The end of a year offers us a chance to reflect on, and make listicles of pop culture moments that have impacted our lives: albums, movies, even celebrity deaths. We would be remiss as science communicators if we didn’t make a few lists of our own. Voila, my dearest reader, I present to you my top ten list of the alternate medicine stories of 2016.
I wanted to make this article funny, really I did. But, the consequences of using unproven “alternative” medical treatments are real. At the least, real treatment may be delayed for a troubling condition, or you’ll just be out-of-pocket the cash it takes to procure these miracle snake oils. While the horrific reports of maiming and deaths that occurred in 2016 in the name of “alternate medicine” were anything but funny, they were tempered with a few ‘wins’ for science.
I’m ready to put a postage stamp on 2016 and send this “post truth” (HOW IS THIS A THING?) year packing!
10. AMBER TEETHING NECKLACES & HOMEOPATHIC TEETHING GELS: Amber teething necklaces make my list at #10 for being the perfect storm of magical thinking. Every crank’s favorite magic token- a semi-precious stone or crystal- combined with some pseudoscience, the supposed ability of amber to absorb “warmth” and release ‘succinic acid’ to a baby’s gums in a high enough concentration to ease the pain of teething. Additionally, the transfer of electrons is of particular interest to believers of “woo”- they believe the human immune systems function optimally and inflammation is suppressed when there is an adequate supply of electrons. It has been known for centuries that amber can acquire a static electric charge when rubbed with wool. Infant deaths from choking, suffocation, and strangulation have all been reported. Additionally, FDA is investigating 10 infant deaths and over 400 cases of seizures, fever, and vomiting that may be connected to the use of homeopathic teething treatments. These treatments include the ingredient belladonna, which, if not diluted down to “none” can cause the above symptoms.
9. ESSENTIAL OILS: Make my list at #9 for destroying the environment and for being poisonous to babies and pets. The rule of thumb in toxicology is ‘the dose makes the poison,’ so all essential oils are potentially harmful. Four out of every five toxic exposures to oils occur in children. Oils like camphor, clove, lavender, eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree, and wintergreen oils can cause hallucinations, seizures, chemical burns, breathing problems, liver failure and brain swelling. Not only are these oils potentially harmful, and don’t actually treat anything, but the demand for rare, indigenous plants is causing habitat destruction. For example, only around 200 critically endangered Arabian leopards remain in the wild and their habitat is being threatened by frankincense hunters serving the essential oils industry.
8. CUPPING: Thinking of trying a pseudoscientific “alternative therapy,” like the cupping therapy made popular by Olympic athletes in 2016? Know your risks! This practice is typically performed unsupervised, usually by people without any medical background. There are no certifications or regulatory bodies overseeing this treatment. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that cupping has any health benefits, what-so-ever, and the available research actually suggests that cupping can be harmful, especially in people who are thin or obese. Cupping can result in capillary expansion, excessive fluid accumulation in tissues, blood vessel rupture, bruising, skin burns, infection, and blood borne disease transmission.
7. FAKE CANCER CURES: The timing of detection and treatment is a critical determining factor for successful cancer treatment. Delaying conventional treatment while searching for an alternative cancer cure is a fatal mistake. The FDA lists over 187 fake cancer cures that are actively being marketed to victims. It’s not just the United States. Australia is also seeing epidemic levels of fake cancer cures, and 1000s of unnecessary deaths have been estimated this year. Recently, in one of my social media groups a woman reported applying bloodroot salve to her cervix to treat cervical dysplasia at home. As you might think, she was in excruciating pain, and needed to seek medical care, but sadly turned to social media instead! I have not read an update about this unfortunate woman (with extremely poor decision making skills) yet, but wish her the best!
6. INFANT CHIROPRACTIC: *Les Sighs*. There is no evidence of any benefit or even an assurance that chiropractic care for infants is even reasonably safe. Proponents believe that spinal adjustments can help alleviate non-musculoskeletal conditions such as colic, asthma, recurrent ear infections, cancer (I can’t even) and prevent general illness by “removing the nerve interference” causing these conditions. Thankfully, reported paralysis and strokes are rare BUT WHY would anyone take that risk? Not only that, but chiropractors tend to give all sorts of medical advice attempting to act as primary care doctors, where they do everything from negatively influence parent’s decisions about vaccinating their children, to delaying real care and treatments, and often ordering x-rays, exposing children to radiation for NO medical REASON.
