The disgrace of quack medicine being used in the NHS
They say they cannot afford a lot of proven medicines yet they waste money on trash
Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, is on a crusade to stop the NHS wasting money on unproved remedies.
Fortified with a nip of papaya leaf extract – the latest essential ingredient for boosting the immune system – I meet Prof Edzard Ernst. As Britain’s foremost “quackbuster”, I feel sure he will have views on such elixirs. I am right.
The world’s first professor of complementary medicine looks at me despairingly as I admit to taking unproven remedies. I may be gullible, but I am not alone. Roughly 100 per cent of cancer patients (I have lung cancer) use alternative therapies, and so do millions of others, including the Prince of Wales. Almost invariably, we are wasting our money, in his opinion.
“If there was good evidence that the immune system was depleted by the cancer or the treatment, there might be a case for something like papaya leaves,” he sighs. “But it is naive to think that the immune system fights the cancer cells, and naive to think that boosting the immune system is the answer to everything.”
What about the Bemer pulsating magnetic field machine, which I used for a while to boost my microcirculation and hence, the manufacturer claims, my ability to fight cancer? “Magnetic treatments are mainstream for non-healing bone fractures, but where is the placebo trial evidence for other applications?”
Small companies say they cannot afford to fund such trials. He snorts. “A trial like that could be done for less than £100,000.”
OK, then, what about the use of cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and other illnesses? “There are better ways to alleviate pain and nausea, so anyone who takes it probably likes the cannabis effect.”
Prof Ernst’s soft voice and teddy-bear appearance give the impression of a charming, elderly academic who is happy to be spending more time in his Suffolk garden since he retired in May. It is a false impression borne, he says, of German being his first language. “I don’t shout because I can’t express myself in English as I should like to. I may appear calm, but I get terrifically angry.”
In the past 18 years, while he has been running the complementary medicine research group at the Peninsula Medical School in Devon (a partnership between Exeter and Plymouth Universities and the NHS), he has often been angry. He has had public run-ins with many alternative therapists – homoeopaths, chiropractors, herbalists and acupuncturists. But the juiciest chapter in the autobiography he is currently writing will cover his feud with the Prince of Wales.
It began in 2005 when he rubbished a report, sponsored by the Prince, which supported the idea that the NHS would save up to £3.5 billion a year if it spent more on alternative therapies. “I knew the facts extremely well as I had done a similar report for the World Health Organisation, and didn’t mince my words.”
Sir Michael Peat, the Prince of Wales’s private secretary, complained that Prof Ernst had breached confidentiality by speaking to a newspaper. “There was a 13-month investigation and I was shown to be innocent, but all fund-raising stopped. After that, I was persona non grata.” This, he believes, led to the funding crisis that forced him into early retirement, aged 63.
“Both the vice-chancellor of Exeter University and the dean of the Peninsula Medical School were knighted.” For taking the Prince’s side? “Cause and effect are not proven.”
Last month, Prof Ernst told a conference in London that he considered the Prince “a snake-oil salesman” for supporting “unproven and disproved” remedies and for selling a £10 Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture. The range, he said, should be renamed “Dodgy Originals”.
The battle between the two men is one of principle, he says. “We urgently need to focus on the safety of alternative treatments, of which there are about 400.
People think natural equals safe, but it is a misconception. If there is an adverse reaction to medication, a doctor fills out a yellow card, sending a signal that can be investigated. There is no such system for herbal medicines. I also know of 30 to 40 cases of serious neurological damage after spinal manipulation, none of them formally reported.”
Fortunately for those who share his concern, the arrival of a new dean of the Peninsula Medical School, Professor Steve Thornton, has led to a reprieve for his research group. Prof Ernst still had to go, but he is helping to appoint his successor. The advertisements for the post of professor of complementary medicine call for “a rigorous scientist”. If this requirement is not stated clearly, he fears, the job could attract promoters of alternative therapies.
The British, who spend around £2 billion a year on unproved therapies, need sceptics to investigate on their behalf, he believes. Individuals can then decide whether to waste their money.
He is, unequivocally opposed to the NHS funding alternative therapies at a time when money is tight and patients are being denied treatments of proven worth.
