William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The dashed dreams of medical quackery

White South Africans harbour numerous carefully nurtured prejudices about their fellow citizens and delusions about themselves. One is that blacks are uneducated and backward, eschewing reason for superstition. Whites, in contrast, are masters of reason, hacking a scientific path through thickets of ignorance.

Such assumptions are particularly glaring in health matters. Although the term “witchdoctor” has become unacceptable, it still sums up what most whites think of the sangoma whom many blacks consult. This is, of course, to ignore the fact that the term “alternative medicine” is simply an invention of whites to make acceptable their own forays into witch-doctory, by adding the gloss of science.

In fact, phrases like “traditional healing” or “alternative medicine” are camouflaging euphemisms. Let’s name these treatments for what they are — dangerous quackery — that almost always lack the empirical foundation underpinning modern medicine and consequently extract a high price from the gullible and the desperate.

Our racial assumptions about health are often simply wrong. Africa Check, the independent fact-checking organisation that seeks to dispel the fog of bias often obscuring perceptions of Africa, recently investigated the widely quoted statistic that traditional healers are the first point of medical contact for 80% of black South Africans.

It eventually traced back the figure — peddled as gospel by authorities as disparate as the BBC, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and a South African Medical Journal article — to a 30-year-old out-of-print book by a former WHO adviser, who provided “no evidence, no references and no data” to support his assertion.

Africa Check found that sangoma visits were considerably fewer than assumed. According to surveys, something between 1.4% to 5.2% of respondents had, in the previous month, visited a sangoma to treat a medical — as opposed to a socio-cultural — complaint.

Africa Check’s figures would come as “no surprise” to anyone working in the field of HIV treatment, a case-hardened medical doctor of my acquaintance comments. The uptake of anti-retrovirals has been huge in the black community and in his experience “sangoma visits have been far less of problem than people being lured by crooks offering immune boosters and mega-dose vitamins”.

It was his withering further assessment that possibly “a greater proportion of white South Africans use homeopaths, faith healers and other idiots”, than blacks use sangomas. There is anecdotal support for this view that whites’ historical advantages in education and income don’t necessarily equate to good sense when it comes to health.

Newspapers report that Anton Neethling, the “alternative health” practitioner treating Joost van der Westhuizen, the white rugby icon diagnosed as being in the late stages of motor neurone disease (MND), claims to have cured his patient. Joost, too, believes that he has been “healed” but it is a fact of “real medicine” that MND is invariably fatal.

According to The Star, Neethling, who runs a thriving facility for the credulous called the Biological Human Ionisation Clinic, claims also to cure cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and Aids, using “alternative therapies”. On Sundays he walks on water.

In his new book Killing Us Softly — a remorselessly rational dissection of the dangers of alternative medicine — Dr Paul Offit explains part of its lure: whereas modern medicine is often experienced by the patient as “spiritless and technological”, alternative medicine is seemingly “spiritual and meaningful”.

Offit does not gainsay that there is space for placebo medicine. In 1900s Gabon, the renowned physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer worked comfortably with the local sangoma. Schweitzer offered specific treatments for treatable diseases while the sangoma “offered placebo medicine when nothing more was necessary or available”.

Nothing much has changed when it comes to magical thinking. But when it comes to real diseases in a modern society, what the likes of Neethling peddle is not medicines but false hopes.

Whether you are poor and black and choose a sangoma, or wealthy and white and choose an alternative medicine charlatan, the result is much the same. Empty pockets, dashed dreams and almost invariably, worse health than when you started.

We are all ultimately responsible for the healthcare decisions we make and those decisions should be credible. As Offit puts it, there’s no such thing as alternative medicine, only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work. The only way to distinguish between the two is through rigorous scientific studies.

* Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, by Dr Paul Offit. Published by Fourth Estate.

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    • Stephen Browne

      So true, the number of educated people I know who swear by their horsehair-massaged, particle-imparting, contagion-containing concoctions never ceases to amaze.

      If I could add the conviction with which mainstream religious figures are consulted on medical matters – pastors treating clinical depression with ‘prayer’ being the one that I’ve seen in action, with devastating effect.

      I’m tempted to put the endless fitness and dieting fads in this category as well!

    • Isabella van der Westhuizen

      Thank you for this article
      If I have to hear one more dinner part dissertation from my beloved Sister in law (blessings and peace be upon her) about the merits of St John’s wart I will be physically ill.

