UPDATED 4 TIMES: An open invitation to the ‘alternative’ medicine community: comment on Matthias Rath’s tactics

While a number of sources have commented on Matthias Rath‘s now-dropped libel case against the Guardian and Ben Goldacre – links are here – I am surprised to see that the ‘alternative’ medicine community seems to have remained silent on this*. Nutritionists such as John Briffa and Patrick Holford regularly cover stories about the evils of big pharma**, while organisations like the Society of Homeopaths often comment on media coverage of medicine and health. Oddly, though, there seems to be silence on the recent coverage of Rath’s shocking activities.

So – we’re issuing an invitation here. If anyone in the ‘alternative’ medicine community would like to speak out about Rath’s activities, we’ll be pleased to link to it. Clearly, many of those working in ‘alternative medicine care deeply about their patients and about public health – and we need people to people challenge the type of horribly damaging activities that Rath has been involved in.

It is important that such challenges come from those working in ‘alternative’ medicine, as well as from blogs like this. Many people dislike what we do – to the extent that they will not trust what we say – whereas they would be more sympathetic comments from ‘alternative’ practitioners and advocates.

So – please do comment.

UPDATE: The ‘Alliance for Natural Health’ (ANH) have now commented on this. This is a truly, truly shameful response on behalf of the ‘alternative’ health industry: trying to reduce serious disagreements on matters of life and death (sadly, many deaths) to “public jibing”. Goldacre’s views are misrepresented***, and the article fails to criticise – or even mention – Rath’s involvement in unforgivable attempts to persuade people with AIDS to abandon effective anti-retroviral medication.

The ANH fail even to be consistently pathetic on this issue. They are critical of how

The dichotomy between complementary & alternative medicine (CAM) and orthodox/allopathic healthcare approaches has led to increased vilification of protagonists of each approach

Rath has, of course, made many noble attempts to move past the ‘allopathy/CAM dichotomy’. For example, his involvement in a 14/6/2003 complaint to the International Criminal Court in the Hague was clearly a brave attempt at building harmony between the two camps. In what is obviously an attempt to build constructive integrative working relationships, Rath accuses a large number of people (including many who have done good work in the field of HIV/AIDS) of

the greatest crimes ever committed in the course of human history. The accused are charged with causing injury to and the death of millions of people through the ‘business with disease’, war crimes and other crimes against humanity. These crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Do the ‘Alliance for Natural Health’ really represent ‘alternative medicine? If any of those in the field disagree, I would still be delighted to hear from you here. Surely the many well-meaning people in the ‘alternative’ medicine industry will not allow this to stand as the industry position on this issue?

UPDATE 2: JDC’s excellent blog has sought and reproduced a response from the nutritional therapy body BANT. Sadly, though, BANT states that they have “no opinion to offer on Dr Raths vitamin trials”. Does this lack of opinion represent the position of BANT’s nutritional therapist members?

UPDATE 3: Dr Aust has also posted to ask about the silence of most of those in ‘alternative’ medicine, and especially the nutritionists. Dr Aust hopes they will speak out, but for the moment

Instead, what we have is silence…A whole lot of silence…Let’s hope the nutritional therapists in particular are using this silence to take a long, hard, look at themselves.

UPDATE 4: while the ‘alternative’ silence about Rath continues, I was horrified to learn that the Dr Rath Health Foundation is one of the organisations participating in a European Social Forum (ESF) workshop on “Health – the natural way” (along with a number of what look – insofar as I can figure out with my poor language skills – like broadly ‘alternative’ organisations). The ESF is an annual gathering of many Global Justice Movements – which makes it particularly disgusting that they are allowing the Dr Rath Health Foundation to participate in a workshop, despite Rath’s despicable tactics in South Africa. To make matters worse, it appears that the ESF charges organisations to attend – so it seems that they are accepting money from the Dr Rath Foundation.

I’m not sure what to say. How can working with the Dr Rath Health Foundation – after we have seen the unnecessary death of countless South Africans – fit in with a ‘global justice’ agenda?