5. VITAMIN K SHOT REFUSAL: There is a new way to worship the “all natural” that also tends to target new mother’s deepest anxieties: Vitamin K shot refusal for newborn babies. This dangerous trend is piggy-backing on the anti-vaccine sentiment gripping the nation. All babies are born vitamin K-deficient, putting them at risk for uncontrolled bleeding, until they start eating solid food. Vitamin K deficiency bleeding can have catastrophic consequences, resulting in; gross motor skill deficits; long-term neurological, cognitive or developmental problems; organ failure; or death. Approximately 0.25% to 1.7% of newborns that don’t receive vitamin K at birth will experience “early” vitamin K deficiency bleeding. But, late vitamin K deficiency bleeding (between 2 and 24 weeks old) affects an estimated 4 to 10 of every 100,000 babies who don’t receive vitamin K at birth and is, in a way, much more dangerous, because it happens after mom and baby have gone home from the hospital, it is “silent,” internal, and much more likely to be diagnosed after irreversible damage has occurred. About one in five babies who develop late vitamin K deficiency bleeding die, and two of every five who survive have long-term brain damage.
4. ORGANIC TAMPONS: Women have a MILLION things to worry about when it comes to their vaginas, and 2016 sought to add one more. A wave of celebrity fueled “chemophobia” (an irrational fear of chemicals), brought us the catchy “Vajingle” and 7th Generation’s Organic Tampons. Tampons are already highly regulated as medical devices by FDA (surprise, the government REALLY IS IN OUR VAGINAS!), and organic varieties are not better or safer, and they have not been proven to contain fewer chemicals than conventional brands. (For the last time, just because something is purportedly organic, does not mean that it is grown without pesticides!) I also discovered this random crowdfunding campaign that claims to make feminine hygiene products that “release negative ions which eliminate odor-causing bacteria, relax the body during pain and promote positive mood.” On top of these outrageous health claims, the campaign goes one step further- defining anions as “naturally occurring negative ions that are released in high quantities in places like forests, beaches, and waterfalls.” Organic feminine hygiene products make my list at #7, because not only are the health claims that are being made spurious, but also because organic cotton is awful for the environment in terms of its carbon footprint.
3. TRICLOSAN: Antibiotics are, of course, an invaluable part of standard medical practice. However, triclosan and similar antibacterial compounds were seized on by manufacturers of non-regulated health and beauty products, everything from toothpaste, to hand sanitizers to facewash, with these products marketed as being more effective at controlling germs than plain soap. Luckily for consumers, FDA demanded safety and effectiveness data to back up those claims that manufactures were unable to provide, leading FDA to ban their use. Terrific news for consumers, as some data suggest that long-term exposure to triclosan and related antibacterials—may pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.
2. BOB SEARS CHARGED WITH NEGLIGENCE: “Dr.” Bob Sears promotes an alternate vaccine schedule (there is no such thing), has influenced thousands of parents not to vaccinate at all through his fear-mongering, which has been traced back to notable communicable disease outbreaks (measles at Disneyland), and he ALSO tries to convince parents that getting the measles isn’t all that bad. 2016 however, disagrees. New evidence sheds light on a complication of measles occurs many years after contracting the illness and is 100% fatal. 100%. FATAL. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) was previously thought to only occur in 1/10,000 cases of measles, but this gem of way to die, by brain inflammation, was recently discovered to actually affect 1 out of every 600 babies that contract measles. I was soooooo thankful to finally see ‘Dr.’ Bob Sears charged with negligence. Although, these charges relate to his other highly objectionable medical practices, I am hopeful that his anti-vaccine atrocities will catch up with him as well.
1. HOMEOPATHIC LABELING: Saving the BEST for last in my countdown, 2016 saw the Federal Trade Commission cracking down on homeopathic “drugs.” Americans spend BILLIONS a year on homeopathic potions even though “curing like with like” using ultra-highly diluted substances defies the basic principles of chemistry, biology, and physics. The new FTC rules will now require homeopathic packaging to effectively communicate two key ideas, that: “There is no scientific evidence that this product works” and “This product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.” Ok, I lied- we end on a sad note after all — the FTCs own study on homeopathy and advertising (page 21) shows that up to 45% of consumers think that homeopathic products are FDA approved—even after looking at a package with a disclaimer that says they aren’t.
The “alternate medicine” stories that made headlines in 2016 range from tragic to hopeful for the future. This list is only a small selection: tell us some of the headlines that caught your attention!!