UK Roundup 23/2/2010

24 02 2010

It’s been rather a good start to the new year with some fresh shoots of sensibility starting to poke their heads above the murky soils of irrationality. In a follow-up to the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee meeting last year (see earlier article) to debate the value of investing taxpayers money into homeopathic treatments, the committee has quite clearly stated that they are a complete waste of time and that there was no scientific evidence that homeopathic remedies work.

Fresh shoots of sensibility at home yesterday

“There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing it is not efficacious,” the committee said. Committee members also said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic medicines to carry medical claims on their labels.

“We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers,” the committee’s report said. “The systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos,” One commentator (Edzard Ernst* in The Guardian) made a very good point regarding placebos “… placebo effects are unreliable and usually short-lived. Moreover, endorsing homeopathic placebos in this way would mean that people may use it for serious, treatable conditions. Furthermore, if we allow the homeopathic industry to sell placebos we should do the same for big pharmaceutical companies – and where would this take us? ”

Pretty damning stuff – it’s great to see such a strong response. It will be interesting to see what happens next in terms of funding but it’s not looking too good for those who wish to see UK taxpayers money spent on magic water – money that could instead be spent on treatments that are shown to be more effective than placebo. The response from the Homeopathic Establishment has been rather muted, probably because other than arguing based on anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect they haven’t really got a leg to stand on. A good result and hopefully one that will draw something of a line under the current debate. There’s a summary of various views here.

Another big issue has also recently seen some welcome resolution, and one that I hope will have some resonance with Kiwis (see Christiaan’s measles article below). Dr. Andrew Wakefield, author of a 1998 article in the Lancet medical journal which linked autism and bowel cancer with the MMR (measels, mumps rubella) vaccine, has been hauled over the coals by the General Medical Council in London which found that he acted irresponsibly and dishonestly in conducting his research. The paper has been withdrawn by the Lancet and Wakefield had also resigned from an autism centre he founded in Texas. The paper caused immeasurable harm as the numbers of children being immunised slumped and vaccinations in general became regarded with suspicion by many. That suspicion will take a long time to dispel but the dismissal of Wakefield’s paper is a huge boost.

So a very positive start to 2010 – now if we can only do something about the new series of Sensing Murder…

* in a not so good postscript, it seems Professor Ernst faces tough times and may have his complementary medicine unit at Exeter University shut down due to lack of funding. This is particularly bad news as he is, as far as I know, the only person who performs proper scientific tests on a range of alternative remedies and confirms or denies their efficacy as per his results, thus providing a very valuable service. More on this as things develop.


UK Roundup 26/11/09

26 11 2009

Looks like Ian (below) beat me to it…more on current UK Homeopathy inquiry.

It would seem that homeopathy in the UK is finally coming under some long-deserved scrutiny. Shockingly the taxpayer funded National Health Service (NHS) has spent around £12million on homeopathic remedies between 2005 and 2008, including funding more than one homeopathic hospital. However, in a move that is sure to shed light onto the treatments dubious claims of efficacy a Commons cross party select committee has been looking into whether the NHS is getting value for money.

Is it too much to ask??

Initial findings are very encouraging with many pointing out that the evidence for homeopathy working in any way better than a placebo just isn’t there. “If the NHS commitment to evidence-based medicine is more than a lip service, then money has to be spent on treatments that are evidence-based, and homeopathy isn’t,” said Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula medical school in Exeter.
It was further pointed out that administering medicines knowing them to be no better than placebo should be regarded as unethical, as you are fundamentally being dishonest with that patient. The best the homeopaths could come back with was the argument from a doctor at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital who said “I practise it because I think it works. I wouldn’t use it … if I thought I was conning the patient,” which is at best pretty weak. In another blow the standards director for major high street pharmacy chain Boots, a major supplier of homeopathic remedies has stated that the chain had no reason to assume the products actually did anything. ‘We just sell them because people want them” he said.
The one sour note in this otherwise positive tale is that the UK government’s recent track record on actually listening to experts in the scientific field is appalling – the last person who told them something they didn’t want to know (after being hired to do just that) got the sack. Dr. David Nutt, a very well respected scientist, publicised his opinion that drug classifications should be rated according to actual harm – lowering cannabis, ecstasy and LSD on the scale and raising alcohol, and was fired by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson. So it would seem that no matter what the experts think the outcome of the debate on homeopathy will depend on political whim. Watch this space for further developments.