    • Concerned

      I so wish everyone were to get to know the essence of the article: “As Offit puts it, there’s no such thing as alternative medicine, only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work. The only way to distinguish between the two is through rigorous scientific studies.”

      Only evidence-based medicine has a place in today’s society. But there is so much money in quackery, by people who have no income prospects in valid medicine that they fight back, Almost literally for their lives!

    • Gideon Tunguy-Desmarais

      Yes, there is no such thing as “alternative medicine”- only rational, science based and evidence based medicine or irrational, pseudoscientific and non-evidence based medicine.Any “alternative remedy” that has been shown to work is actually medicine and accepted by mainstream medical science.
      I have long believed that the uneducated masses have their “witchdoctors” and the educated “whites” have their homeopaths! There is no difference between the two-its just that homeopathy is the ultimate quackery with strong support by political bodies and the likes of the royal family.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Where does medicine begin and end?
      Everyone has some kind of family ‘cure’ for common ailments. Is taking a cup of honey tea for a sore throat or some mint tea for nausea really that ‘ignorant’? It works. An awful lot of modern medicine is from traditional medicine. It is now made in sterile laboratories with exact doses but it is the same essential ingredients.

      Unfortunately, the art of using herbs to cure illnesses has been hijacked in the same way that the cures using pills has. It has stopped being about curing and become about money.

      (oh, and not all traditional healers are Sangoma and not all Sangoma treat people)

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      Firstly, its condescending, racist and downright insulting to praise Africans as not being “uneducated and backward” for not seeking the services of traditional healers. Are you saying that whites seeking alternative medicine are “uneducated and backward” or do you only reserve those terms for blacks?!

      Secondly, how do you explain the dramatic rise in alternative therapies in those “backward” states in the US like California, New York…? http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camstats/2007/camsurvey_fs1.htm shows in the US, approximately 38 percent of adults (~4 in 10) and ~12 percent of children (~ 1 in 9) are using some form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

      Thirdly, are you saying that the US National Institute of Health are medical quacks for establishing a center http://nccam.nih.gov/ for Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

      Fourthly, Big Pharma, who reap obscene profits, are spending massive amounts to market and peddle medications with severe side effects by gaming clinical trials required by regulation. The cumulative effects on the population are beginning to be seen with the rise of deadly diseases and exploding health care costs, all of which of course, are great for the lucrative healthcare industry!
      There is much value in alternative therapies that simply cannot be explained with science as we begin to understand the sheer complexity of the human body and start to look at alternative practices in existence in other cultures for thousands of…

    • Carefully counting

      It says there are 3 comments to this excellent article. I see only 2.
      Should I have my eyes tested, am I mentally challenged or suffering from some other neurological ailment?
      However, before I seek medical advice, please let me know if there’s possibly something wrong on your end. (I don’t mean that literally)

    • Ula

      The amount of prejudice, ignorance and bias displayed in the article and most comments demonstrates the tunnel vision of those who do not care to research before spouting vitriol. The Homoeopathic Faculty consists of qualified and specialised medical practitioners who have chosen to practise a gentle refined form of medicine which is not dependent on the vast suppression of symptoms by present day pharmaceuticals -which does not constitute a cure. The world is getting sicker not better on drugs and vaccines.
      I cannot speak for other alternative practices because I have not studied them, but I do know that every patient helped by Homoeopathy is proof of the system .

    • Skerminkel

      @Carefully counting: You could seek expert medical advice or just buy something from a You/Huisgenoot add by which some has-been second rate celebrity swears.

    • Alastair McAlpine

      Great article. I was waiting for the defenders of the indefensible to arrive, and they have. @Ula – you mention that modern medicines and vaccines are making the world ‘sicker’. Last time I checked, life expectancy of adults has nearly doubled in the past 200 years, and harmful diseases like polio, smallpox and diphtheria have been all but eliminated! Sounds like the medicines are, in fact, working!

      The deal with homeopathy is fairly open-and-shut. Not only is the theory bogus (treating ‘like with like’, diluting stuff until it’s hardly measurable, succusion, etc.) but multiple metanalyses have shown NO benefit over placebo. The fact that there are ‘qualified’ homeopaths is no more persuasive than the fact that there are ‘qualified’ sangomas, or ‘qualified’ astrologists. At best, homeopathy does nothing (and relies upon the placebo effect, regression to the mean, etc.), at worst, it denies people important medication.

