins with that?”

Many people equate homeopathic products with herbal products, hence the belief that the products contain real substance. In addition, the products are commonly used for conditions which get better with time regardless of treatment, as well as exploiting the well-known placebo effect.

The call for the NZ Skeptics and homeopaths to join forces is not the first time such action has been considered. In 2002, when an Auckland pharmacy starting selling products labelled homeopathic “meningococcal vaccine” and homeopathic “hepatitis B vaccine”, we discussed with the late Bruce Barwell, at that time the president of the NZ Homeopathic Society, a joint release condemning this highly dangerous move. We were concerned that relying on water as a vaccine would lead to unnecessary deaths.

It’s bad enough when the product labelling misleads people into thinking they are buying something more than water. It’s far worse when they misuse a word like vaccine in such a life-threatening area.

The homeopaths were concerned then, as now, that their 200-year-old practices were being misrepresented by non-homeopaths keen to benefit from the multi-million-dollar industry.

A recent survey showed that 94 percent of New Zealanders using homeopathic products aren’t aware that the remedies commonly contain no molecules of the active ingredient – their homeopath or health professional hadn’t disclosed this. The customers believe they are paying for the substances listed on the box, but those were only in the water once upon a time before the massive dilution process began – along with everything else that the water once had in it – the chlorine, the beer, the urine…

You have to ask, at what point does it shift from being an issue of informed consent to become an issue of fraud?

Do pharmacists not know that homeopathic products are just water, or they do know and don’t care because people will buy it not realising the massive mark-up? Either way, that should be a big concern for the health consumer. Here’s a huge industry with virtually no regulatory oversight or consumer protection or come-back, and even its keen customers aren’t aware of the highly dubious practices involved.

When Billy Joel’s daughter attempted to commit suicide in December, she chose to take an overdose of homeopathic medication, and thus suffered no ill effects. While that case was fortunate, there are many cases where people have been harmed by the use of homeopathic products in the place of real medicine. There is a Coroner´s Court record of the death of a baby from meningitis; it had been treated with homeopathic ear drops and the mother was very reluctant for any hospital admission. And the website whatstheharm.net lists many cases from around the world where people have died or had horrible outcomes as a result of a mistaken reliance on homeopathy.

The alternative health industry has built a multi-million-dollar business exploiting the natural healing powers of the human body, as many conditions will get better within two to three days regardless of whether conventional or alternative treatments are used, or even if nothing is done at all. Independent testing has shown that homeopathic preparations take full advantage of this and homeopaths quickly take the credit for any improvement in their clients.

The NZ Skeptics have already had people asking for a list of ethical pharmacists that they can support with their business. We are happy to hear from any pharmacy willing to take a stand on this issue, and will start to create a database for concerned members of the public.

From the UK 10:23 campaign:

Thanks very much for the note, the support and the energy. We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from the NZ side of things. It’s been great.

To mark the occasion, the NZ Skeptics have released a new Skeptics Guide to Homeopathy, available as a flyer on the website (skeptics.org.nz). It outlines the development of homeopathy from a relatively harmless attempt to help people some 200 years ago through to the multi-million industry of today.

An evening of healing

Noel Townsley continues our series on the psychic roadshows touring New Zealand.

From a website to which I subscribe came an email notice of two upcoming events with “well-known psychic” Jeanette Wilson. She was doing psychic readings one evening, and the following evening Spirit Healing, described as “an extra-ordinary evening, one that may change your perception of this reality forever.”

Having been to an unimpressive evening with the “well-known psychic” Sue Nicholson recently (see NZ Skeptic 93), I decided my usual Tuesday night pub quiz would likely provide me with more satisfaction, but I would attend Jeanette’s Spirit Healing evening and see what this was all about.

The venue was Rotary House in Silverdale. I arrived right on 7.30pm to a medium-sized hall. In the first and smaller of two rooms was a table with various items for sale, and someone to collect my $40 pre-purchased ticket. From behind the dividing door I could hear Jeanette starting her talk and was quickly ushered through to a seat at the back. There were about 100, mostly older people, and definitely more women than men. I could see that quite a few, like me, had taken up a suggestion in the advert and brought their cameras, hoping to get a photo of one of those seemingly elusive spirits.

Jeanette began by explaining that when she used the term “entity” she was referring to a spirit – often referred to as the “soul” in living people, and as “spirit” once they had died, but that all were interchangeable terms for the same thing. She also said that there were over 2000 spirit doctors and surgeons that she could call upon – these were the same ones that the famous John of God in Brazil uses, and like him, she was also dressed in white, as to better see the spirit/entities. She was also barefoot as this “grounded” her to the energies.

She said some doctors came more frequently than others and mentioned various names. None sounded like Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, or Christiaan Barnard. A number of saints were mentioned as well. She said she had recently done a very successful healing session in Palmerston North where she said that many orbs, entities, and even a floating face had been photographed.

Things looked promising for tonight. She then told us about her upbringing in England, her late childhood in which she realised she could see spirit, and her dramatic call to heal. This came when, as a bank loans officer, a man who had come to see her about a loan asked her to heal his bad back. Not sure what to do, she muttered the prayer she had learnt only a few months earlier while attending a healing workshop.

The result, she says, was for three entities to appear. One took over her body; the other two took the man (now lying down presumably), one by his feet and the other by his head, and proceeded to stretch him out straight, with much loud moaning from the man. If her next loan appointment was waiting outside, I wonder what they thought. Eventually the moaning subsided and the man claimed his back was much improved. The next day he went to his chiropractor, who reportedly said his back was now perfectly aligned.

News of this healing incident spread quickly, and she was soon unpopular with the healing school, who considered her to be a novice. However, while waiting at the tube station, an old man walked up to her and told her she was a healer, repeating this several times. When she realised he was “not of this world”, the man promptly vanished, but she now knew what she was destined to do.

Jeanette related another story of how she was asked to see an (unnamed) peer in the House of Lords, who was due to swim the Thames in a week’s time for a charity event, but was unable to free a frozen shoulder. She was able to fix this in a few minutes, and her fame spread quickly, to the extent that she was being hounded by the unwell – rather like Princess Diana had been by the paparazzi, she said.

