A reflection on alternative medicine

Over the past few weeks, one of my best friends and I have been having bitter arguments over the use and validity of alternative medicine. These arguments have been mostly theoretical in nature, and I was engaging in them partly out of a desire to exercise my debating skills and partly out of frustration over the fact that my friend believed that eating more vegetables and employing ‘magical thinking’ could cure cancer.

That is, until I stumbled (thanks to Marisa) across this chapter: http://www.badscience.net/2009/04/matthias-rath-steal-this-chapter/ . In case you don’t feel like reading it, it is mainly about Matthias Rath, doctor, businessman and ‘vitamin entrepreneur.’ Rath sells natural supplements, claiming that they can treat and/or cure a vast array of completely pathologically unrelated diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and AIDS.

Now, everything would have been fine and dandy if Mr. Rath had kept his natural supplement sales on the local market in Palo Alto, California where he worked. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s he decided to expand his business to South Africa, and therein Rath incurred the wrath (pun intended) of almost every health-related NGO and IO (including the UN). This wrath was triggered by the fact that Matthias Rath actively campaigned in the South African press against anti-retroviral drugs, with headlines such as “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.” As it turns out, he had taken his business to the right place. Then-South African president Thabo Mbeki was a well know AIDS dissident, having banned the use of anti-retrovirals in state hospitals and rejected the idea that AIDS is caused by HIV. Rath thus received government support and protection for his vitamin treatments, while encouraging patients to shun conventional AIDS medicine. The details of the estimated impact of the Mbeki government policies and Rath’s actions can be found in the linked article, but they are nonetheless unnecessarily high. Rath’s trials and treatments have been denounced by both the South African and international medical communities and have been declared illegal by the South African courts.

Promoting vitamin treatments even at the expense of conventional medicine is one thing if you do it in the bio-crazed region of Northern California. At least the vast majority of people living in NorCal have access to plenty of information and can make their own educated choices on which treatment they wish to pick. Inundating the poorest regions of South Africa with propaganda against life-saving medicine to amass more wealth at the expense of patient welfare and suing anyone who speaks out against you is, on the other hand, completely unacceptable in my eyes. Were international law better defined, Rath could potentially be accused of crimes against humanity. Regardless, as development students we should be informed of such cases as Rath’s, which, in a sense, work in the exact opposite direction of the stated intentions of human and social development. Certainly the chapter I have linked contains a lot more information and my short response does not do it justice, but I invite all readers to give their two cents on this matter. As a conclusion I will leave you off with a quote from the author, which explains why Matthias Rath’s case also serves as a commentary on the alternative medicine community as a whole:

“Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticize any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true astonishment and watched leading figures of the UK’s alternative therapy movement applaud Matthias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organisations continue to defend Rath. Homeopaths’ mailouts continue to promote his work. […] Not one person will step forward and dissent.
The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the conclusion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cultural and intellectual.”

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One Response to A reflection on alternative medicine

  1. Good article. I’m more like the say that his work in California is still bad (after all, it still causes unnecessary death and suffering, and preys on desperate sick people, albeit to a more limited extent) and not “fine”, but the stuff in South Africa is much worse.

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