Ben Hills investigates
His doctor was afraid only drastic chemotherapy could save the little boy’s life. His parents were convinced the deadly cancer of the jaw could be cured by a gadget that delivers a minute electric current. Last January, four-year-old Liam Williams-Holloway was taken away from the hospital at Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where he was being treated, and placed under the care of Gerard and Dawn Uys, alternative health practitioners with no medical qualifications, who use a homemade device they call a Quantum Booster which they claim “boosts the immune system” and “kills the bacteria that cause cancer”.
Appalled, the local health authority applied successfully to the courts to have the child declared a ward of the state – and provoked a passionate national debate about the merits of therapies rejected by medical science, and the “rights” of parents to choose their children’s treatment, even when it may kill them.
While police scoured the Otago region for the runaway family and raided the Rainbow Health Clinic where the Uys couple practises, across the country thousands of people attended candlelit vigils to support the boy’s parents. The New Zealand media had a field day.
The parents now say they believe the unconventional therapy is working and the tumour, a potentially fatal neuroblastoma, is shrinking – though eight months after the hue and cry began, they still refuse to bring Liam back to the hospital for an examination and have refused further treatment. “You only get one chance against cancer,” said Brendan Williams, “and I decided to take it.”
The doctor, Michael Sullivan, a pediatric oncologist at Dunedin Hospital, is unconvinced and believes Liam’s cancer may be in remission after the first of the chemotherapy treatments. “With no treatment, or treatment with this unproven device downloaded off the Internet and knocked up in the backyard by people with no knowledge of medicine, there is a high chance he will relapse,” Sullivan said last week. “It is one of the most lethal cancers in children.”
And it is not only Liam who is at risk. Sullivan says that, since the publicity, “… there is a stream of people going down there for Quantum therapy. Many of them are extremely sick, desperate people. They are not getting the palliative care they should, and they are leaving their families and going off to Rotorua to die.”
The only person unconcerned is the man who invented the prototype of the Quantum Booster. Royal Raymond Rife, a Californian pathologist and amateur inventor of the 1920s and ’30s, has been in his grave for many years, although his legacy lives on through more than 60 Internet sites around the world, and in countless books, magazine articles and dubious personal testimonials.
Rife believed that every health problem from cancer to dandruff, 30,000 of them, was caused by an organism that vibrated with a disease-specific frequency – AIDS, for instance, is said to have a frequency of 2,489 Hz. He claimed his machine, by generating and playing this frequency back into the body, could destroy the organism and cure the patient in as little as three seven-minute sessions.
Although its inventor was ridiculed by scientists for producing no proof to support his extraordinary theory, the Rife machine lives on in the shadows of alternative therapy, an embarrassment to all but a few fringe practitioners who use the gadgets, and some desperate patients who pay thousands of dollars to purchase them.
In Australia, more than a dozen variants on the original design are marketed through victim support groups and advertisements in alternative magazines such as Nexus, based at Mapleton, Queensland, which features articles on the lost world of Atlantis, cars that run on water, the US Government conspiracy to murder John Lennon and the discovery of 60-centimetre-long Yowie footprints in Guy Fawkes River National Park, near Coffs Harbour.
The devices range in size and price from small portable units the size of a Walkman to elaborate machines hooked into personal computers advertised for sale for $34,000. Many of the advertisements emphasise the super profits that can be made by practitioners, one claiming a cost of $1.75 “per patient per remission” for a session costing the patient $80 plus.
An analysis published in Electronics Australia found that one of the devices consisted of a nine-volt battery, some wiring, a switch, a timer and two short lengths of copper tubing which the patient holds to obtain the benefit – components worth about $15. The electric current delivered was so minute as to be almost undetectable, unlikely even to penetrate the skin.
