Hippocrates’ golden rule for healers was to “first, do no harm”. “Natural” doesn’t always mean safe – after all, opium, belladonna and digitalis are all “natural” poisons. We often hear about the dangers of CAM therapies – but are they really so dangerous? What’s being done to protect patients?
We’ve all heard the horror stories: 6-month old Cameron Ayres, who died of a treatable disease because his parents insisted on continuing with homeopathy, despite advice from their therapist to seek urgent medical attention, or the patient with eczema who developed serious liver failure following a course of Chinese herbal medicine. Many alternative therapies are not tested in the same way as pharmaceuticals, and are regulated as food supplements rather than medicines. But how dangerous are they really – how do they compare with orthodox pharmaceuticals? There is certainly very little evidence that many CAMs such as acupuncture, osteopathy or homeopathy are dangerous. To what extent are scares and warnings about CAMs a political weapon used by those with a vested interest to discredit the alternative market? Can doctors really claim that they are unsafe?
We hear from experts at the Committee on the Safety of Medicines about how they monitor the safety of herbal remedies, despite poor reporting systems for adverse effects, and the variable quality of products with the same name. What are the main dangers of CAM therapies – and how can people avoid them? The World Health Organisation Department of Drugs and Policy is so alarmed about the dangers for the public that they are now monitoring safety of CAM following several deaths. There have been calls for much clearer labelling of herbal remedies to allow patients to distinguish between licensed and unlicensed products. We hear practical advice from therapists about side effects, interactions with conventional drugs, and from Professor Michael Baum from UCL about the indirect dangers of homeopathy resulting in delayed diagnoses of, for example, breast cancer. But, as we hear, CAM does not have a monopoly on delayed diagnoses in the NHS they account for nearly a third of all complaints.
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First broadcast: Tuesday 21 Sep 2004 on BBC Radio 4