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Suckers - How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All

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Sabine Schneider
Sabine Schneider

In the blurb on the back the book is said to be a "calling to account of a massive social and intellectual fraud; an entertaining and utterly essential guide to a dangerous global delusion". I call it a success for the pharmaceutical industry.

Author Rose Shapiro is a British journalist who has written for newspapers, magazines and medical journals. She caustically calls the rise of alternative medicine an epidemic and is utterly convinced that all alternative medicine is quackery.

I hardly know where to start the list of what's wrong with this book. Although it makes for interesting reading about the many different forms of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) her argument is fundamentally flawed: She puts mainstream medicine into one box labelled proven medicine that works and all other medicine into another box labelled quack treatment that doesn't work. She finds it infuriating and alarming that large numbers of patients want mainstream medicine as well as alternatives. And not once does she ask why this is so.

She is not interested in the fact that for a large number of patients mainstream medicine is the one that is ineffectual and doesn't work. These patients are driven away by an uncaring health system that is designed to examine spots, remove tumours and mend broken legs - but not to see human beings.

The efficacy of many alternative medicines and therapies is debateable and there can be no doubt that there is scull duggery and many individuals as well as large corporations are doing very well out of it. But I'm guessing mainstream medicine kills just as many patients as alternative medicine does. And to throw all CAM into one big pot, add a bucket of sarcasm and stir is not the way to deal with a crisis that goes to the heart of our society.

Individuals are sick - but so is a health system that has set itself up to be a one-stop-repair shop for all and sundry, which fosters the belief in many that popping a pill or cutting it away will make it all better. When it comes to an operation to remove an infected appendix mainstream medicine is most probably the best option. When dealing with chronic back pain with no obvious injury osteopathy might be better. This is true for many ailments, but especially for unspecific disorders and syndromes. When "evidence-based" medicine fails patients don't want to just give up, lie down and die. Some of them want to try something else. It might be herbal medicine, homeopathy or even Hopi ear candles.

Picking out the chapter about herbal medicine might illustrate my criticism: Shapiro writes that most herbs, although used for thousands of years "never did have good scientific studies so support the claims of their effectiveness". And again - she just uncritically states the fact and never asks the fundamental question every journalist should have permanently on her lips: Why are there no studies?

Herbs are cheap, readily available and could even be grown or gathered by patients themselves, all of which doesn't make the pharmaceutical industry any money. And because a lot of scientific research is funded and/or conducted by the industry it is small wonder that research into herbal medicine isn't high on their priority list - if it's on their list at all.

Shapiro also tells about individual plants and their dangers to patients: "Comfrey, for example, has been linked to cases of irreversible liver damage (with deaths reported)..." Again, she uncritically choses those interpretations of available studies that confirm her beliefs. Fact is that not comfrey has been proven to be toxic, but an isolated component called pyrrolizidine alkaloid (PA). The studies into its toxicity for humans have serious limitations because they don't take into consideration that not all PA are equally toxic, different species of comfrey have different PA content and the use of isolated PA is not representative of the use of whole plants, to name but a few. The kind of research she's chosen to cite is the one that proves or disproves whatever the one fancies who's paying for it.

I commend the author for speaking up and placing a pressing issue under scrutiny. I also like the book's comprehensive list of mini-bios of alternative therapies, for example aura soma, Ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology and shiatsu.

However, I did not like the author's sarcastic tone and the scathing, at times even sanctimonious remarks she throws liberally into the mix. It is callous and arrogant to call all practitioners of alternative medicine quacks and dismiss them completely while perpetuating the idea that mainstream doctors know it all and a health system that is owned by a greedy pharmaceutical industry is the only answer.

The author calls herself a fact-favouring sceptic. I wonder if she might change her mind if she was thrown into the turmoil of having to deal with a terrible disease or condition mainstream medicine has no answers for. I suppose she wouldn't consider moxibustion or light therapy - even if it made her feel better.

Read for yourself: Suckers by Rose Shapiro, Random House, $37

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