“I have an advertisement on my desk from an NHS hospital looking for a reiki healer. I’m sure the money could be better spent. Recently, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) decided that acupuncture and chiropractic are good treatments for recurring back pain. They have underestimated the risks.”
Those two alternative therapies were among those assessed in Trick or Treatment?, the 2008 book that he co-authored with the eminent science writer, Simon Singh. Ironically dedicated to the Prince of Wales, it examines the case for the safety and effectiveness of various therapies, and finds them mostly wanting.
“There are some positive conclusions about acupuncture, nothing on homoeopathy, almost nothing on chiropractic (a type of manipulation), and some positive findings on herbal medicine. The therapies for which there are strong evidence are supportive rather than curative: hypnotherapy, massage, autogenic training and other relaxation therapies.”
Prof Ernst seems almost surprised that he has become known as the scourge of the alternative medical world because in southern Germany, where he was brought up, it was part of normal life.
“My father practised homoeopathy. I was exposed to herbal remedies, acupuncture and massage, as everyone in Germany is. My first job on qualifying as a doctor was in a homoeopathic hospital.”
Initially he was impressed by how patients recovered after homoeopathy. Now he believes that is because of the placebo effect and the psychotherapeutic benefits of an hour’s consultation. By 1993, he held a professorship in recuperative medicine at the University of Vienna, but later seized an offer from the University of Exeter to set up the world’s first department dedicated to research into complementary medicine. At its peak, Prof Ernst was running 20 research projects. It will take time for his successor to build back up to that level, but he believes it must be done to prevent quackery.
His own health regime is simple. “I eat oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and lots of salad. I drink green tea, which reduces the risk of gastric cancer, lots of water, and rather more red wine than I should because I like it.” He and his French wife, Danielle, keep fit by walking their Welsh terrier.
If he were diagnosed with cancer, what would he do? “I wouldn’t take aspirin [thought to prevent cancer]. I might have a look at selenium [supposedly a tumour suppressor] but, most importantly I would find a good health care team and trust them. You can’t go around torturing yourself with believing every nonsense on the internet.”
I am sure he is right, but I might just finish the papaya leaf extract first.
The latest from the very “incorrect” Pat Condell
Being near a good school is top priority for one in three British homebuyers
More than a third of prospective homebuyers with young children say moving to an area with a good school is their top priority, research shows.
Moving into the catchment area of a good school was the top priority for 37pc of prospective buyers with a child aged 10 or under, according to a study for Santander Mortgages.
Many were willing to pay an extra £12,000 to secure the home – and school – of their choice. The average house price premium for moving to a good catchment area was £5,663. One in four of those with a child aged 11 to 17 named proximity to a good school as a major concern.
Homebuyers in the West Midlands were most concerned about moving into a good catchment area, the survey found, with 26pc citing it as a main priority, double the percentage concerned about the issue the last time they bought a home.
In the North East only 6pc of buyers showed a particular interest in the catchment area the last time they purchased a home, but 16pc of people planning to buy a property in the region now considered it a main priority.
The research suggested that women were much more concerned about moving into a good catchment area than men – they were willing to pay a £7,300 premium, compared with £4,450 for men.
Phil Cliff, a director of Santander Mortgages, said: “People are increasingly concerned about the value of a good education, and in some areas of the country there is a significant amount of competition for places at sought-after schools.
“This has led to many parents trying to move to a particular area deliberately to improve their child’s chances of getting into their desired school. Some in-demand property features such as being located within the catchment area of a good school can increase the property value considerably.”
School’s milk crates fall foul of Britain’s health and safety police
For 15 years, a set of disused milk crates had been providing children at an Oxfordshire school with old-fashioned fun. But that was before the health and safety zealots caught sight of them.
Now the 25 crates, which have been used as props for countless games involving ships, cars, dens and castles, have been taken away over fears that pupils could be injured on them.
“In all the time we have had the crates, we have not had a single child hurt themselves,” said Anne Bardsley, a teacher at Wychwood Primary school, who described the decision to remove them as “outrageous”.
The crates, once donated by a friendly milkman, were seized by Dairy Crest during a routine delivery.
Lyndsey Anderson, from the company, apologised for any distress. “Whilst we understand their disappointment at losing something they had come to view as playground equipment, it remains a fact that milk crates are not toys and current health and safety guidelines require that they should not be used as such,” she said.
