Swine flu and snake oil

I was introduced to snake oil salesmen at a young age. My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was in kindergarten, and while she has mostly followed the advice of her neurologists, she's also looked into "alternate" therapies, ranging from the relatively harmless (massages, oils, etc.) to more invasive methods (chelation, all sorts of expensive but worthless supplements). Some of these I've been able to talk her out of (and I personally think her current doctor--NOT a neurologist--is a total quack), but others she's taken because, hey, "what's the harm?" It's frustrating to see money and hope wasted on bogus treatments.

Of course, it's not only chronic conditions that appeal to these salesmen; they're all over infectious disease as well, peddling unproven treatments to "boost the immune system" and discouraging the use of conventional treatments. It appears that swine flu is their newest target (h/t Orac), as chiropractic is said to have "miraculous" results and colon cleanses, likewise, "work miracles". The authors both suggest that their fave treatment, therefore, should also be used to treat/prevent swine flu. After all, claims Kim Evans (author of Cleaning Up! and the creator of The Cleaning Up! Cleanse, a powerful body cleanse):

And it's my understanding that many people who took regular enemas instead of vaccines during the 1918 pandemic made it out on the other side as well.

Ah, someone has been studying up on their Whale.to 1918 flu pandemic revisionist epidemiology. Fantastic.

Seriously, HuffPost? This is what you want to promote? What's next--lizard men?

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So according to Evans, some people in 1918 chose to take enemas instead of getting a vaccine that didn't exist and wouldn't be developed for decades?

There you go - proof positive of the wisdom of the ancients!

It really is very sad to me that some people will prey upon the misfortunes of others with this kind of stuff...the chelation thing (EDTA for hardening of the arteries) really stunned me, because I learned of it in the context of an in-law who had considerable heart disease, who found a quack willing to submit him to this therapy. The in-law's problem stemmed largely from a proclivity to eschew traditional therapies (and even regular checkups) and to replace them with all sorts of alternative quackery. I'm hesitant to protect people from themselves, but when other people prey upon these folks, knowing they're peddling snake oil, well...

Would you be surprised if some Hollywood disciple of David Icke got a spot on HuffPo? They already had Jim Carey spewing anti-immunization nonsense.

By Josh Jasper (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

Unfortunately, if this becomes a pandemic, you are going to see a lot more of this drivel.

I suppose I never thought of it that way, but I suppose this might be what the opponents of universal health care refer to when they talk about losing their ability to choose a dr.

Kind of an unexpected all-or-nothing rant to find on a supposedly scientific blog. Any shades of gray worth discussing here, in your humble opinion? At least you admit your family-history-driven bias -- have to give you credit for that, Tara. I'd be interested to hear about your POV regarding NCCAM http://nccam.nih.gov ... are they just "total quacks," too?

I am disappointed to see as nebulous a concept as snake oil under discussion in a scientific blog. What is the scientific definition of "snake oil"?

There are many forms of medicine in the world other than Western scientific medicine. Chinese medicine, for example, has given us acupuncture which has found many uses in conjunction with traditional Western medicine. Also, artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug, is derived from Chinese wormwood. Even Chinese snake oil might have benefits in the treatment of arthritis.

China has had thousands of years experience with avian, swine and human flu. Perhaps they have some medical knowledge to offer. We should not close our eyes to the many alternative treatments we have simply because some of them are of no value. The FDA ought to investigate herbal medicines, and the Western medical-scientific community ought to welcome outside input.

By Paul Heikkila (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

My family history hasn't driven any bias. Do you really think I had any idea what any of this was when I was 12 or 13 years old and first started looking into this? It's exactly the scientific process of research, inquiry, and seeking evidence that has led me to my current statements about these methods. Medicine should be based on evidence, not "miracles."

Um, Nemo, that's a lot of questions wrapped up in one. It's not "all or nothing", it's pointing out that influenza is a well-understood virus, and that understanding does not include "colon cleanse" or "chiropractic". It's a friggin viral infectious disease, not a backache or constipation.

NCCAM is a separate issue entirely.

