Alternative Medicine Remains Popular, Legal, and Ineffective (or Worse)

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Disturbing news about alternative medicine has been in the air lately. Just the other day, and a few years too late, the Food and Drug Administration issued a stern warning about ear candling -- the practice of using lit cone-shaped candles to supposedly draw earwax and impurities or toxins out of the ear canal, marketed for conditions ranging from hearing loss to cancer. Alas, the FDA says that ear candling is not only ineffective but can cause "serious injuries."The warning came just weeks after a liquid dietary supplement marketed as suitable for the "entire family," providing nutrients to "maintain energy and sustain health," had 200 times the concentration of selenium listed, causing a widespread outbreak of acute selenium poisoning that sickened 201 people. And then there was the Zicam warning last year: a homeopathic nasal-spray and gel cold remedy from Matrixx Initiatives (MTXX), recalled by the FDA after it apparently caused users to lose their sense of smell. Homeopathic remedies are regulated as over-the-counter drugs but aren't subject to drugs' safety and efficacy testing.

Poison on the Shelves

Doctors, scientists, and researchers have long warned that most "complementary and alternative medicines," or CAM -- acupuncture, homeopathy, dietary supplements, Ayuverda -- are at best ineffective and at worst dangerous. Little scientific evidence suggests efficacy, and many studies backing them lack scientific merit. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act weakened up the regulation of dietary supplements, permitting marketers to promote vitamins, minerals, herbs or botanicals, and amino acids without submitting proof of efficacy or safety to the FDA.

The result is potentially poisonous products on the market, say researchers in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Dietary supplements were considered safe unless proven otherwise by the FDA, through postmarket surveillance: a strategy the General Accounting Offices criticizes for being ineffective. And under the DSHE act, manufacturers of dietary supplements were not required to record or forward to the FDA any reports of illnesses that may have resulted from the use of their products.

In 2007, some 38% of U.S. adults and 12% of children used CAM in the previous 12 months, according to the National Institute of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Those 83 million adults spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on CAM: 1.5% of the total spent on U.S. heath care, and 11.2% of what was spent out-of-pocket. Despite evidence that they're ineffective, such remedies constitute a growing category.

A Senator Backs Faith-Based Medicine

Britain's House of Commons on Monday dealt a blow to CAM. "Homeopathic products perform no better than placebos," said the Parliamentary committee's report, which concludes: "To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy."

In the face of the looming health-care reform, U.S. Senators have been trying to add various provisions to the bill: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has tried to push insurance coverage for alternative medicines; and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has attached a provision that would cover Christian Science prayer treatments.

It's unclear whether faith-based medicine has ever been clinically tested, but a spotcheck of the NCCAM Health page and its Office of Dietary Supplement fact sheet shows that many remedies have very limited health benefit, if any. WIth an industry whose products offer a greater risk of danger than a promise of benefit, and as the public keeps buying into these remedies, the U.S. should intervene not to support the trend of their growing use, as Harkin and Hatch would seem to support, but reducing our reliance on quackery.
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