Integrative Care
Policy News

Book Slams CAM´s Underdog Image

13 August, 2013 by David Finer
David and Goliat from Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Photo:David Finer

David and Goliath from Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Photo: David Finer

Do you like to think of alternative medicine as a David figure nobly struggling against the evil Goliath of mainstream, allopathic medicine? Well, think again, Dr. Paul Offit, seems to say in a new book.

In the book “Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine” (also sold under the title “Killing Us Softly”), Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offers a more sinister take on would-be disadvantaged “fringe medicine”,  USA Today reports.

Unfounded Commerce
Offit, who i.a. has developed a vaccine against rota virus, the cause of a diarrhoeal disease (often fatal in low-income countries), views alternative medicine primarily as ruthless commerce and its claims as unfounded.

He describes an industry worth USD 34 billion annually, which markets its products – unproven treatments – by way of lawsuits, lobbyists and friendly legislators.

In most cases, these treatments are ineffective but relatively harmless and function as “expensive placebos”, thanks to the expectations people place in them, Offit says, giving homeopathy as an example.

The statements of the book are framed in a more nuanced way with the addition of supplementary quotes from various experts, interviewed by Liz Szabo, veteran medical reporter at USA Today.

Supplements Slammed
In particular, Offit targets the widespread use of supplements, which although far from innocuous, are exempt from the strict regulatory control afforded pharmaceutical drugs.
According to the article, some parents in the US send their children to hospital with a bundle of supplements, hoping/expecting the health care staff to continue providing the child with them during their hospital stay.

In Sweden, supplements are considered foodstuffs and subject to control by the National Food Agency (NFA).

Neither permit nor registration is required to sell supplements, as long as they are not marketed with the help of health claims. If so, they automatically become drugs and must be registered and approved – as all drugs including certain herbals – by Sweden´s Medical Product Agency (MPA).

Generally superfluous
Information on the homepage of the Swedish NFA states that most of us do not need extra supplements over and above what we get in a balanced diet, that supplements do not prevent disease, and that there are risks involved with the overconsumption of vitamins and minerals.

According to the FDA, there are some 54 000 supplements on the American market (including the web). In 2012, the Agency received around 50 000 reports of side effects of supplements.

Monitoring by Sweden´s MPA has also uncovered problems with supplements: cases of lead poisoning due to contaminated Ayurveda preparations and supplements containing potent concentrations of regular pharmaceutical preparations such as sildenafil (Viagra) and steroids. Serious side effects, e.g. liver damage, have also been reported.

David Finer


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