In other news there has been a bizarre trend suddenly appearing in the world of Premiership football. Now while the top echelons of the Premier League are no stranger to 19 yr olds crashing their new Maseratis or stumbling out of clubs with their trousers around their ankles, this is something new. Several players who have succumbed to muscle strains or similar injuries have been jetting off to Serbia in the last week to see housewife who claims to cure people with horse placenta. However it seems Marijana Kovacevic’s treatment is not without controversy as now some claim that she uses human placenta that is massaged onto the affected area. The Serbian authorities are not quite so taken with the claims and would very much like to talk to Ms Kovacevic about various tax and licensing issues. Let’s hope it works because as an Arsenal supporter I’d very much like to see our striker Robin Van Persie, one of the Serbian travellers, back asap. However I am not holding my breath.
**Update** great, well now it looks like he’s out for the rest of the season. bah!

And finally great news! All late night TV viewers will remember the truly frightening series of advertisements featuring Aussie spin bowler and serial texter Shane ‘Warnie’ Warne banging on about how Advanced Hair Studio saved his barnet and filled him with youthful vigour. Well not any more because it has been banned in the UK for being misleading.

UK Homeopathy Evidence Check

26 11 2009

Check out the link below for a fascinating discussion about homeopathy featuring Ben Goldcare and Edzard Ernst plus quite a few others.  This discussion is from the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee relating to government expenditure on homeopathy.

It takes the form of a grilling by a committee of two panels of experts.  The wriggling by the proponents of homeopathy is fascinating.

It is ~2 hours long and available streaming here:

There is a transcript here:

UK Roundup 21/10/09

21 10 2009

UK newspapers, notably The Telegraph, are reporting the latest figures released from Allergy UK that apparently claim that 45% of the UK’s population are suffering from food intolerance of one sort or another. I checked Allergy UK’s website but couldn’t find the press release that backed up these claims so I called them and was met by a wall of vagueness. Perhaps they are just tardy in updating their website… Assuming that the release is genuine it seems an extraordinarily high figure. Unfortunately The Telegraph only features quotes from people with a vested interest in food intolerances; an author with a book on the subject, one doctor from a company that sells intolerance testing kits and another from a company making food suitable for people with intolerance. They come out with the usual claims such as ‘A big part of the problem is that we are assaulting our children with chemicals because the food that we are feeding them isn’t real anymore, it’s just a bunch of food additives, flavourings and colourings’ and ‘if people are eating foods straight out of a chemical laboratory then diabetes and obesity, heart disease and cancer will be a result of these intolerances’.

Not For Me, Thanks

Not For Me, Thanks

Well apart from the fact that in fact everything is “chemicals” I’m pretty sure it’s quite possible to provide for your family without ‘assaulting’ your children. I’m firmly of the opinion that while there are obviously people with serious allergies, a great number (not all) of those who claim ‘intolerances’ are jumping on the bandwagon because it’s very easy to attribute various vague symptoms to food intolerance. I’ll keep an eye out to see if the Allergy UK figures are released on their site.

In other news the Pope has upset the Church of England by announcing that he will issue an apostolic constitution, a form of papal decree, that will lead to the creation of “personal ordinariates” (whatever they are) for Anglicans who convert to Rome. This effectively means that all those in the C of E who are against female priests and homosexuals can escape to Catholicism. Sound like a complete fudge to me but it’s amusing to watch the churches going at it while trying to appear pious at the same time. Meanwhile at the same time as some of the bones of St Therese are being toured around the country, no doubt performing miracles left right and centre, Jesus has appeared on a toilet wall in Glasgow.I’ll say this much for religion – it’s certainly entertaining.