At the ESF in London in 2004, there were loud protests about that well-known capitalist pig-dog Ken Livingstone (the Socialist mayor of London) speaking at the event. So, what will happen about the Dr Rath Health Foundation? Given Rath’s particularly unpleasant deployment of capitalism – encouraging South Africans to abandon effective anti-retroviral medication in favour of vitamin pills, while also selling vitamin pills – will the Dr Rath Health Foundation be challenged at ESF? Or will they be allowed to promote their message unchallenged?

The seminar is at 21/9/08, 9:30-12:30, Folkets hus Nobeltorget, Biblioteket. If anyone is at the ESF, you might like to attend and raise some questions. And, please, we would be very interested to know what happens at the workshop.

* I would be delighted to be proved wrong – if I have missed any links, articles etc., tell me and I’ll add them into the post.

** I’m happy to acknowledge that many of the things that big pharma does are evil. For example, pharma’s attempts to deny South Africans access to cheap anti-retroviral drugs are unforgivable.

*** The article also refers to ‘Goldacre’ and ‘Dr Rath’: given that both are doctors, this seems somewhat petty. And, no, I’m not proud that I notice these things.



Filed under alternative medicine, Holford, Matthias Rath, patrick holford

15 responses to “UPDATED 4 TIMES: An open invitation to the ‘alternative’ medicine community: comment on Matthias Rath’s tactics

  1. Sally

    I read about Rath in Saturday Guardian, and felt both appalled and pleased. Appalled that someone is hawking vitamin tablets around and telling people they don’t need the HIV drugs. Pleased that Goldacre wrote it up, that the Guardian fought his corner and won.
    I work in the complimentary field and feel ashamed that people like Rath (why is it so often the high profile one’s who turn out to be utterly avaricious and irresponsible?) get away with it. They tarnish us all with their brush.

  2. Sally, thanks for replying. Yes – it’s also disappointing that there tends to be so little criticism of figures such as Rath from the main representative organisation, journals, media outlets, spokespeople etc. in the field of ‘alternative’ medicine. It must be very frustrating for more responsible, lower-profile individuals working in the field.

  3. Wulfstan

    Even the WHO recognises this, hence its Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which was launched at the World Health Assembly in 2004. Quoting from the Assembly’s report from that year, “…..in most countries, a few major risk factors account for much of the morbidity and mortality. For noncommunicable diseases, the most important risks included high blood pressure, high concentrations of cholesterol in the blood, inadequate intake of fruit and vegetables, overweight or obesity, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Five of these risk factors are closely related to diet and physical activity.”

    Just me or can anyone else understand ANH in this sentence? In situ it seems to be saying that the WHO is recognising their distinction between the fluffy supplements industry or the pharma supplements industry. But WHO seems to be reiterating is that for noncommunicable diseases, lifestyle factors are important.

    I am waiting for Cliff Richard and his Motley Crue of Supplement Wolfers to start giving their full-throated support to the Alliance of Natural Health on this issue.

  4. Bravo Sally for speaking up. It would be great hear something similar from some of the CAM professional bodies.


  5. Wulfstan- I know, that whole ANH piece was shocking. I won’t know what to think about the situation, though, until I hear Cliff Richard’s considered scientific opinion.

    Steve- yes, it would be good to here from associations in the ‘alternative’ medicine field. I’ve updated the post to note BANT’s non-opinion on the issue, but the ‘alternative’ industry isn’t exactly covering themselves in glory here.

  6. Yeees….

    (to adopt a Paxman-ism)

    You would imagine it would be pretty easy for the Altmed associations to generate a basic statement about:

    “Practitioners should practise within their field of competence, claims should be based on practise and evidence, claims about potentially deadly conditions should not overstate etc etc …”as it appears Dr Rath’s companies may have done” …claims should be subject to testing and open debate, the law of libel is rarely, if ever, an appropriate way to stifle discussion of the veracity of such claims. ”

    Worded like that they wouldn’t even have to be directly nasty about their tarnished hero.

    Anyway, I could crank out a statement like this in 20 minutes. So why can’t they?

  7. So many canards in that ANH piece. It is a real disgrace that haven’t condemned it. Did they read the bit about people dying?

  8. The ANH reckons that people have some kind of suppressed rage about natural healthcare and that’s what this is all about? And there’s so much more on the same lines in that piece.