NCCAM does has some uses. It has spent a lot of money proving that several herbal remedies (e.g., echinacea)do not work. The real question is whether it is worth the time and effort to investigate every "alternative therapy." Most have no basis in science "therapeutic touch and homeopathy come to mind" and are probably just a manifestation of the placebo effect. Some herbal "remedies are worth investigating but you don't need a whole Center to do that.

I mean no one is investigating whether Lourdes water has a healing effects (although prayer has been studied and found to have no effect). Hmmm. Maybe I should send a grant app to NCCAM..."Double Blind Prospective Study of the Curative Affects of Water from Lourdes France"

Dear Paul,
There actually is a medical definition of "snake oil"

1. any of various liquids sold as medicine (as by a traveling medicine show) but medically worthless.
2. humbug: communication (written or spoken) intended to deceive.(wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn)


A type of 19th century patent medicine sold in the United States that claimed to contain snake fat, supposedly a Native American remedy for various ailments; A fraudulent, ineffective potion or nostrum; panacea; Any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality.(en.wiktionary.org/wiki/snake_oil_)..see ShamWow

Of course you could have looked this up yourself very easily. So, the real question is what is the point of your comment?

All Tara, and I, ask is for scientific proof that something actually works. I am sorry, although 1000s of years of history is intriguing, that is not proof that it works.

Well, the reason I asked Tara what she meant by "snake oil" is precisely because I did look it up, found the same definitions you found, and felt that they did not match what she was discussing: enemas and chiropractic. It seemed apparent to me that she had something more in mind than "various liquids sold as medicine" and I wondered what it was.

You state that all you (and Tara) ask is for "proof that it works." I'm not sure exactly what that means. Is that more or less than what the FDA asks -- that it outperform a placebo? For my money, I'd often be happy if a given "medication" did just as well as a placebo.

Many Chinese drink herbal teas to ward off colds and flu. Whether they perform that task any better than Western medicines I really don't know. There are various formulations of the herbal teas depending on your doctor, your family, or your whim. I think if they "make you feel better" then they are a good choice, regardless of whether they've been certified by the FDA. Maybe I'll be one of the lucky ones who gets the placebo effect (and the peace of mind). And that for the price of a cup of tea, rather than opting for a costly medication (a doctor's visit plus a call at the pharmacy) or no medication at all (when the doctor says he cannot prevent or cure a cold and presents me with a bill).

More than a billion people are ample evidence that Chinese medicine "works." Does it work as well or better than Western medicine? The Chinese government has shown a great willingness to incorporate Western medicine along with Chinese medicine. We in the West might learn from them. Discounting Chinese herbal medicine because somebody wants to sell you an enema doesn't make one bit of sense to me.

By Paul Heikkila (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

Paul: "More than a billion people" are evidence of zip, inasmuch as most of them were using "traditional Chinese medicine" as Hobson's choice. That is to say, they used it because it was the only thing available.

Chinese people who can afford it heavily use Western medicine. Check it out. This is not to say that traditional remedies can't have value, but I'm not aware of a lot of controlled studies to check out these potions, teas, etc.

Me, I've tried acupuncture (no success). I do practice chi kung several times per week, but that's mostly for the fitness and relaxation benefits.

Dave, if more than a billion people are "evidence of zip," then what weight do you give to the relative handful of wealthy Chinese who embrace Western medicine? I would note that in any American city with a large Chinese population you can find Chinese medicine practitioners. Similarly in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Chinese and Western medicines share the burden. When given a choice, many Chinese opt to have a choice.