Expectations

Jeanette then told us about some of her recent healings and what we could expect to experience. These healings she said usually happen within a few minutes, or even within a few seconds of her working with someone. Also, as she was healing, we would likely see auras, orbs of light, or even a healing entity. The entities, she explained, do the actual healing; she is just a conduit for them. She warned us that at times she would be making quite loud noises, but not to be concerned by this, and also to have our cameras ready, as this was the best time to take photos and perhaps capture an image of an entity, orb or aura, as this was when they were most active. We may also notice that the room, or parts of it, may become hot or cold – this would be a result of the energies, she said.

She explained she believed in a higher power, although she did not adhere to any particular denomination. We were then asked to close our eyes and recite the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a rosary if we knew it, to assist us in the night’s healing session.

Jeanette asked if there was anyone that had a visible physical condition, rather than a sore back for example, that was just qualitative. This, she said, was to visibly “prove” to us that healing was going on. Several hands went up, including an elderly lady in the front row, with a pair of crutches to her side. Jeanette asked her name and what was wrong with her. Her name was Iris she replied, and she had a problem with both feet, ankles, legs, and knees, which resulted in her being unable to walk any distance without crutches or use of a wheelchair. “I’ll come back to you Iris,” Jeanette said, and asked again if there was someone with a smaller observable condition.

A woman said she was unable to lift her left arm above her head and demonstrated the lack of mobility. Jeanette got to work, rotating both hands in small circles very quickly about half a metre from the “patient” (as she often referred to them) and at the same time making a continuous “Eeee” noise. As she worked she again reminded us this was the time when spirits/entities would likely appear. She advised that the rapid movement of her hands was not controlled by her, but by the entities, although it seemed to make her puff a bit.

During a break in the “Eeeeee’s” she asked if anyone had taken any photos of orbs etc. Although I had seen and photographed nothing, one person near the front said they had, and a woman in a purple sweater near the back of the room ecstatically claimed that she could currently see a purple aura around the patient, and also a single entity just behind her. During the break I overheard someone say that the woman who saw the entity was also a psychic.

Jeanette continued to work on our first patient’s problematic left shoulder but then moved to the right side, directed by the entities. After a few minutes, with breaks for attempts to lift both arms, it appeared that the patient could now lift her right arm up further than she could before; however the problematic left arm remained defiantly down.

All-knowing entities

Jeanette explained that the entities, who she said had scanned us all as we entered the hall this evening, and see and know everything, often fix things that they consider to be of more benefit to us than we do, in some cases even fixing things we didn’t know we had. She assured our patient though, that she would gain more movement in her left arm later on, and presumably considering that getting the right arm to lift higher made for a successful healing, asked for a round of applause for our patient, and a new person to come forward.

Our next patient was a man who had a visible condition, trigger finger in both hands, which he said he had had for about four years. Jeanette said that in her experience, the longer the condition had persisted, the harder it was to heal. She began again with her rapid hand movements and the “Eeeee’s”. During breaks in the healing process the patient revealed that he also had a lot of damage to his back due to an accident that also caused him pain. Jeanette then said she had a pain in her back, which was a sign the entities had directed her to work on this area too. After a few minutes our patient claimed his back pain was improved, and there was some improvement in the trigger finger. However, at least from the back of the room, there appeared to be no difference in the fingers. Another round of applause for our patient, and then Jeanette directed herself to the previous patient, Iris.

Energy flows

Iris revealed further details of her condition; she had apparently damaged one knee in an accident, for which she was currently awaiting reconstructive surgery. Jeanette explained that all energies flow in and out of our feet – good energy flows up, bad energy flows down and out, so in Iris’s case her feet and ankle problems were due to blockages, which in turn created her knee problems.

Someone from the audience asked Jeanette to check with Iris if she had ever been bitten by something, as this might have caused her problems, as apparently it had done in themselves. Iris was sure she had not been bitten however. Jeanette worked on Iris for some time, getting her to stand up from time to time and try to walk a step or two without her crutches. She worked on Iris’s shoulders which the entities had indicated were a problem – left shoulder is past responsibilities, right shoulder is future responsibilities, Jeanette explained.

Iris looked like she might have been from a rest home, so hopefully she would not have too many future responsibilities to deal with, but if she did, at least she now had a strong right shoulder to cope with them. After a quite lengthy session, and despite Jeanette’s efforts, and Iris’s willingness, Iris seemed unable to make any progress in walking, and still resorted to her crutches, but as she returned to her seat, Jeanette said that she would experience an improvement in the next three days. A further round of applause followed.

During this part of the evening Jeanette had often asked the audience if they could feel the hot or cold energy around them. No one indicated they did, but maybe, as it was a hot and sticky summer evening in a room with no air-conditioning, this was too much for the energies to overcome.

A pause for breath

A break of about 20 minutes gave us an opportunity to take refreshments and look over the table of books, CDs, Jeanette’s upcoming courses, and various items including crystals, the Nu-Me pendant, and a radionic pendulum. The pendulum appeared to be nothing more than a small pear-shaped piece of wood attached to a string; however it was far more, as my later research on the internet revealed.

This pendulum, sculpted by the Aetherius Society’s craftsmen, is claimed to be an excellent tool to help develop your intuition and psychic abilities. “It reacts with the subconscious and higher conscious minds to give physical movements with the swing of the pendulum. With the correct use, you can tap the forces of intuition within yourself and then, by careful experimentation, many things can be determined.”

The Nu-Me pendant appeared to be a small coil of copper, about the size of a 50 cent piece. The manufacturers claim it “balances the personal energy system (chakra balancing and aura clearing) as well as protecting from all disturbed energy including EMF (Electro Magnetic Frequency) POLLUTION.”

The courses currently on offer by Jeanette include Reiki-$3000 to become a Reiki Master, and a Spirit Healing weekend, for an “investment” of only $300.

The second half

Upon our return to our seats, I noted a few more empty chairs than before the break.