Mrs Bardsley explained that the pupils were always supervised while playing with the crates and that they helped creative learning. “The children absolutely loved them,” she added.
That dangerous WATER!
Eloquent confirmation that the toxicity is in the dose
A man died after suffering devastating brain damage after drinking ‘pint after pint’ of water. His family believe the problems started when an Ecstasy pill was slipped into his drink during an evening out.
Matthew Ellis, 29 died more than seven months later from a chest infection in hospital in Sheffield. He was rushed to intensive care after collapsing at his father’s home on Boxing Day last year.
Matthew’s mother Maureen warned others about the little known but catastrophic dangers of drinking too much water. The drug made him crave water and the excess liquid he drank caused his salt levels to plummet bringing on a rare brain condition called extrapontine myelinolysis.
Mrs Ellis, 62, said: ‘There is no health warning, water is good for you if you have a certain amount,’. ‘But we want to make people more aware not to drink that much. Matthew went through absolute hell and it’s such a waste of a young life.’
Mrs Ellis, a council technical support officer, said Matthew had been working in Wales before Christmas and had taken time off over the holiday period and was staying in Sheffield with his family. He had been due to start a job at Doncaster Prison in January.
He stayed out late drinking on Boxing Day before going back to spend the night at the home of his 66-year-old father Ken in Lowedges, Sheffield. ‘The following day he felt poorly and started drinking lots of water,’ said Mrs Ellis.
‘He was drinking pints and pints . We don’t know exactly home much but he was drinking constantly throughout the day. ‘The next day my eldest son Andrew phoned and said Matthew was starting to fit and had nearly fallen down the stairs. Then he collapsed in the kitchen.’ He suffered five seizures in the ambulance on the way to hospital and eventually died on August 4.
Mrs Ellis added: ‘A consultant told me that Matthew must have unknowlingly been slipped an Ecstasy tablet. ‘He never took drugs of any kind. He like to go out but not on a regular basis and might go six months without having a drink.’
He suffered irreversible brain damage after slipping into a coma – and his mother gave the hospital permission to switch off his life support machine. However, he came round again in January although he could no longer remember who he was.
His funeral is due to be held on Saturday.
Nutrition expert Mayur Ranchordas, who lectures in physiology and nutrition at Sheffield Hallam University said water intoxication or hyponatraemia can have devastating effects. He added: ‘Extrapontine myelinolysis is a very rare condition. Too much water is actually very, very bad for you.
‘Hyponatraemia is quite common among recreational runners on half marathon and marathon events. ‘They’re not running at a high intensity but they’re still stopping at all the water stations, taking on large amounts of water and trying to stay hydrated.’
Family banned from having ‘fire hazard’ doormat outside their flat blast British council’s ‘ridiculous’ elf ‘n’ safety rules
It can’t spray graffiti, shout at neighbours or play loud music. So a family were bewildered when their doormat was issued with an eviction notice.
The offending mat was covered in warning tape and plastered with a sign reading ‘move it or lose it’ after their housing association said it was a health and safety hazard.
The father of one said: ‘Someone is being paid to walk around and do this. It’s ridiculous. I can’t understand what they are thinking. It’s my doorstep and my doormat. ‘I need to wipe the soles of my shoes dry or I might fall over in my house, then that would be a health and safety issue.’
When an astonished Mr Reyes contacted Bedfordshire Pilgrims Housing Association, which runs the communal areas of his apartment block in Bedford, it said inspectors had ruled the mat was a fire hazard.
But Mr Reyes, a currency broker who shares the flat with his wife Luz, 42, nine-year-old daughter Annabelle and stepson Juan Libreros, 19, is refusing to get rid of it. He said: ‘It’s right at the end of a corridor so it’s not like people will be rushing past it.
‘It had “move it or lose it” written on it, that’s like a threat. ‘It’s like they are saying “don’t mess with us” – but it’s only a doormat. I was very shocked that they would act in this way for something as minor as a doormat.’
Marie Taylor, head of housing at BPHA, said: ‘Like all social landlords, BPHA is legally obliged to ensure all shared areas in its properties are free from items that might trip residents in the case of a fire.’