Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Charles? He’s just a snake-oil salesman: Professor attacks prince on ‘dodgy’ alternative remedies

Prince Charles has been branded a ‘snake-oil salesman’ by Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine for supporting ‘dodgy’ alternative therapies.

Professor Edzard Ernst claimed yesterday that the prince’s backing for ‘unproven and disproven’ remedies was an attempt to smuggle them into the NHS despite scientific evidence showing they could be dangerous.

Prof Ernst, who set up Exeter University’s Centre for Complementary Medicine in 1993, left his post last month after claiming that a row with a senior aide to the prince had led to the withdrawal of support from university managers and the drying up of research funds.

He has carried out a series of scientific investigations into complementary medicine such as homeopathy and herbal remedies over the past decade.

Yesterday Prof Ernst told a conference in London that he found evidence that around 20 therapies were useful for various conditions, ranging from Co-enzyme Q10 supplements for high blood pressure to St John’s wort herbal pills for depression.

But the evidence was lacking for alternative therapies such as chiropractic, detox, herbal slimming aids, cancer cures, and homeopathy – which has long been championed by the prince and other members of the Royal Family.

He said such remedies were being peddled by ‘snake-oil salesmen and pseudo science’ and were dangerous to the public, who might be put directly at risk or as a result of rejecting conventional medicine in favour of ‘dodgy’ remedies. Asked whether he classified the prince as a snake-oil salesman, Prof Ernst replied: ‘Yes.’

In a comment for the Journal of Internal Medicine, the professor, who has been nicknamed the Quackbuster for his efforts to root out alternative remedies for which he can find no evidence, criticised the concept of integrated, or integrative, medicine. This advocates treating the patient with conventional and complementary approaches and is backed by the prince.

Prof Ernst said it covered a ‘wide range of unproven and disproven’ therapies, and was ‘nothing other than a cloak of respectability disguising alternative medicine’. He wrote: ‘At best, integrative medicine is well meaning but naive, at worst it represents muddled or even fraudulent concepts with little potential to serve the needs of patients.’

He said he suspected that Prince Charles wanted to get the NHS to supply more alternative therapies despite the lack of scientific evidence for many of them. The prince’s complementary health charity, the Foundation for Integrated Health, closed last year amid a criminal investigation into fraud and money-laundering.

Prof Ernst has clashed with the prince before. He accused him of ‘exploiting a gullible public’ by putting his name to a detox treatment in his Duchy Originals brand. The £10 Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture relied on ‘superstition and quackery’ rather than science and the range should be re-named ‘Dodgy Originals’, he said.

Prof Ernst, 63, has also blamed a row with the prince’s office five years ago for forcing his early retirement from Exeter’s complementary medicines unit in June – two years early. He attacked a report advocating complementary medicine, commissioned by the prince, as ‘outrageous and deeply flawed’.

This prompted a formal complaint from Sir Michael Peat, the prince’s private secretary. Prof Ernst said he had been cleared after a long investigation but blamed lack of support from the university coupled with lack of research funding for a closure threat to the unit.

He claimed he had offered to go if it would save the unit, and his offer was accepted by Professor Steve Thornton, the new dean of the university’s Peninsula Medical School, who agreed to fund the appointment of a successor. A university spokesman said: ‘We are looking to replace Professor Ernst on his retirement with another specialist in complementary medicine. 'We will support that person to raise funds to enable research to continue, but have earmarked £234,000 to support the centre over the next 12 months.’


Migraines, Michele Bachman, and me

by Jeff Jacoby

WHEN THE DAILY CALLER, a news site based in Washington, DC, reported last week that Michele Bachmann gets migraine headaches, it labored to give the impression that it was breaking an important story.