Jeanette went back into her healing routine on a few more patients. I cannot report that any of the patients in the second half showed any marked physical improvement either. One gentleman, who had a sore shoulder which he said he had injured, but ACC had said was due to arthritis, was unable to lift his arm up fully above his head. Jeanette said that ACC was wrong in their assessment; it had been injured, and she was going to have to make very loud noises to ensure a healing – a high impact (accident) meant a high impact (sound) was needed to correct it. Following each healing action Jeanette would ask the man to lift his arm up, each time declaring a small improvement, although she acknowledged that he was not fully healed, but assured him the improvement would continue. As the crowd applauded, he returned to his seat. A review of photos from my camera showed that he could lift his arm no further on his first attempt, than on his last.

The finale

The last part of our evening was to be a mass healing by Jeanette. We were asked again to close our eyes and recite the Lord’s Prayer, and a rosary if we knew it, to assist this process. She advised that, as well as healing our own ailments, we could think of others and heal them remotely as well. We were to put a hand on the area that we felt needed healing, but if that area was embarrassing, or hard to reach, we could put our hand on our heart instead, as the entities would know what needed to be healed anyway.

The other important thing to remember was not to open our eyes during this time, as the negative energies being released could enter our bodies this way and undo any healing-a warning worth heeding. As I lost about 95 percent of my hearing in my right ear in a diving accident, I put my hand over my right ear and hoped for an improvement.

The only thing that happened at the time was that the constant tinnitus I also experience seemed to get a little louder. However, she did say we could expect more improvement over the coming days, so I was still hopeful.

Several weeks on, I cannot report any improvement in my hearing at all, but I will certainly let you know if there is.

Her last word of warning was to those who had been through her healing – because they had been through spiritual surgery, which was just like conventional surgery, the same advice applied – they must not exert themselves, lift heavy weights etc for some time. This seemed at odds with her claims that healing happens within a few minutes, and could replace conventional surgery. The recovery time at least, would appear to be the same from either “surgery”.

Gems of information

Amongst the gems of information that Jeanette gave out during the night was that a doctor (unnamed) had shown that cats purring can cause broken bones to heal quicker – one compensation of working at the SPCA I guess. She also said that another (also unnamed) doctor has discovered that people with cancer all have acidic bodies, and that changing your diet to make it alkaline will ensure you do not get cancer.

She also revealed some predictions – that New Zealand will be the first country to have full (presumably independently verified?) healing using her method, and will also be the first to open a crystal hospital – I took this to mean one that uses healing crystals, rather than one made of crystal, as the cost would be phenomenal.

In conclusion, I saw nothing that evening in any of the “patients” to indicate a marked or even a mild improvement in any visible condition, although some were reportedly healed of ailments they did not know they had. Those that claimed to be in less pain invariably still walked with a limp, or had difficulty mustering the affected limb to do anything it could not do before. I think most of the non-critical thinking people in that audience would say they saw proof of healing that night, judging from the queue of people wanting her to autograph their newly purchased books at the end of the evening.

I found it intriguing that Jeanette’s claim that aches in one part of the body indicated a non-physical problem, eg sore hands, means difficulty dealing with issues, seemed to be accepted by the audience – obviously the body is not as complex as we have been led to believe.

I was also puzzled by her statements that energy leaves and enters our bodies via our feet, but when asked to pray for our own healing we had to keep our eyes closed as bad energy can enter through our open eyes and affect the outcome. Also puzzling was her claim to not be of any religious denomination, but we were asked to recite a Christian prayer and the Roman Catholic rosary.

In regard to the auras, entities and orbs, I saw none, although one photo I took does have a circular, semi-transparent, white spot in it. As, in the same picture, I can clearly see the bright down-lights located in the ceiling, I think it is safe to assume that this was in fact lens flare. As for the claimed peach/orange coloured auras that were supposedly captured by some, I think this can easily be explained by the profusion of digital cameras in use, most of which produce a red/orange light in low light level situations to assist them to focus. The light emitted is roughly circular, and of course is aimed at the point of interest – in this instance Jeanette and the patient. With so many cameras in use, inevitably someone taking a photo will be recording these focusing lights in their pictures.

My concern with Jeanette Wilson is that people might see her claims of healing as a viable alternative to conventional medicine, and so forgo treatment. To her credit, Jeanette never suggested to anyone that they do that, but conversely, she never suggested to anyone that they seek conventional treatment for any of their ailments.

Despite Jeanette’s claim in her advertisement, my perception of this reality remains firmly intact.

Forum

A non-remedy for a non-disease

I had to wait for my prescription at the pharmacy and while browsing the shelves noticed a new homeopathic remedy for white-tail spider bites. At $18.40 a small bottle it’s money for jam! No, that metaphor will just not work; perhaps money for water would be better? White-tail spider bites have been blamed for a huge range of injuries but the scientific evidence has discounted this attribution. (Those pesky skeptics again…!) Still, I thought it rather amusing to see a ‘non remedy’ for a ‘non disease’.

John Welch, Picton

The printed word – the best communication there is

Readers may be as amused as I was by the following quote from Tim LaHaye:

“The best way to reach the minds of people is the printed page. God chose the printed page to communicate with mankind. So how can you improve on that?”

No respectable skeptic would believe that even an American fundamentalist could be that stupid, so the reference is: Have a Nice Doomsday, by Nicholas Guyatt: an interview with LaHaye p 275.

Jim Ring, Nelson

The Spiritual Science of Alpha Beta

This excerpt from an NZ Skeptic article of 20 years ago reviewed an evening with self-styled New Zealand ‘magnetic healer’ Colin Lambert. Presumably the pseudonym ‘Alpha Beta’ was used to minimise the chances of legal action should Lambert have considered anything in it defamatory. Lambert died in 2006, but his disciples maintain a website, www.magnetichealers.org.nz, where some of his books and CD’s can be purchased, and workshops are promoted.

The spiritual Science of Alpha Beta, healer to the stars

The skeptics having been invited to Mr Beta’s lecture, I went along to clutch, if not wave, the flag. I duly arrived at the local spiritualist church, a commanding fading edifice at 14, Gullible St. A chap with a withered leg hobbled up the front steps; things were auguring well. An audience of approximately 100 slowly assembled, 90% women, mostly middle aged.