      Dave Harris is a troll. Engaging with him is silly. But he does have a point about Big Pharma. Whilst they are no angels, and have been guilty of egregious sins in the past (see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma), they have also produced some amazing drugs that have benefited millions (chemotherapy for cancer patients, antibiotics, anaesthetic agents, to name a few). They need to be better regulated, sure, but when their drugs don’t work, they are pulled off he market (vioxx, the glitazones, etc). The same can NOT be said for homeopathy!

    • Stephen Browne

      @Ula: “The Homoeopathic Faculty consists of qualified and specialised medical practitioners” – qualified by whom exactly? The Board of Homeopathic Quackery perhaps?

      “The world is getting sicker not better on drugs and vaccines.” – this would explain why the world’s population is increasing at a dizzyingly fast rate, and why so many deadly diseases are no longer deadly (or in existence for that matter.)

      “…who have chosen to practise a gentle refined form of medicine.” – if by ‘gentle’ and ‘refined’ you are referring to arbitrary solutions diluted to the point of non-existence (stupid me, they leave molecule impression behind them!) and then gently beaten on a horse-hair saddle, then why yes.

      “…but I do know that every patient helped by Homoeopathy is proof of the system.” – and here lies the biggest lie, the one that makes millions of dollars for homeopaths every year. The presumption that the well-documented placebo effect works exclusively in their favour. ‘Curing’ your chronic back ache with a bottle of water is one thing, throwing your life-savings at curing a terminal is something else entirely.

      Having recently having the unpleasant experience of watching both my parents going through cancer (one fatally), the world of ‘modern medicine’ (or just medicine as I like to call it) is unpleasant. This is because it involves the suffering and ultimate death of those you love. However, I’d take this over bullshit mind-trickery any day.

    • Gideon Tunguy-Desmarais

      yea Alistair, if you wait longer you will see many more cranks “defending the indefendable” as you say.Homeopathy is actually a belief system or religion, so one cannot argue with them at all.Yes it IS bogus therapy, and yes it is more “gentle” because it is essentially giving NOTHING and relying on the placebo effect, or regression to the mean or the fact that most non-serious aliments eventually get better.I notice that some of the repliers are confused between Homeopathy and so-called natural remedies.All they need to do is to do a literature search on what Homeopathy is.And Yes, big Pharma makes billions(they deserve to since they employ thousands of highly qualified scientists to do research and development of drugs to cure many diseases.)Last I looked, Alternative medicine was a multi Billion dollar industry!The figure of 38% of Americans using alternative remedies is fatuous! It is not supported by any studies.And by the way, when such studies are done, everything “alternative” is included in the questionaires including prayer (and who does not pray when they are sick).Here is some educational reading http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/category/homeopathy/
      And by the way, those centres for complimentary medicine in the US that the reader mentioned, were only introduced because of POLITICAL pressure.There are powerful politicians thgat lobby for CAM

    • Ula

      My case rests

    • ConCision

      Pick Your own Poison:

      Medical Quackery
      or
      Which Doctor Quandary?
      ———————————-
      There are practitioners with scientific eligibility
      And curative health and medical legitimacy
      Who suffer from inadequacy and/or hypocrisy,
      And an unhealthy capacity for wealth voracity

      And we? ….
      ‘Gullibility’? – Definitely!
      ‘False hope’? – Absolutely!

      Treat the reality of the disability
      With propriety and practicality

    • Zeph

      Quackery can work in cases of psychosomatic illnesses. However, if the law accords sangomas status then it should also hold them liable for damages. I personally know of three people who have died of AIDS due the incorrect taking of ARV’s on the advice of traditional healers. Tragic! This country is crazy: on the one hand you have the written law and procedures etc and on the other you have this nebulous ‘he said, she said’ bullshit. Why do I say this? Because I see so many people playing both side depending on what suits them – including our president.

    • RoyVolkwyn

      @Momma Cyndi , @Dave Harris
      Well said.

      A significant percentage of Taiwanese use Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and a much higher percentage in Mainland China. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6963/7/26/
      Only 6 states in the USA do not have regulations regarding the professional use of TCM.
      India has over 100,000 medicinal plants, or plant based medicines.

      I am a successful university trained engineer. I recently became a Reiki Healer and I have done some healing already (for which I did not charge).

    • Concerned

      @Dave Harris, you say “Big Pharma, who reap obscene profits”…

      Perhaps you can read financial statements, so do look the companies you suspect up. Do they make obscene profits?

      Or do those quacks that do not even know what the amount of ingredients in their potions, how they are eliminated and over what time, or have done any tests whatsoever on side effects make obscene profits?

      If you had a clue you would not be spouting such nonsense…