Thursday June 19, 2003
Â· The plural of anecdote is not data. Although it’s always very tempting. So although I’ll contain my evil desires to titillate you with tales of patients who’ve needed liver transplants after taking Chinese herbal remedies, I’m very amused by an article in the Lancet about a Chinese remedy company who seem to be putting artificial drugs in their potions. Spes capsules were examined by physicians treating a patient who developed Cushing’s Syndrome and were found to contain betamethasone, a potent synthetic glucocorticoid you wouldn’t expect to find in any magic herb. They also found alprazolam, a synthetic benzodiazepine much like the addictive “mother’s little helpers” of the 60s, which might go some way to explain the improvement in “quality of life” claimed for Spes. Neither was mentioned on the label. Alternative therapy fans might bear in mind that, if a herbal remedy works it’s probably got something potent in it.
Â· A BMJ paper recently found that children being treated with Chinese herbal skin creams for eczema were on average receiving five times the recommended adult dose of dexamethasone, a potent steroid. Which makes it very amusing that the alternative medicine lobby has ganged up against an EU directive to use proper ingredients labels and submit to regulation, like anyone else peddling a medicine. They say it’s part of a campaign by the medical establishment to discredit their products, and 5,000 people marched against the regulations in London last Sunday. They had Tory MP John Redwood lambasting the EU for over-regulating us. But even the Daily Mail, champion of anecdotal evidence, favourably reported a study of 200,000 people that showed a 0.4% increase in deaths from all causes in people taking beta-carotene supplements, and no benefit at all from vitamin E.
Â· 200,000 people seems to be enough for a study disproving alternative therapies to be taken seriously. If you’re in the business of promoting pseudoscience, standards seem to be less stringent. Last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph devoted the whole of page 3 to alternative therapy porn, with a story on how drinking the Queen’s Royal Deeside spring water improved arthritis symptoms in two-thirds of patients. It was a study of 34 patients over three months and there was no control group. It’s hard to imagine an experiment where it would have been easier to come up with a convincing placebo. Water.