Mr Beta began the first part of his three part lecture with a long series of slides, providing ‘positive proof’ of various paranormal goings on. He kicked off with a spirited defence of Philippino psychic surgeons. Various gory slides quickly had the audience glued. Anyone who suspects these Philippinos of trickery is an ‘idiot’. An anonymous New Zealand G.P. has carefully examined these photographs and concluded that the surgery ‘must be genuine’. An anonymous German eye specialist who doubted that the human eye ball can be removed from its socket and placed on the cheek, still attached, was ‘ignorant’. When one puts the question to these ‘scoffers’; “How long have you studied this surgery in the Philippines?”, that always gets them (approving nods and smiles from the audience). The audience marvelled at a shot of an open Bible being held over a patient. The surgeon wafts the ‘healing energy’ in the book down into the patient helping the release of particularly stubborn growths. Then a piece of goo, the size of an orange, is flashed onto the screen. “How could anyone hide a thing like that up his sleeve, especially as they always work with their sleeves rolled up?” (positive hums of appreciation). After spending a long time studying these ‘wonderfully skilled’ healers, Mr Beta has refined their technique to the point where he now completely ‘dematerialises’, tumours, clots etc and then throws them away, in their still dematerialised state.

Many Hollywood stars have benefited from Mr Beta’s ministrations. A slide of the late Lee Marvin surrounded by his many fishing trophies and Mr Beta impressed the audience. So too did a slide of ‘old timer’ James Coburn. Mr Beta also ‘absent healed’ actor Martin Sheen over the telephone ‘the night before Sheen was shot doing the Kennedy film’ (laughter and warmth abounding). Rita Coolidge (Rita who?) and her sister pleaded with Mr Beta to absent heal their father, Dick. Dick was in San Francisco and Mr Beta in Malibu… David Shanks, NZ Skeptic 14, August 1989.

Newsfront

Save the rocks, say Celt theorists

THOSE zany Ancient Celt people never give up, do they? Now they’re campaigning to protect some boulders on a hillside at Silverdale, north of Auckland, due to be levelled as a site for a new hospital (NZ Herald, 6 May).

The boulders are almost perfectly spherical concretions, similar to the famous Moeraki Boulders. Martin Doutré, author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand, says they were placed on the hill as one of many structures built for calendar and surveying functions by fair-skinned people known as “Patu paiarehe” – before Maori came from Polynesia about 800 years ago.

Some showed ancient etchings of geometric designs similar to those on structures in Britain dating back to 3150BC, he believes.

“They were concretion boulders, which can only form in sea sediments, yet they had made it to the top of this high, yellow clay hill.”

Geological Society spokesman Bruce Hayward said there was no mystery how the boulders got to their current position. Like most of New Zealand, Silverdale was once under the sea. The boulders formed there 70 million years ago, and were raised up by tectonic activity. Softer sediments around them had since eroded away, leaving them exposed.

Creationists settle their differences

The acrimonious split between creationist organisations Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Creation Ministries International (CMI) (see The great downunder creationism takeover , NZ Skeptic 87) has been papered over, for the time being at least (Kentucky Enquirer, April 27).

Both sides have reached an out-of-court settlement in their battle over copyright and mailing list ownership, which has been running since 2005.

The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered the rivals to arbitration in February in a decision that described the fight as a power struggle for control of the creationist message.

CMI has criticised AiG for its financial dealings and approach to creationist teaching. CMI chief Carl Wieland has also accused AiG’s Ken Ham of trying to take control of his organisation, stealing mailing lists and spreading false and vicious rumours about him and his ex-wife. In documents filed in US courts, officials with AiG said Ham was the victim of a disinformation campaign by the Australian group.

Ham, originally from Brisbane and now living in Kentucky, took the US and UK branches of AiG out of the global organisation in 2004, starting his own magazine and appropriating the mailing list of the Australian branch’s publication, which had been distributed world-wide. The AiG organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa then re-branded as CMI.

Something tells me this accord won’t last long. There’s too much money at stake in the global creationism industry, and the feud between Ham and Wieland has gotten really personal.

Dinosaur park heads for extinction

A plan for a multi-million dollar dinosaur-themed park in Waihi has been shelved (Waikato Times,, 10 June).

Newsfront mentioned this one back in NZ Skeptic 84 because the park’s backer, the Dinosaurs Aotearoa Museum Trust, was founded by Darren and Jackie Bush, who operate a Wellington business called Dinosaurs Rock. They run school geology programmes, presenting both evolutionary and creationist perspectives, depending on their audience.

The park was to feature a museum with local finds, replica skeletons and life-sized dinosaur models built by Weta Workshop. </>

A statement to the Waikato Times cited “unsuccessful funding applications in the Waikato”, “increased risks” and “the added pressure of the global recession” as reasons for the project not proceeding.

Skeptic photo among NZ’s spookiest

A photo of a ghostly head in a basket first published in NZ Skeptic 44 has made a short list of four of New Zealand’s spookiest photos (The Press, 4 May).

The disembodied head photographed by Halswell resident Carol McDonald was eventually identified as a photo of Jack Nicholson, from The Shining, which had been on the back cover of the previous month’s Skywatch magazine. The way the magazine was lying over the basket’s other contents gave it a remarkably three-dimensional appearance.

Of the other Press images, two where faces could be discerned in flames in a Westport Volunteer Fire Brigade exercise left Skeptics chair-entity Vicki Hyde unimpressed. “Shots involving fire, smoke and fog are notorious for producing ghost images,” she said. The other photos were equally easy to explain.

One, from a North Island pub which showed an indistinct feline-type face in the lower part of a window, “looks to be a reflection of objects inside the room”, while a face peering between two students at Linwood College could easily have been someone behind the pair trying to get in shot.

“Have you ever seen teenagers mugging for the camera? It’s hard to tell, with the tight cropping and over-exposure blanking out the surrounds.”

Makutu ritual ‘without cultural basis’

The ritual which led to the death of Janet Moses had more to do with The Exorcist than anything in traditional Maori culture, according to statements made by witnesses (Dominion Post, 14 June).

