Monday, March 16, 2015

Science and Medicine

It is well known that there is often a vitriolic campaign against “conventional” medicine by advocates of CAM – Complementary Alternative Medicine. There is no need to defend the glaring failures of the pharmaceutical industry. We hold no brief for Big Pharma. But should we also be critical of the homeopaths, aromatherapists and their ilk? After all they, too, are Big Business. CAM in the United States in 2013 was approximately a $9 billion market and growing. The UK complementary medicines market in 2009 was £213 million. The Lancet in 2007 stated £38 million is spent on homeopathy alone each year in the UK. Globally, in 2014 it is an $187 billion industry – with 65% growth from $113 billion since 2010.

Their methods have failed scientific scrutiny, time and time again, yet it still has its advocates and those include the UK and Indian governments. One argument presented is what harm is there if someone wishes to use herbal cures, after all, they have been used for thousands of years. Putting aside the quality control issues the risk is that they replace tried and tested treatments. In an under-reported episode South African government engaged in what can only be described as a genocidal health policy against HIV/AIDS victims. Over 300,000 people had their lives cut short as a result.  Instead of providing anti-retroviral drugs, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the country's health minister, promoted the use of unproven herbal remedies such as garlic, beetroot, and lemon juice to treat AIDS. A meeting of the Presidential Advisory Panel on AIDS  recommended that the disease be treated not with antiretroviral drugs, but rather with vitamins and “alternative” and “complementary” therapies including “massage therapy, music therapy, yoga, spiritual care, homeopathy, Indian ayurvedic medicine, light therapy and many other methods,” despite a plea from the scientific community through the Durban Declaration, signed by 5,000 scientists, that this position will cost countless lives.

In late 2006, Tshabalala-Msimang fell ill and the country's deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, assumed control of South Africa's health policies. While she was at the helm, she attempted to reverse Mbeki's AIDS denialist policies by describing the number of South Africans waiting for ARV drugs as a "serious violation of human rights." She was also one of the principal authors of the country's aggressively anti-AIDS health plan, which was adopted that December. President Mbeki fired Madlala-Routledge.

In March 2000 Mbeki’s spokesperson, the late Parks Mankahlana, gave this blunt justification to Science magazine as to why the South African Department of Health will not provide a relatively inexpensive shot of Nevirapine to 100,000 pregnant, HIV-positive women to prevent mother-to-child transmission: ‘That mother is going to die and that HIV-negative child will be an orphan. That child must be brought up. Who is going to bring the child up? It’s the state, the state. That’s resources, you see.’

That is the price we pay if we ignore evidence-based science and substitute “tradition” for "tried and tested".  

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