As of 2006, United States citizens spent $27 billion annually on alternative and complementary treatments. According to a New York Times survey, 48% of adults in the United States used at least one alternative or complementary treatment in 2004 — and that percentage has probably climbed in the intervening years. And most insurance companies now reimburse alternative practitioners. But despite the popularity of alternative medicine, the press persists in trying to persuade readers to avoid alternatives at all costs.
Take, for example, the article cited above that appeared this week on RedOrbit.com entitled, “Alternative Herbs and Medicines Grow in Popularity.” The article begins by acknowledging that alternatives have become increasingly mainstream, musing that the public seems to distrust drug companies. (I wonder why.) But quickly, it changes tone, using the familiar scare tactics: “Dietary supplements do not have to pass any safety tests before being sold. Some contain lead and arsenic, and some obstruct other medicines from working, like birth control pills,” it warns. The article then complains that within the past 15 years, the Feds spent $2.5 billion researching the health effects of alternatives, but “nothing monumental has been discovered, aside from the use of acupuncture and ginger for chemotherapy-associated nausea.”
Although it does admit about halfway down that few supplements cause any health problems, it reiterates the warning about lead content and then mentions the scary “tainted” possibility. Finally, it admits that pharmaceuticals like Vioxx can have problems, too, but says that, “The difference is that at least these medicines have rules, guidelines and watchdog groups that follow their usage.” In other words, go to the doctor and get a prescription. Oh, and die!
Unfortunately, no author took credit for this article, and it’s no wonder. Who would want to take credit for such a marvel of distortion? Because the facts make clear these things:
- Prescription drugs are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US, just behind cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
- Over two million people experience drug-related disabilities or serious drug reactions each year.
- Deaths by pharmaceutical poisoning rose 62.5% between 1999 and 2004. (Ahh! But at least those drugs are untainted by lead!)
- A recent Consumers Union study found that medical errors kill nearly 98,000 people in the United States each year and cost $17 billion to $29 billion a year. That figure hasn’t improved in the past 10 years and shows no evidence of future improvement.
- Most of those errors come from giving or prescribing the wrong drug, giving patients the wrong dose or giving the drug in the wrong way. Note that the drug needs to be capable of causing death in the first place, even if by improper prescription.
- While prescription drugs kill about 140,000 Americans a year, herbs and nutraceuticals kill fewer than 100 (with most of those attributions being highly questionable).
Obviously, in spite of the “rules, guidelines and watchdog groups” that regulate and oversee prescription drug — pharmaceuticals are among the most dangerous substances on the planet. While drugs sometimes can heal or ease symptoms, they often do no better than alternatives, and very, very often, they do far worse. There is a reason so many people turn to alternatives, and in spite of what articles like the one in RedOrbit imply, that reason is NOT that people are stupid.
And as for the “nothing monumental” having been discovered about the healing power of alternatives, the author seems to not read the health news. Review my blog entries for the past six months and you’ll see articles citing studies showing that green tea extract blocks AIDS, probiotics prevent and heal heart disease, green pea protein lowers blood pressure and intervenes against kidney disease, a homeopathic approach to peanut allergies seems to work a cure, the enzyme nattokinase reduces Alzheimer’s risk, magnets work better than antidepressants, and so on. These studies were reported in the major health media, which, I realize, is not necessarily testimony to their accuracy. But at least they match the standards established by the medical community.
But it isn’t only the folks at RedOrbit trying to debunk natural care. Such articles pop up constantly like pimples on a teenager. One notable article a few years ago appeared in the New York Times and then was widely distributed. It complained that U.S. residents “do not appear to care that there is little, if any, evidence that many complementary therapies work”; and that “alternative therapy practitioners do not have a fraction of the training mainstream doctors do.” But if those NYT authors had bothered to consider the fact that the training those mainstream doctors received results in 98,000 deadly errors annually, to say nothing about the disability and suffering caused by their millions of non-fatal errors annually; if they had recognized that there’s little if any evidence that plenty of mainstream treatments work (flu vaccines, hormone replacement therapy, and angioplasties for example), they might not have made the statement.
Of course not every alternative therapy works, not every herb affects a cure, and a few people here and there have allergic reactions to herbs; but the track record sure is a lot cleaner for alternative medicine than it is for the mainstream. Plus, the record speaks for itself: a plethora of studies show that natural substances and approaches often beat out mainstream medicine in effectiveness, safety, patient satisfaction, and cost.