Moses died in Wainuiomata in October 2007 during attempts to lift a makutu, or curse, from her. Five members of her family were convicted of manslaughter on 13 June.

Tainui tikanga Maori teacher Tui Adams said in evidence that the cleansing ritual was without cultural basis and alien to anything he knew. And kaumatua Timi Rahi told the court he had never heard of a ceremony in which large amounts of water were poured into someone’s nose and mouth to remove an evil spirit.

One of those convicted, Hall Jones Wharepapa, said: “We got her into the shower and we turned the cold water on … I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Exorcist, but it was like that.”

Dr Adams said makutu was a form of witchcraft outlawed in Tainui, the iwi to which Janet Moses’ maternal family belongs. Belief in it remains only in pockets, he said.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist and Maori mental health specialist Rees Tapsell explained what had happened as group hysteria. It could happen in times of high emotional stress involving lack of sleep and isolation, he said.

Massey University lecturer Heather Kavan, who specialises in world religions, said although the case might be perceived as a Maori cultural issue, “the things people were experiencing have been noticed in many countries across the world as possession trance experiences”.

Crop circles – Solved!

Wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around, says Tasmania attorney general Lara Giddings (BBC News, 25 June).

Reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for Australia’s poppy crops, which supply about 50 percent of the world’s legally-grown opium, Ms Giddings said there was a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting “as high as a kite” and going around in circles.

“Then they crash,” she said.

Bioresonance therapy for smoking – miracle cure or con?

A therapy marketed as a guaranteed way to stop smoking appears to lack a sound theoretical basis and to have little experimental support.

As health researchers in the field of tobacco smoking cessation our aim is to find effective ways to help people quit smoking, and to improve access to effective smoking cessation treatments. The New Zealand government is currently investing heavily in policies that support such actions.

Proven therapies for helping people to quit smoking

When people decide to quit smoking without any assistance (ie by going ‘cold turkey’), they have to cope with the loss of all the dependency-forming aspects of smoking at once. Consequently, approximately 90 percent of people who try and quit without any assistance fail1.

Most smoking cessation support strategies involve the use of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). With NRT, people stop smoking and replace the ‘dirty’ nicotine they would normally get from smoking a cigarette with ‘clean’ nicotine delivered in a lower concentration (such as via patches, gum, inhaler, and lozenges) and in a safer way (that is, without the harmful constituents present in tobacco smoke). In this manner smokers can deal with cravings and other unpleasant nicotine withdrawal symptoms, thus making it easier for them to quit.

Research evidence for the use of NRT has shown it to approximately double the chances of long-term quitting(2-3). When combined with behavioural support, pharmacological support is even more effective. Good quality evidence from placebo-controlled randomised trials indicates that behavioural support can improve the chances of successfully quitting by two to seven percent(1,4-6). Behavioural support (eg counselling people about dealing with cravings and urges, encouraging them to persist, helping them to consider the benefits and possibilities of being an ex-smoker) can be delivered face-to-face, by telephone or through the internet.

In New Zealand, the cost of NRT patches, gum and lozenge is subsidised ($5 for four weeks’ supply). Subsidised NRT is available to smokers coming into contact with cessation support services (such as the national telephone- based Quitline services and the Maori cessation service Aukati Kai Paipa), which also offer behavioural support. The Government has plans to further improve access by promotion of low cost NRT through primary care (ie through a general practitioner).

Unproven therapies

Despite good access to inexpensive, effective treatment to assist in quitting smoking, unproven and costly therapies are still actively promoted in the media in New Zealand. A recent review of the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of alternative smoking cessation interventions reported that acupuncture, St. John’s Wort and NicoBloc are probably not effective(7). There was insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of Allen Carr’s Easyway Programme and Nicobrevin, and hypnosis did not appear to be any more effective than simple advice to quit.

Bioresonance therapy

Another therapy being marketed in New Zealand as a “guaranteed way to stop smoking” is bioresonance therapy. This therapy appears to have originated from Europe and according to its proponents has been in use since the 1970s. Claims made on a website (www.stopsmokingclinic.co.nz) state that “Bioresonance therapy works through the body’s energetic system” or more specifically, “the technique uses biophysics – the physics of the body”. According to the above website it works by eliminating nicotine from the body and thus takes away the cravings for cigarettes.

“All living cells give off energy as weak electromagnetic waves similar to brain waves used in orthodox medicine (EEG scans). Bioresonance therapy, using the Bicom machine, uses these and those of substances (cigarettes) for therapy. The Bicom separates these waves into harmonious (healthy) and disharmonious (unhealthy) components. The healthy signals can be boosted and sent back to the patient to strengthen normal functions, while the unhealthy signals are ‘inverted’ or turned upside down by an electronic mirror circuit before returning them to the patient through electromagnetic mats. What actually happens is more complicated but the ‘inverted’ wave cancels the harmful wave that was stressing the body’s energetic system. You can see this effect at the beach where a wave reflected from a rock flattens the next incoming wave.”

Furthermore, it is claimed that:

“…nicotine has an electromagnetic charge over your body giving you the craving to smoke. Bioresonance therapy inverts the energy patterns of nicotine which are then passed to the body via electrodes. This process produces phase cancellation which means that the electromagnetic charge of nicotine is reduced. Therefore, it becomes easier for the body to eliminate nicotine over the next 24 hours and your cravings dramatically reduce as your body detoxifies. Additionally, the phase cancellation removes the energetic pattern of nicotine from the body, erasing the ‘memory’ of nicotine which also reduces the cravings.”

To simplify this process even more, according to the Auckland proprietor of a bioresonance clinic, the patient smokes their last cigarette and places it into the bioresonance machine, which then measures the “frequency” of the cigarette. This frequency is then “reversed” and fed back to the patient via two brass electrodes which the patient holds.

