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Introductory article by Patrick Holford:

Is Alternative Medicine Any Less Scientific?

Dear Reader,

No doubt some of you will have all the anti-alternative medicine propaganda in the papers. I wholeheartedly agree that good medicine needs to be properly proven to work, which is why I abhor the fact that almost a third of all drugs are prescribed off label, meaning that they are given to groups of people for whom no benefit has been proven. I thought the most astute response to this cry against alternative medicine was that made in the Times by Jerome Burne, kindly reproduced below: Professor Michael Baum, who laid into alternative medicine, is quite right to be concerned about wasting scarce NHS funds on unproven or disproved treatments.

Unfortunately he has the wrong target in his sights. If he¹s looking to root out marketing dressed up as science and protect patients from being damaged by side-effect that have been deliberately kept hidden, he would do far better to focus on problems with drescription drugs. While some are life-saving, far too many are marginally effective and carry risks out of proportion to the conditions they are designed to treat. Drug side-effects now kill around 10,000 people a year in the UK ­ three times the number killed on the roads - and cost the NHS over £4 billion. Patients are being perfectly rational in seeking alternatives and it is simply out-dated medical arrogance to condemn them for it. Only last week it emerged that one of the anti-depressant SSRI drugs actually increased the risk of young adults committing suicide ­ a possibility the companies had always strenuously denied even though in 2003 doctors had been advised not to give these drugs to anyone under 18 because of a suicide link. The evidence for that official ruling dated to 1996 but had never been published.

During the intervening years UK doctors were prescribing more SSRIs to children than any other country in Europe and yet there was no proper evidence base for this at all. Treating those children by changing their diet or with acupuncture seems sane and responsible by comparison.The scandal surrounding the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx - withdrawn from the market in 2004 because it doubled the risk of developing heart disease and other vascular problems­ is another example of a drug that was heavily over-hyped prescribed to millions for whom it was not appropriate.  Evidence that there was a danger was once again downplayed or ignored; one expert estimate puts just the number of Americans killed or damaged by a drug they took to ease aching joints at 140,000. Professor Baum demonstrates no understanding why people are searching for alternatives to his remedies. In any other business, blaming your customers for deserting you would be regarded as a bizarre and self-defeating management strategy.

If he's serious about patient safety and cutting costs, he could start by demanding that drug disasters are followed by an official enquiry and that testing of promising non-drug therapies is properly funded. Jerome and I have spent the last year working on a book, Food is Better Medicine than Drugs, which will really blow the lid on the the quasi-science and poor risk benefit ratio of the major profit-earning drugs, compared to a nutritional approach.

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