"Stress-related condition 'incapacitates' Bachmann; heavy pill use alleged," the foreboding headline read. (Cue the grim background music.) The article, by Jonathan Strong, depicted a woman who regularly crumples in the face of stress, reacting to the normal aggravations of political life -- a staffer's resignation, a missed flight -- with "medical episodes" that leave her "incapacitated" for days at a time. To cope, she "takes all sorts of pills. Prevention pills. Pills during the migraine. Pills after the migraine. . . . Pills wherever she goes." These "debilitating" migraines "occur once a week on average," and at least three times have landed Bachmann in the hospital. Her staff must "constantly" consult with doctors to "tweak" their boss's medication.

Bottom line? "Some close to Bachmann fear she won't be equal to the stress of the campaign" and some former aides "are terrified" by the thought of a migraine-prone President Bachmann.

All very melodramatic. But a few things were missing from Strong's account. Like the nature of all those "pills" that Bachmann supposedly takes -- addictive narcotics, or something more innocuous? And the identity of any of the unnamed "former aides" whose allegations the story recycles -- what candidates, if any, are they working for now? Missing too was any evidence that a migraine condition is incompatible with the pressures of the presidency or any other high-powered position.

That's because no such evidence exists.

The health of presidential candidates is of course a legitimate news topic. That's especially true since, to quote the historian Robert Dallek,"concealing one's true medical condition from the voting public is a time-honored tradition of the American presidency."

Gone are the days when a presidential candidate with severe medical problems could brazenly claim to be in excellent health and expect to get away with it. During and after the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy -- who suffered from Addison's disease, colitis, urinary tract infections, and the near-crippling pain of degenerative back problems -- took what Dallek called "an extraordinary variety of medications," including steroids, painkillers, antibiotics, and anti-spasmodics. Yet with the help of a friendly press, the Kennedy machine easily downplayed JFK's afflictions; The New York Times, quoting an article in a medical magazine, described him as being in "superb physical condition."

Neither Bachmann nor any other 2012 candidate would get that kind of pass today. By the same token, no candidate should be subjected to anonymous media rumormongering about her health or medical fitness.

Migraine headaches are a uniquely painful misery, as I can attest from long personal experience, but they are not stroke or heart disease or polio or Alzheimer's. At their worst, migraine attacks can involve hours of throbbing head pain, as well as blind spots and other visual abnormalities, intense nausea, chills, and tears streaming from one eye. "That no one dies of migraine," Joan Didion wrote in a famous essay, "seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing." Such attacks terrified me when I was young; I vividly remember wondering, as an 11- or 12-year-old, if I was dying of brain cancer. Not until I was in college did I learn that my agonies had a name, and that I wasn't the only one to experience them.

More than 35 million Americans suffer from occasional or chronic migraine; many, Bachmann included, control their symptoms with medication. Far from popping "pills wherever she goes," however, she takes medicine only when she has an attack. According to Congress's attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, Bachmann's migraines "occur infrequently" and are helped by sumatriptan, a standard drug for relieving the dilation of blood vessels that causes migraine pain, and odansetron, an anti-nausea drug.

Could someone with a migraine condition be president of the United States? Ask Thomas Jefferson.

In my case, age, not medicine, seems to have been the best therapy; when my odometer passed 40, the migraine attacks started growing less severe. But even before then, migraine wasn't a paralyzing disability. The headaches hurt like hell, but they didn't keep me from getting an education or holding a job. I don't recommend giving a speech or going on TV while having a migraine, but I've managed to do both. I imagine Bachmann has too. Her migraines plainly haven't slowed her impressive rise in national politics, or kept her from setting the GOP primary field on fire. If she were "incapacitated" on a weekly basis, it's unlikely she'd have come so far, so fast.

So is it news that a would-be president once complained of migraine attacks that are "paroxysms of excruciating pain" -- headaches that "came on every day at sunrise and never left me till sunset"? No -- not unless it's news that Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words, suffered migraines. Ulysses Grant did, too.

Could Michele Bachmann become the next US president? I have no idea. But this much I do know: She wouldn't be the first one to live with migraine headaches.


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