The appointment takes about an hour and it appears some behavioural support is offered, as the website correctly mentions the need to avoid second-hand smoke exposure and smoky environments, known triggers for relapse. Patients are advised not to use NRT during treatment nor use any other pharmacological treatments for smoking cessation. “Detoxification” apparently takes a couple of days (patients are advised to drink water to help with this process) and can include the following symptoms: “headaches, fatigue, upset stomach, metallic taste in the mouth, sweaty palms or a sluggish feeling”. Most of these are classic symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Perhaps most bizarrely, patients are also:

“…provided with a Bicom chip that contains the memory of the stop smoking treatment provided. This information lasts for up to 4 weeks and is placed on the body, two finger widths below the navel. This chip will support the detoxification process and help if any cravings are experienced. Drops are also available to support you in times of stress in the following weeks.”

Does bioresonance therapy work?

The New Zealand Stop Smoking Clinic website states that Bicom Bioresonance therapy is “the most successful stop smoking therapy in New Zealand.” Even the authoritative BBC and New Zealand’s very own Close Up TV programme have extolled the virtues of this intervention – see www.stopsmokingclinic.co.nz for video links. However we were unable to locate any randomised controlled clinical trial evidence to support this treatment, despite an extensive search for the term “bioresonance” in a number of medical databases, specifically Medline (1948 to May 22 2009), Embase (1980 – week 21, 2009), AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine) database (1985 – May 2009), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (2nd Quarter 2009), ACP Journal Club (1991 to April 2009), Cochrane Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (2nd Quarter 2009), the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1st Quarter 2009) and the Conference Papers Index (1985 – present).

In total, only 13 articles were located that even mentioned the term, of which eight were non-English publications. The articles with English abstracts were commentaries, non-randomised rat studies, case-series studies or physiology studies. The papers were predominantly published in journals that focused on alternative therapies and no reference to smoking was made in any of the publication titles or English abstracts provided by the database searches. One paper discussed treating 12 athletes with “strain syndrome” with Bicom therapy and 12 with more traditional methods (eg ultrasound, stimulating current, etc)(8). This study reported less therapy time and treatment time in the Bicom group, but we were unable to determine if the study was truly randomised nor the validity of the rest of the study design. However, given the small sample size (24 people only), any positive findings could well be due to chance alone. Interestingly, one paper discussed the use of pseudo-scientific language to cloud important issues (how to present nonsense as science), using bioresonance therapy as an example.

The evidence is not there

Overall, no studies that stand up to the standard level of scrutiny used for orthodox treatments could be identified. The weight of evidence to support the use of this therapy (for any condition and not just smoking cessation) seems to consist of material in non-peer-reviewed publications, such as case studies provided on websites and in books(10-12) and promotional literature provided by those marketing the therapy. A number of Bicom websites (e.g. www.bioresonance.net.au/bicom_therapy.htm) mention the existence of three studies on allergic conditions supposedly published in Chinese medical journals(13-15). These studies were not identified by our search above, but translations for the papers are provided on the above website (although there are no details provided about the source journals so it is not possible to verify their authenticity), along with two additional studies (one on chronic inflammatory bowel disease16 and one on central nervous disorders in children)(17) – once again with no details provided about their source. Four of the five studies are case studies or case-series(14-17). One of the Chinese studies claims to have randomised 300 children, but no details were provided on how the randomisation was undertaken(13). Furthermore, if the randomisation had been done it seems not to have worked given 213 children were in one group and 87 were in the other. Our suspicions are that the study was not randomised and therefore the findings are likely to be biased and meaningless.

It is possible that our search may have missed identifying some papers. It remains odd, however, that so little research appears to have been published given that:

  • In May 2009 bioresonance therapists meet in Germany to celebrate the 49th (ie they have had 48 previous meetings) International Congress for Bicom Therapists. Most congresses and conferences (even those in the complementary and alternative medicine field) publish posters or presentations from their meetings and these are referenced on international databases – yet none of these conference proceedings were located.
  • The therapy is claimed to be so effective.
  • The therapy is claimed to be in widespread use. One website (www.bicom.co.nz) states that “the technique is almost mainstream in Germany, and the German-speaking countries, Austria and Switzerland”, and that the instrument is “widely used in Poland for helping smokers to quit and has over 70 percent success (over 100,000 people have been treated over six years).” And that in China, the therapy is “used exclusively in children’s hospitals mainly to treat eczema and asthma.”

If it truly worked surely you would be doing everything to show the world that it did … and there have been at least 35 years to show the world.

Accepted international criteria for what is regarded as an effective smoking cessation method use the benchmark of six months of continuously not smoking (not even a puff) after quitting. The New Zealand Stop Smoking Clinic website claims that Bicom Bioresonance therapy has “70-90 percent success after one hour” for stopping smoking. Anyone can stop smoking after an hour … it’s a bit like asking you to stop eating for an hour. The issue is when you start smoking again. The Auckland proprietor was unable to provide us with this information.

In conclusion

There is no evidence to support the therapeutic claims made by those promoting bioresonance therapy other than uncontrolled case studies. Any benefits are likely to be due to the placebo effect. A systematic review of 105 NRT trials (involving a total of 39,503 smokers) found that when the quit rates for all the trials were pooled using the longest duration of follow-up available from each trial (6-12 months), 17 percent of smokers allocated to NRT had quit compared to 10 percent in the placebo control/no NRT group2. Clearly the placebo effect plays a significant role in smoking cessation.

Is it therefore wrong to make a claim about a product when simply believing that the product will work makes it effective for some individuals? Does it matter how you try to give up smoking as long as you make an attempt to give up?

In 2002/3, 24.5 percent of New Zealand adults smoked (47.2 percent of Maori), with this figure dropping to 19.7 percent in 2006/7 (38 percent in Maori)18. Despite this recent evidence of change, based on the current rate of progress it is estimated that it will take 100 years before the New Zealand adult smoking rates reach five percent, the level of smoking in New Zealand doctors19. New approaches to assist smokers to quit are still urgently needed, ideally ones with proven efficacy and that are cheap, easily accessible, and acceptable to Maori and people from the lowest socio-economic group (who have a three times higher rate of smoking than people from the highest socio-economic group18). At $450 per treatment (second treatment free if taken within the first month), Bicom Bioresonance therapy is far from accessible to the people that need it most. One could argue that it is designed to generate revenue as quickly as possible, by using pseudoscience to bamboozle the innocent. Are we too cynical? One company (www.bicom2000.com) will gladly send you a detailed profitability calculation form.