If you really want you can lump Chinese traditional medicine in with chiropractic and colon cleansing and call it snake oil. It seems to me rather like tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

By Paul Heikkila (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

First time I have seen this site. As many reports as everyone has about questionable "snake oil" remedies, the exact same criticism can be levied against conventional medical practices that purport to be backed by scientific evidence. While excelling at crisis intervention, the utter failure of conventional medicine to effectively deal with chronic illness and the almost non-existent focus on optimal heath are a sad commentary to our disease care system. Cesarean sections â 24%; more than twice what WHO says should be maximum; 21st in infant mortality with most babies delivered in hospitals by physicians when countries whose children are birthed by midwives (Japan, Austria), an "alternative" practice, have among the lowest rates; more than 500,000 hysterectomies annually, more than half considered to be unnecessary based on second opinion-science?; HRT; excessive antibiotic use; the propensity for off label drug use (non scientifically supported indications); the list can go on; actually on and on,and on. It was midwives who taught docs they needed to wash their hands when delivering babies and at the time they said that was quackery; the majority of pharmaceutical agents were derived from natural products (herbs); most new modern cancer drugs come from plants that were used by traditional herbalists; "alternative" health practitioners were promoting a low saturated fat, high fiber, high antioxidant, high folic acid diet when the dominant medical establishment was asserting that diet had nothing to do with the development of disease and we only needed RDA values of a handful of nutrients. A lot of folks who commented on this discussion could benefit from a reality check. Especially when professing to uphold some basis of scientific integrity. And, snake oil is a very rich source of essential fatty acids, which have numerous scientifically proven health benefits so perhaps should not be so readily dismissed.

By Roy Upton (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

Maybe it is time to unlink the terms "snake oil" and "medically worthless"

Enemas and chelation therapy do have medical uses just not for respiratory illnesses. I like a good foot rub but it won't cure cancer. How about...... "Medical Ponzi Scheme?" They both take advantage of gullible or credulous people who really want something that is too good to be true.

Alan: actually, Vioxx is a perfectly good analgesic. I've used it myself for foot pain and it worked very well, much better than I'd expected, in fact. The problem is with its side-effects. When it comes to comparing either snake oil or Vioxx to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the stumbling block is that there are very few TCM treatments that have been tested double-blind.

"Open Minded," that's the problem with anecdotes. For every one you can provide, someone else can say they underwent the same procedure and it didn't help--hence the need for a scientific approach to this rather than testimonials (which snake oil salesmen thrive on).

Tara, I'd like to know what you, as an epidemiologist, think of the vitamin D article already mentioned (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/51913.php ). It seems to make sense, but I'm no expert. You are. :) Are there other, competing ideas on why the common flu is seasonal?

Today's NY Times has an interesting article on the first flu death in Mexico suggesting the possible dangers of relying on homeopathic medicine or various other non-mainstream therapies:


"But one important factor may be the eclectic approach to health care in Mexico, where large numbers of people self-prescribe antibiotics, take only homeopathic medicine, or seek out mysterious vitamin injections. For many, only when all else fails do they go to a doctor, who may or may not be well prepared.

"âI think it has to do with the culture, the idiosyncrasies of Mexicans,â said Dr. Nicolas Padilla, an epidemiologist at the University of Guanajuato. âThe idea is that I donât go to the doctor until I feel very bad.â "

By Paul Heikkila (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

Amazing ! The most effective snake oil salesmen have been the giant pharmaceutical companies.Vaccinations being one of the biggest ,How much damage have we done by injecting toxic materials like thiomersol into the millions of people.Even the historical record on efficacy are suspect and using them for relatively benign illness is foolish.What about guessing which flu virus will strike each year,doesn't sound all that scientific.
When you have profit driven enterprises controlling studies how can one expect to be getting scientific data that has even an ounce of value.The public has effectively become the testing ground for dozens of useless and sometimes dangerous drugs.
That is why so many people would prefer a 1000 years of anectodal evidence to profit driven research.Look at tamiflu the evidence is that tamiflu does not work at all for bird flu yet the CDC and WHO continue to promote it.Already "experts" are on tv. claiming its effectiveness for this latest outbreak in Mexico.Is that scientific?or does this have anything to do with the millions of doses that are sitting around doing nothing.
You have good reason to be skeptical of colon cleansers claiming to cure swine flu ,but keep your standards as high for conventional medicine, where honest research has become compromised.

By B Webster (not verified) on 02 May 2009 #permalink

Josh - late getting back to this, and doubt you will read the followup, but yes, I did see the Jim Carey spot on HuffPo, and it was a big disappointment (that it would appear - not surprised Carey would be susceptible).