UPDATE: I called Allergy UK and found one extremely woolly article on their site based entirely on anecdotal evidence. You can find it here look under ‘Stolen Lives Five’ report. There’s also a thread I started over on Bad Science here which has some interesting input. I emailed Allergy UK to see where they get their figures from but no response. I am not holding my breath.

Lose No Weight and Lots of Money with Acai Berries

15 08 2009

acaiforcemax 2For those you who have a Facebook account, you may have noticed the advertisements that regularly pop up on the right side of the screen. Now I understand that Facebook is a business and that an important way of making money for the company is through advertising. However some of the ads that regularly feature are not just lame, but have the elements of a scam.

Specifically there are those ads that entice you in with the prospect of turning that keg into a six pack with minimal effort and a short timeframe. Such ads I have encountered have included are Dave’s Personal Blog and Getting Your Six Pack. While at a glance they appear to be different from each other, there are a large number of similarities between the two sites including in the layout and language used. In particular the endorsements received from members of the public are identical – right down the usernames and dates that the comments were posted. On the face of it looks like these guys who run these sites have been sucked into a multi-level marketing scam, until you click any one of the links and they lead to one website – I suspect that these websites are actually sockpuppets for

The websites provide the typical anecdote of the Joe Bloggs who obtains an incredible physique through the consumption of Acai berry fruit juice – the most recent fad in pseudo-nutritional supplements. There is no evidence for its efficacy as assisting with weight loss – nor for the range of other claims made for it such as cleansing colons (which is a scam in itself) and enhancing ones sexual prowess. Check out the Skeptic Doc’s blog entry on acai berries and what is interesting is that there is a range of other exotic items such as blueberry juice, grape juice, and red wine that have more anti-oxidants than acai juice.

However, if a person wants to part with their hard earned money for another useless supplement then go ahead – knock yourself out. What is more concerning is the deceptive techniques that many of these online companies use to trick people into subscribing for expensive products – and what you will find is that by signing up to one of the free trials of acai berries will mean that you will lose a lot more than a few kilos.

Lets take, a website where whoever has registered the domain has gone to some lengths to protect themselves from identification. The free trial is aggressively pushed in the website and hey – if they are giving it away is there any harm in trying? As they make it clear that there are only limited supplies one better quickly work their way through the process to get their free trial. The first step is to take their test to see if you qualify. I decided to misrepresent myself as a 137cm tall, 72 year old Munchkin whose goal was to move from being 115kg to 160kg and strangely enough I qualified for a free trial!

acaiforcemax 7You then need to provide them with a range of personal information including an e-mail address (bring on the acai berry spam) and the only cost involved is a US$4.95 postage fee for the free acai berries and guess what? You also are entitled to become a member of their Elite Customer Club.

The membership of this club means that you are also billed US$79.95 for the acai berry supply (that you have not asked for) and you also obtain access to their World Club Fitness and Weight Loss Resources for a meagre US$6.95 and US$8.95 per month. So in total this “free trial” will set you back US$100.80 (NZ$148) per month. You only need to Google the terms ‘acai berry scam’ to see the number of people who have fallen for this scam and find themselves jumping through numerous hoops to get the payments stopped.

My advice is that if something is marketed as free on the Internet it will be too good to be true.

UK Roundup 6/08/09

6 08 2009

London homeopathy purveyors Ainsworths have incurred the wrath of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for selling a remedy known as ‘Swine Flu Formula’. The company claims their pills ‘override the symptoms’ of Swine Flu. This is compounded by the fact that the company has a royal warrant, which means it apparently sells its goods to members of the royal family – no prizes for guessing which ones. The MHRA is investigating the company and I could find no mention of the product on their website, which is well worth looking at. What did disturb me was that you can quite happily order whichever remedy you want on their site without any sort of check, which would seem incredibly dangerous (presuming that they actually contained something other than water of course).