For a rather interesting conversation of how another member of the skeptic community views this treatment, see www.sciencepunk.com/2007/03/monadith-bioresonance-smoking-cure/

References

  1. Stead L, Lancaster T, & Perera R. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2003;1:CD002850.

  2. Silagy C, Lancaster T, Stead L, Mant D, & Fowler G. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2008;1.

  3. Hughes J, Stead L, & Lancaster T. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2008.

  4. Stead L, & Lancaster T. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2008.

  5. Lancaster T, Stead L. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, The Cochrane Library 2007(3).

  6. Strecher V, Shiffman S, & West R. Addiction 2005;100(5):682 – 688.

  7. McRobbie H, Hakej P, Bullen C, & Feigin V. . 2006; www.nice.org.uk/nicemedia/pdf/SmokingCessationNon-NHSFullReview.pdf

  8. Papcz, B & Barpvic J. Erfahrungsheilkunde 1999: 48(7): 449 – 450.

  9. Ernst E. Forschende Komplementarmedizin und Klassische Naturheilkunde 2004 Jun;11(3):171 – 173.

  10. Will, RD. Bioresonanz Therapie. Publisher: Jopp Verlag, 2001.

  11. Schumacher, P. Test Sets According to Dr. P. Schumacher. Publisher: dtp Tyrol – Klaus Leitner, Innsbruck, 2000

  12. Schumacher, P. Biophysical Therapy of Allergies. Publisher Thieme Medical Publishers 2005

  13. Jinzhi, Y & Li Z. www.bioresonance.net.au/bicom_therapy.htm#CL Accessed 25 May 2009.

  14. Ze, Y, Jiali, H, Haiyan W & Chunyan Y. www.bioresonance.net.au/bicom_therapy.htm#CL Accessed 25 May 2009.

  15. Jinzhi, Y. www.bioresonance.net.au/bicom_therapy.htm#CL Accessed 25 May 2009.

  16. Oesterle, R. www.bioresonance.net.au/bicom_therapy.htm#CL Accessed 25 May 2009.

  17. Barrie, A & Barrie A. www.bioresonance.net.au/bicom_therapy.htm#CL Accessed 25 May 2009.

  18. Ministry of Health. A portrait of health – Key results of the 2006/7 New Zealand Health Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health, 2008.

  19. Laugesen M. New Zealand Smokefree enews. Auckland: Health New Zealand, 2004.

Hokum Locum

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?)

www.howtolive100years.com/index.html

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

Quackupuncture

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.

University funds Therapeutic Touch

Why is Canterbury University fostering an alternative therapy at its Health Centre?

Should Canterbury University be funding pseudo-science? It was implied that this was occurring in a recent university press release:

Staff development awards of up to $5000 are available every six months for general staff. They are designed to recognise and assist professional development activities… One of the recipients this year is Wendy Risdon, who works at the UC Health Centre as a practice nurse. She will use her award to fund a trip to the US, where she will attend the 12th Annual Healing Touch International Conference in Milwaukee.

According to the Healing Touch International, Inc. website:

Healing Touch works with your energy field to support your natural ability to heal. It is safe for all ages and works in harmony with standard medical care.

When people start talking about someone’s energy field, especially with respect to medical treatments, alarm bells should start going off in your head. A simple Wikipedia search reveals several critical evaluations of the therapeutic touch practice.

In the press release, Wendy goes on to say: “I will be going to facilities that use complementary therapies such as Healing Touch as part of their mainstream care… Healing Touch is not particularly well-known or used here in New Zealand but I think there is a big role for it. My goal is to incorporate complementary therapies into mainstream medicine.”

It wasn’t clear what was happening down at the Health Centre, so I went to find out for myself. Wendy Risdon is a Registered Nurse at the UC Health Centre and a Level 5 Healing Touch practitioner. She was more than happy to talk about her work.

DM: How does Touch Healing work?

WR: It”s a biofield therapy, that means it”s utilising the magnetic fields of the body of both the person and the practitioner. And it”s helping to move energy around the body. And I guess people are more familiar with things like acupuncture when you talk about moving energy. It involves the energy centres of the body called chakras.

DM: Have you ever considered that the simple act of massaging could act as a placebo effect and that there are no auras involved?

WR: To a certain extent I do think that the simple interaction between two people in a caring environment has positive benefits. There are measurements which have been done on practitioners and the actual frequency or the Hertz of the vibrations that they”re sending out and so we know that different organs of the body vibrate at different frequencies. What I think happens is that the practitioner can influence those frequencies by the energy that they”re sending out.

Looking through the literature suggested by Wendy revealed many complicated scientific terms used in an attempt to explain the mechanisms behind Healing Touch. Terms borrowed from quantum physics, or just the word quantum were used with audacious frequency. To a person who has studied advanced quantum mechanics, it is clear that the words were being misused. This is known as argument by poetic language; the ‘if it sounds good, it must be right’ argument. Unless you’re a scientist, these things are sometimes hard to detect, but the measurements claimed to have been carried out on the auras are obviously junk science.

So who chooses the recipients of these awards? A panel of senior staff from the Human Relations department determines the best applicants and then makes a recommendation to the Vice-chancellor, Roy Sharp, who has the final say. He was ill in this case, so the final decision became that of Paul O’Flaherty, the Director of Human Resources.

DM: Do you know what Healing Touch is and did you do any research into Healing Touch?

PO: In the application, the application was supported by all the general practitioners at the Health Centre and the director of the Health Centre. One of the panelists rang the director and said, “We understand this is an alternative therapy. Just wanted to check that you did in fact support the application.” When they confirmed they did, we worked it on that basis.

DM: Do you believe the university should fund pseudoscience?

PO: I wouldn’t describe it as that. I took the view with this that this was endorsed by mainstream professional health practitioners.

It doesn’t seem like Human Resources are at fault here. They consulted with the on-campus experts in medicine. It also turns out that there were only three applications for the General Staff development awards this year and all three applications were successful.

Dr Joan Allardyce is the Medical Director of the UC Health Centre.