One enthusiastic promoter of the devices is Eilleen Whittaker, a “herbalist, numerologist and astrologer”, who writes for Woman’s Day and frequently appeared on Channel 9’s Midday show. Among her 18,000 patients, she claims to have treated the late Diana, Princess of Wales (“she’s a special Cancerian!”) and Pierce (007) Brosnan and to have cured Kim Basinger’s dog, Bee Bop, of leukaemia. In a magazine article last year, she said she had used a Rife machine, which she believed destroyed cancer cells, on a young Coogee man suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Those who disagree with her include Professor John Dwyer, chairman of the division of medicine at Prince Henry and Prince of Wales hospitals and a long-time campaigner against quack remedies. Last year he obtained a Rife machine and certified that the device was “totally lacking in scientific credibility”. As a result the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission took the manufacturer, Raylight Pty Ltd, to court last month, obtaining an undertaking that the company would no longer claim that its “parasite zapper” could treat HIV, hepatitis, herpes and obesity.
RIFE machines are merely the most controversial of the kaleidoscope of alternative remedies and therapies that is inundating Australia’s suburbia. Check any shopping centre and you will see the shingles of iridologists, acupuncturists, herbalists, experts in ear candling, aura reading and colour healing lamps, analysts of blood cells, hair and stools and a dozen other specialties – the Sydney Yellow Pages lists 200 homeopaths alone, with four colleges and four professional associations.
Some of them, according to surveys by the Herald and the Australian Skeptics, offer no more than commonsense advice on diet and exercise and a handful of expensive but usually harmless pills. Others appear dangerously unqualified, and offer risky treatments with fatal results – the NSW Medical Board recently prosecuted one case in which a man with cancer was persuaded to abandon conventional therapy in favour of kinesiology, a pseudo-science which the board’s registrar, Andrew Dix, said involved “jumping on a trampoline from time to time”. The man subsequently died.
John Foley, a 49-year-old Adelaide Skeptic, decided to put alternative practitioners to the test when he caught chicken pox, one of the most obvious of diseases, in which the body becomes covered in bright red spots. He selected four “accredited” alternative practitioners from the telephone book and, after consultations costing a total of $135, not one of them diagnosed the disease, and one said the spots were the result of childhood sexual abuse. Nevertheless, they dispensed $109 worth of “cures” including carrot cream and “homeopathic water”.
Remedies such as these are no longer tucked away in dusty backstreet herbalists, sought after only by anaemic vegetarians and dotty royals – they have entered the mainstream. Health-food stores, pharmacies, even supermarkets are now in the alternative health-care business in a big way. The first Australian degree course in homeopathy is being taken by more than 200 students at Southern Cross University at Lismore, in northern NSW, and 15 of Australia’s 18 health funds now cover some kinds of alternative care.
In the only detailed Australian study, Associate Professor Alastair MacLennan, of Adelaide University’s department of obstetrics and gynaecology, estimated the industry was worth about $1 billion a year – $620 million on alternative medicines, and $309 million on alternative practitioners.
This was based on 1993 data, however, and MacLennan guesses that business might have doubled since then, making alternative medicines a serious rival to prescription drugs for the first time in the history of modern medicine. Val Johanson, executive director of the new industry organisation, the Complementary Health Care Council, says 61 per cent of Australians use some kind of alternative medicine at least once a year.
Why people are turning back to remedies that were popular a century ago in the pre-antibiotic age – when life expectancy was 20 years shorter than today, and babies six times as likely to die before their first birthday – is a matter of considerable conjecture.
Marcus Blackmore, managing director of Blackmores, the $80 million listed public company founded by his father, which manufactures 600 to 700 of the alternative medicines on the market, is clear on who his customers are: “Everyone thought we were selling these things to mung-bean eaters. The health profession said we were selling to idiots, but actually it turns out they were more educated and more affluent than the average.”
A typical customer, Blackmore says, is a professional woman taking responsibility for her own and her family’s health. “They are driven by a desire to get a greater control of their lives, and they are people for whom orthodox medicine is not delivering on its promise.”