In light of the recent furore over the research by the Food Standards Agency stating that organic food has no better nutritional content than ‘normal’ food (see article below) the head of the Whole Foods chain here has said indeed the shops sell ‘ a bunch of junk’ (he’s American). What effect this has on sales remains to be seen.

A Degree - Why earn one when you can just make your own?

A Degree - Why earn one when you can just make your own?

And in a shock revelation that will surprise pretty much no-one, it has been revealed that L Ron Hubbard’s claim to have been awarded a PhD was a complete fabrication. The British consulate investigated Hubbard in the 1970’s because they were concerned about the possibility of a libel case after they banned Scientologists from entering the country in 1968. Subsequent investigations found Hubbard and his cronies had created a fake entity, Sequoia University, and promptly awarded each other degrees. The ‘university’ had never been accredited by the state and it fact didn’t even have any premises. The story has made the papers now as the Times have managed to obtain classified Health Department documents under the Freedom of Information Act. No response from Tom Cruise as yet.

Some Chemicals With Your Lettuce Sir?

30 07 2009
Organic Pig...or is it?

Organic Pig...or is it?

Here in the UK organic food has become quite a major money spinner, with most large supermarket chains offering organic options. For example if I pop into my local Sainsburys I can buy the standard issue tomato for say £1.78 per kg, or buy the organic range ones for quite a bit more. There are also shops that specialise in organic produce where I could, if was substantially richer or insane, buy a single avocado for £1.80 ($4.50).

Today the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) released a report , which took the form of a ‘systematic review of literature’, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). LSHTM’s team of researchers, reviewed all papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food. This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date (according to the FSA). The conclusion it reached was that “organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food “.

This set off something of a firestorm in the newspapers comments section which brought up some very good points.

1)Just exactly what is organic food anyway?
To me the term has always been very woolly, conjuring up visions of hardy smock-wearing individuals toiling in the fields whilst chewing on barley stalks. I assumed it meant that no ‘artificial’ pesticides or fertiliser had been used on crops and no hormones, antibiotics, moisturising cream etc administered to animals. But what is an artificial fertiliser? I can use crop rotation and plant lupins or some other nitrogen fixing plant one year to fertilise the soil, but why not just bung on some nitrogen fertiliser and grow more food crops instead? Does that make me non-organic? Which brings me onto the next point…
2)Who defines what organic food is?
Here in the UK it is in fact the European Union which has set down a Compendium of UK Organic Standards. Farmers who want to label their produce must adhere to the standards and be certified by a Government approved body such as the Soil Association. The UK Soil Association does have an attempt at defining organic on their website saying that ‘artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited’ (so nitrogen fertiliser is out) in preference of clover crop rotation. However they also say that pesticides are ‘severely restricted’ (ie not banned) although it seems OK to use copper sulphate as a fungicide.

It was interesting to see the polarising effect of this study, which divided people mainly into two camps. One side was more or less along the lines of ‘I don’t want to put chemicals into my body so therefore organic is better’ while the others were put off by the expense and lack of clarity over exactly what the supposed benefits were, assuming nutrition is not one of them. Clearly modern farming practise has greatly increased food production, which presumably is a good thing.

Unfortunately the effects of fertiliser/pesticide or agricultural practises on the environment were outside the remit of this report. I think a most people do take the overall environmental impact into consideration when buying organic and although I haven’t seen any studies it seems to me quite obvious that they can have an impact – look at the problems with the Rotorua Lakes or Mad Cow disease (BSE) for example. Certainly when it comes to animal welfare and to an extent GMO crops I would tend to be on the side of ‘organic’.
However I think the study is useful in order to show those who run a mile at the word ‘chemical’ that in fact their $2 carrot and my 20c one aren’t actually as different as they may think.