DM: When you first heard about Healing Touch were you at all sceptical and what research did you do regarding Healing Touch?

JA: I was interested to know how it would be applied and what benefits would be derived. Wendy gave a presentation to all the doctors and nurses and all the doctors and nurses were all happy about it. So basically what it is, is massage. She’s applied it when people have severe neck pains or migraines or really stressed. People go away feeling really improved.

DM: If Healing Touch is acceptable in your health centre, can other members of staff also use other alternative medicines such as homeopathy and magnetic therapy?

JA: No, they are not acceptable. I cannot believe in iridology. We’re not going in that direction. We are absolutely not going down the track of opening our doors to any crackpot out there. Definitely not.

DM: The Healing Touch practitioners, including Wendy believe the healing mechanism is manipulation of an aura. As far as you’re aware, does Health Touch vary from normal massage?

JA: Who knows, it probably doesn’t actually matter. It’s the outcome that matters.

And, of course, Joan is right. Massage Therapy is a well established treatment with peer-reviewed research to back up the results. However, when you rename Massage Therapy as ‘Healing Touch’ and try to explain it with auras and the transfer of energy it becomes pseudoscientific. Massage itself should be sold as such; there’s no need to use mystery and make-believe to help relieve someone’s physical manifestations of stress by giving them a massage, especially intelligent young university students who surely are trying to seek truth in their academic pursuits.

If alternative medicines worked beyond a placebo effect then they wouldn’t be alternative anymore, they’d just be medicine. Alternative medicines become dangerous when they are used in place of conventional medicine to treat more serious conditions. Treating a headache/stress or other psychological ailment is different from treating physiological conditions such as infections or cancer. People believe they’re getting a treatment that works, but they’re paying for something that is ineffective. And in many cases they”re not only paying for the treatment with money, but with their lives. There are many examples listed on the website whatstheharm.net In this case, it seems very unlikely that anyone will be harmed by the practice of Healing Touch at the UC Health Centre. All the medical staff are extremely competent. Healing Touch might work for you. But it has nothing to do with manipulating an aura around your body.

History repeats

A visit to the birthplace of science prompts some thoughts on spatial and temporal patterns in alternative medicine.

There is no special reason for skeptics in New Zealand to follow news from Greece. Last year, however, Waikato University signed an agreement for staff exchanges with Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, and I put my hand up to go. The GNP per head in Greece is about the same as in New Zealand, and teaching at Aristotle University is in English, so exchanges between the two institutions are feasible. As someone who is as good at learning foreign languages as chiropractors are at curing diseases, I was delighted that learning Greek was not necessary. Plus, when I visited there in 2004, a barman refused to let me pay for my drinks because Kiwis and Greeks fought alongside each other in the 1941 Battle of Greece. Now, a mention of anything Greekish makes me take notice. What I have learned is that Greece-arguably the birthplace of science – has repeatedly faced issues similar to those that occupy us in New Zealand.

For example, after World War II, Greece was struggling to rebuild after great suffering. For example, thousands of Jewish men, women and children in Thessaloniki had been packed on to trains and killed in gas chambers. A civil war then had restarted widespread suffering. In 1952, the good news broke of a drink, made from the root of the wild cucumber, which supposedly cured cancer. Mass hysteria swept the country, with crowds going out to uproot a weed that thrived in vacant lots and fields. Some scientists spoke out.

“A disease that is as serious, chronic and incurable as cancer gives rise to profiteers who prey on sick people seeking a cure after having been disappointed by the medical establishment,” wrote university professor Dr G Papayiannopoulos (No, I don’t know how to say his name.). The Supreme Health Council declared the consumption of the brew to be useless and even dangerous.

“It is extremely sad that the daily press has been promoting cures for cancer without any scientific basis,” said the council.

In 1955, a Thessaloniki drinks manufacturer called Georgiadis claimed to have found a drug to cure cancer. Two patients who drank the concoction died suddenly, however. Athens University’s toxicology laboratory found that the brew did not combat cancer and was a mixture of wild cucumber, strawberry essence, sugar and alcohol. Georgiadis was charged with practising medicine without a licence. (Why does this not happen in New Zealand, instead of quacks enjoying public funding?)

In 1975, a newspaper reported that a 36-year-old lawyer from the Greek Island of Kos, Giorgos Kamateros, claimed that the water of his home village cured cancer. He distributed the water in tanker trucks around Athens and in the countryside. Headlines reported daily that the water cured everything: that it had brought a mad woman to her senses, that it had restored the sight of a blind woman. Studies found no curative properties in the water, but Kamateros continued to claim that the secret lay in the minerals dissolved in the water. According to the Institute for Minerals and Mining Exploration, the minerals were simply calcium, carbon and quartz. The parents of 18 children being treated for cancer at the Aglaia Kyriakou Hospital stopped their treatment and gave them the special water. The condition of the children worsened, and one died. A few days later, the death of a cancer patient a day after drinking the water brought an end to the story. Scientists found high levels of radiation in the water. Kamateros held marches with hundreds of fervent supporters. He was charged, and the consumption of his water was banned.

In February of this year, 2007, a state television channel announced the therapeutic powers of the juice of olive leaves. Several chat shows said a thick, green drink made from olive leaves and water, mixed in a blender, was doing wonders for cancer patients. Several electrical appliance stores reported selling out of blenders. Health officials publicly warned that drinking the olive beverage could be harmful. Zoe Bazou, a member of a Athens-Piraeus cancer victims group, Keff, said patients who had tired of strong chemo-therapy treatments or been fooled by profiteers were turning to alternative medicines.

“The result is death,” she said.

Back in New Zealand, the Lake Taupo Primary Health Organisation announced in March that, starting in July, traditional Maori medicine will be funded from the public purse. The PHO has signed an agreement with Nga Ringa Whakahaere o te Iwi Maori, the national body for traditional Maori providers, who sell massages, poultices, natural medicines, spiritual healing, bath therapy and other services. “What does it matter if it makes them feel better?” said the PHO’s chief executive, Jeremy Mihaka-Dyer. Useless Chinese and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine already waste our taxes.

The more we look, the more we find that history repeats itself, not only from time to time, but also from place to place.