Even he is prepared to concede, however, that of the estimated 14,000 alternative products on the market, only the vitamins, the minerals and about 100 of the herbal concoctions have ever been subjected to the kind of “double blind” scientific trials essential before a prescription drug would be allowed to be sold.
John Dwyer is particularly critical of the alternative medicine industry for its failure to back up its claims in this way, and is puzzled why these remedies should be having such a renaissance. “We live in the most scientific of all ages, when evidence-based medicine should reign supreme,” he says. “Yet people are turning to products, many of which are garbage; they don’t work, they are anti-science.”
Dwyer believes it is partly because people with terminal illnesses will clutch at any straw, partly because busy doctors no longer have as much time to talk with their patients, and partly because “we live in a postmodern age where people are rejecting cold clinical science and looking for a bit of magic and mysticism in their lives”.
Dr Richard Gordon, a medical practitioner who is president of Australian Skeptics, is less kind. The Skeptics have spent years unmasking what they claim to be blatant fraud in the alternative industry, and Gordon says: “As the millennium approaches we are seeing a rise in religious fundamentalism, magic and other superstitions. Many people are looking for alternatives to conventional medicine, and they are cash cows for unscrupulous or deluded practitioners.”
Blackmore agrees that there are a number of cowboys in the industry, particularly those operating pyramid-selling-type operations. “Some of these operators say, `Why not take this? It’s good for your sex life, or your heart’, or whatever. If I said that in a brochure, I’d end up in jail. The industry is more tightly regulated here than in almost any other country, and you are just not allowed to make that sort of claim.”
He is emphatic, however, that it is conventional medicine that poses the gravest threat to public health. “People are not dropping like flies. There have only been two deaths in Australia from complementary medicine, both from [an allergic reaction to] royal jelly – but, according to the Government’s own figures, 18,000 people die every year from pharmaceutical drugs and iatrogenic disease.”
The second figure is not hard to track down – a 1998 study commissioned by Tito’s Review of Professional Indemnity produced this estimate of doctor-caused deaths, half of which it said were preventable. The first figure proved more elusive, because of the lack of research and government reticence about the dangers of alternative medicine.
The government watchdog, the Adverse Drug Reaction Advisory Committee (ADRAC), flatly refused last month to release its data on alternative medicine, or even make an estimate of the proportion of the 10,000 complaints it receives every year that relates to these products. A spokesman said release of the data “would serve no useful purpose”.
This is in stark contrast to the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – in the interests of enabling consumers to make a more informed choice – publishes details of all reports of “adverse events” on its Internet site. A recent search of the popular floral remedy echinacea, for instance, turned up 2,621 reports of “adverse events” ranging from constipation to seizure, stroke, hepatitis and five reports of death.
A linked Web site operated by the US National Council Against Health Fraud reports an upsurge in conditions associated with products most people would assume harmless: hypokalaemia (a blood disorder that can lead to paralysis) from excessive eating of liquorice, insomnia, tremor and headache from ginseng, acute hepatitis from chaparral (creosote bush extract) and two cases of an unusual type of lupus related to the consumption of alfalfa pills.
MacLennan says: “Just because it’s advertised as `natural’ doesn’t mean it can’t harm you. Look at poisonous toadstools.”
A study of ADRAC’s bulletins reveals that in the past three years it has reported adverse reactions to three commonly available “natural” remedies – echinacea (37 reports ranging from breathing difficulties to skin problems and chest pain), kombucha tea and vitamin A.
Kombucha tea (actually a round, grey lump of yeast and bacteria the size of a dinner plate which is fermented in sugared tea and taken as a tonic) was associated with three reports of hepatitis and liver poisoning, and ADRAC warned that it “may be toxic”. ADRAC’s investigation of vitamin A, following the death of a child born deformed after the mother had taken it, found that some capsules contained up to 19 times the recommended daily intake and advised that a warning be placed on the label.