    “And of course, where these solutions are natural, will Ben Goldcare—and his supporters—allow themselves to accept them?”
    Well, Ben Goldacre and pretty much every sceptic author I’ve ever read on the subject – whether Richard Dawkins in his essays or David Colquhoun on his blog, or whoever – has said something on the lines of “if it works it’s stops being alternative medicine and simply becomes medicine” [particularly Dawkins and Diamond in Snake Oil, obv.] It’s so easy to cast aspersions by just asking questions like this one.

    That whole response is just full of straw men, mudslinging and the occasional chunk of truth (usually completely irrelevant to whatever point they are making). If this is the best that the food supplements industry can manage…


  9. Godd post. Truely shameful response from the ANH. I’ve been discussing some points off and on with their Medical Director (Damien Downing). He seems to be a little reasonable, though it looks like he might (apologies Damien if you read this and haven’t) have walked away from the debate without correcting published ANH statements he has conceded are wrong (an attack on Ernst and, predictably, Shang).

    I just don’t see any real desire to engage with the facts and be self-critical (as the excellent JDC325 has been pointing out.)

  10. The ANH response really is a shocker isn’t it. Truly breathtaking – they would have been FAR better off saying nothing.

    Something along the lines of what jdc suggests would have been so much easier and wiser.

  11. Yes, the ANH piece is shocking. As JDC points out, the focus on the supposed “pent up anger that some sectors of the population have for the natural health sector” is pathetic.

    I think natural healthcare is fine. Healthy lifestyle – regular exercise, sensible diet, not smoking, avoiding problematic use of legal and illegal drugs, etc. – is a perfectly sensible idea. I’m delighted that people can choose to buy treatments like massage, so long as practitioners don’t over-exaggerate the benefits.

    On the other hand, the fact that obscene numbers of people are dead – in South Africa and elsewhere – because they were not able to use effective AIDS medication does make me angry. As does the role that Rath – and others in the ‘alternative’ medicine industry – have played in this. That anger is entirely reasonable, and not something to apologise for.

  12. Wulfstan

    I find the ANH’s statement ludicrous but I was telling someone about it and they asked me if I would have altered my opinion of them if they had issued a more sensible response. On balance, ANH being sensible about this would not have modified my opinion of the stupidity of their response to the Cochrane review. I would guess that they don’t care that it might otherwise have slightly improved my feelings towards them and if they were playing to the audience that likes them, then this was, on balance, the appropriate response for that audience.

    If the ANH is catering to an audience of people who believe that medicine is little more than an elaborate deception that is grounded in the ‘fallacy of the germ theory’ then this was a response for them and not a wider audience.

    As for “natural healthcare”, I’m sure that some people here have expressed a fondness for Jerome K Jerome so I make no apologies for posting one of my all time favourite prescriptions from Three Men in a Boat:

    After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription, and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.

    I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist’s, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back.

    He said he didn’t keep it.

    I said:

    “You are a chemist?”

    He said:

    “I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.”

    I read the prescription. It ran:

    “1 lb. beefsteak, with
    1 pt. bitter beer
    every 6 hours.
    1 ten-mile walk every morning.
    1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
    And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”
    I followed the directions, with the happy result – speaking for myself – that my life was preserved, and is still going on.

  13. A better response from the ANH may not have (after their dismal response to Cochrane, etc.) done much to increase my confidence in their science. However, it would have improved my opinion of their ethics and politics.

  14. The ANH rely on the psychology that it might be difficult to see them for what they actually are: an industry funded PR and lobby group. They are no different to similar groups that were set up for the tobacco, asbestos and nuclear ‘evil’ industries with a mission to spread doubt and confusion over scientific findings. Because the ANH work in a world where the rhetoric is all about ‘naturalness’ and ‘health’ then they can quite easily be seen as something that they are not.

    The Rath Foundation is a supporter of the ANH and undoubtedly a funder too. We should not be surprised that they issue press releases that seek to confuse and dissemble over a clear cut issues.

  15. Claire

    @ Andy’s post, this week’s NS has an article by the author of a book on bogus scepticism . Though it looks like the “HIV causes AIDS” deniers have arrived in the comments.

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