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.