ADRAC’s claim that there are few reported side effects from alternative products or services in Australia appears to be true, however. NSW Health Care Complaints Commission data show that less than 1 per cent of complaints relate to these products, although the commission’s head, Merrilyn Walton, thinks this may be because people do not realise they can complain about them, or are too embarrassed.
Barry Williams, the Skeptics’ executive officer, believes this is because many of the products, such as the much-touted “cure-all” vitamin C, are simply excreted from the body once the daily intake is reached. “Australians have the most expensive excrement in the world, and the fish around the Bondi sewer outlet must be the healthiest,” he says. NOT so long ago, a man with HIV came to see John Dwyer at his hospital clinic. He had been treating himself for several years with a concoction of “natural” remedies, including echinacea and oil from the evening primrose flower.
“It was absolutely tragic,” Dwyer says. “He had developed AIDS and was a respiratory cripple. If he had come to see us earlier, I am absolutely certain that with the use of modern multi-drug therapy the disease would never have progressed to this stage.”
This is the real concern of conventional medical practitioners – not the odd case of a patient turning blue after drinking “colloidal silver”, but people shortening their lives by turning their backs on conventional treatment, which has been shown to work, in favour of remedies supported by no scientifically acceptable evidence. Dwyer goes as far as to say: “There is really no such thing as alternative medicine – there is medicine that works, and medicine that doesn’t.”
And the overwhelming majority of alternative treatments – even apparently commonsense remedies such as high-fibre diets and eating omega-3 fatty acids from fish – are shown to be ineffective on scientific evaluation. Even the ancient art of acupuncture, so mainstream nowadays that one in seven GPs practises it and Medicare reimbursements are running at $17 million a year, has been shown to be useless (apart from relieving pain after dental surgery), says Dwyer – and has caused serious harm, such as puncturing vital organs and transmitting diseases including AIDS.
Dwyer and his colleagues come across cases of mis- diagnosis and bizarre and ineffective treatment almost every day, usually accompanied by claims that the treatment had been suppressed for decades by a medical/pharmaceutical conspiracy.
Once, a distraught woman came to his clinic to show him a videotape of magnified cells in a drop of her blood – she had paid $150 for this test which she had been told showed that she suffered from allergies, liver disease, nutritional deficiencies, a fungus and a parasite, all of which would be “cured” by an extract of black walnuts.
In fact, says Dwyer, cell movements shown in the “live blood analysis” videos – a popular “diagnostic tool” in Sydney alternative clinics – are explained by a natural phenomenon called Brownian motion. In reality, the patient had an anxiety disorder – hardly surprising after such an alarming diagnosis – and was treated by a psychiatrist.
Professor Richard Kefford, director of the Westmead Institute of Cancer Research, estimates that 80 per cent of his patients are on some sort of alternative therapy. Often, he says, they are men who want a bet each way and say: “I know it’s a lot of bulls—, prof, I know it’s garbage, but my wife or my daughter want me to try it.”
Kefford is particularly concerned about cancer patients persuaded to undergo the much-hyped US Gerson diet program, which involves the use of ground coffee enemas which can cause colitis (inflammation of the bowel), fluid and electrolyte imbalances, and in some cases septicaemia. The US FDA has warned against this regime, which is known to have caused at least three deaths.
In Adelaide, MacLennan now makes trebly sure he finds out whether his patients are taking any alternative remedy after one woman being operated on for a hysterectomy almost bled to death on the operating table. She had failed to mention that, on the advice of a friend, she had been taking a mixture of lacto- bacillus (yogurt) and “natural” potions to “build up her strength” for the operation – one of them turned out to be a powerful anticoagulant which nearly caused her death.
On the rare occasions when alternative medicine promoters do attempt some serious science, the results are not always encouraging. Although Blackmore says “you would need a pantechnicon” to carry all the research on vitamin C, and even Dwyer concedes that the jury is still out on products such as anti-oxidants, many other “cures” have failed to live up to their promise.
Take Promensil, a red clover extract developed and launched with much hype in September 1997 by the Australian biotechnology company Novogen Ltd as a “clinically proven supplement for the relief of the symptoms of menopause”. It was Novogen’s first product to be marketed, and the company’s share price was buoyed by sales which last year topped $19 million.
The company sponsored two clinical trials, the results of which were known to it before the launch – but which were not published in a medical journal until earlier this year. Both showed that women on Promensil had no reduction of menopausal symptoms compared with those on a harmless placebo.
Professor John Eden of the University of NSW’s school of obstetrics and gynaecology led one of the research teams and declared in a footnote to the published paper that he had a “conflict of interest” (he was a paid consultant to Novogen as well as a shareholder). He says the trials persuaded him that “there is no evidence it works” and that he does not now recommend Promensil to any of his menopausal patients.
Eden says, however, that the trial was merely a “pilot study” and further research was needed. He says of Novogen: “I was delighted that an Australian company stuck its head out and spent $200,000 [on trials]. I talk to these herbal companies all the time, and most of them are not prepared to spend one cent on research, although they are quite happy to make millions selling [the products].”
He says that trials on dong quai, a “traditional Asian remedy”, evening primrose and wild yam extract had also shown “no significant benefit” in treating menopausal symptoms. “Ninety per cent of the stuff on the market, we’d be better off without,” he says. “It would save people millions, no, billions, of dollars.”
Novogen’s research director, Professor Alan Husband, denies that the trials proved Promensil was ineffective and says it is “scurrilous nonsense” to suggest the product should be taken off the market. He says there was a “design flaw” in both trials, and the company was sponsoring a third, large-scale trial overseas.
Novogen’s public relations firm volunteered the name and telephone numbers of a Northbridge woman, Irene Hunt, who has appeared at press conferences and promotions for Promensil. Hunt says that Promensil did relieve her “absolutely unbelievable” menopausal symptoms – a phenomenon Eden says could be due to the fact that up to 30 per cent of women report feeling better even when taking a placebo.
And then there was the highly publicised case of Lyprinol, an oil extracted from the New Zealand green-lipped mussel, and advertised as recently as last month in the Newcastle Post as a “Cancer hope from the sea. As advertised on TV.” When I read him the advertisement, Jim Broadbent, managing director of Maclab, the small Melbourne family company that produces the mussel extract, exploded: “I feel absolutely outraged … it is a cynical exploitation of cancer sufferers.”
Maclab, he said, had spent 18 years researching the efficacy of Lyprinol, not as a cancer cure but “for the temporary relief of arthritic pain”, a claim Broadbent hopes the Australian regulatory authorities will soon allow him to make. So how did the cancer cure claim come about?
In July, an Adelaide rheumatologist, Dr Henry Betts of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, announced that the hospital had approved a trial of Lyprinol on cancer patients, based on what he said were promising results in the test tube. Before the human trials had even begun, however, Dr Betts told the media: “This is the most exciting discovery of my career. If I was diagnosed with cancer, I would take as much Lyprinol as I could hold down.”
Without Broadbent’s or Betts’s knowledge or consent, a huge public relations and marketing exercise then swung into action across the Tasman in New Zealand, where Dr Betts’s comments were repeated on TV, advertised on an Internet site, and splashed across the front page of the Auckland Weekend Herald under the headline “The Cure For Cancer?”
Thousands of desperate cancer patients lined up in health-food shops and pharmacies, and even stripped New Zealand’s fish shops of every mussel they could find. Before the New Zealand Government forced the local distributor to take it off the market, about $1 million worth of Lyprinol had been sold at $NZ50 ($40) a box, and orders taken for four times as much more.
Meanwhile, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital has been besieged with more than 5,000 people suffering from breast or prostate cancer volunteering for one of the 100 places as guinea pigs in Dr Betts’s trial. The results are not expected to be known for at least two years. “THE authorities have been trying to close me down for years,” boasts Isaac Golden, director of the grandly named Australian College of Hahnemannian Homeopathy, which offers a two-year $2,000 mail-order course from his home in the Victorian country town of Daylesford.
Golden is the bete noire of the Australian public health authorities. He says that in the 15 years he has been operating he has been investigated twice by the NSW Health Department, twice by the Victorian Health Department, and threatened with a $24,000 fine by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Canberra, which is supposed to be the national watchdog of the alternative health industry.
Golden’s most serious crime, in the eyes of the conventional medical establishment, is to advocate that parents not get their children vaccinated against the common childhood diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, mumps and measles. In his self-published book on the subject he quotes with approval a Dr Vera Scheibner, who claims: “Vaccination is the single most prevalent and preventable cause of infant deaths.”
Instead, Golden suggests parents follow his interpretation of the teaching of one Samuel Hahnemann who, during the time of the Napoleonic wars, developed a theory of treating “like with like” involving the use of various plant extracts and nosodes (diseased tissue and products such as pus), diluted many trillions of times, to prevent and cure disease.
For $55 Golden provides a kit containing “homeopathic vaccines” such as a dilute essence of sweet pea which he says will prevent polio. He claims to have treated 900 children in this way with an 89 per cent success rate – although he has not conducted any scientifically acceptable trials “because I don’t have the hundreds of thousands it would cost”.
He also claims that a statement by Dr D. S. Spence, president of the faculty of homeopathy at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, has been misquoted by opponents of his methods. Dr Spence wrote: “We do not have the research data showing the persistence of satisfactory antibody levels after using homeopathic preparations for immunisation, and this is why the advice is to use `conventional’ vaccines if at all possible.”
What concerns the authorities is that by using the “alternative vaccines” that most of Australia’s hundreds of homeopathic practitioners recommend, the immunisation rate will fall, exposing the population to epidemics of preventable disease. In the Hunter region of NSW, for example, it was estimated that immunisation levels had fallen to 80 per cent, leading in 1994 to an outbreak of rubella from which two newborn babies died and seven suffered serious birth defects.
And yet, in spite of the investigations and warnings, Golden continues to promote and practise “homeopathic vaccination” – highlighting the lack of effective regulation which to the medical establishment is the most worrying aspect of all in the alternative medicine boom.
Dwyer, for instance, says: “You have more protection from a used-car salesman than from a quack who says he can cure your cancer or AIDS.” Walton at the HCCC bemoans a lack of resources and “a confusion and fragmentation of approach”. The Medical Board is reluctant to prosecute, even for blatant breaches of the law such as advertising cancer cures, because of the difficulty in getting a conviction.
This leaves the ACCC as the last line of defence. Although it does a valiant job in the most blatant cases – it recently busted a $20 million scam involving a “negative ion mat” said to cure AIDS, relieve constipation and preserve meat for 32 years – it is also overworked and under- resourced.
The Federal Government is setting up a new regulatory system in Canberra – but this, says Johanson, was the result of pressure from the industry and should make it easier, not more difficult, to have alternative medicines approved. Companies still will not be required to provide scientific proof that they actually work.
In the meantime, somewhere in New Zealand’s South Island, a worried doctor waits for news of a little boy he doesn’t believe deserves to die.
Before trying “alternative” health products you can check to see whether any harmful side effects have been reported.
A network of US health professionals runs a huge anti-quack site at www.quackwatch.com
Pub: September 1999
Word count: 3500
Classification: Health/Alternative Medicines
Geographic area: Australia New Zealand
Photography: Jennifer Soo, Quentin Jones
1. Promensil tablets;
2. Promensil packaging;
3. Royal jelly capsules;
4. A Quantum Booster-style device, modelled on the Rife machine, which some claim cures cancer by delivery of an electric current.
1. Royal jelly capsules
2. Eileen Whittaker, a promoter of the Rife machine spin-offs, with Diana, Princess of Wales
3. Royal Raymond Rife in his laboratory.