Opinion: Homeopathy and depression

Here’s the thing. When you suggest people use homeopathy for depression, what you’re saying to them is, there’s nothing we can do. You’re telling people that are already in need of help, that they’re helpless.

Homeopathy is basically giving up. Like with the recent Ebola outbreak, homeopaths and its fans, have been saying, “try homeopathy, because allopathic medicine doesn’t have a cure.” Yeah, we know, but unlike homeopaths that isn’t good enough. Researchers are actually working on vaccines, treatments and cures. They haven’t wiped their collective hands together and gone, “Fuck it. This is hard. I think we should just give up and use a disproved hypothesis.”

Science knows it hasn’t got all the answers yet. That’s why we still have science!

Here’s another thing. Homeopaths are, in my experience, shit hot with their clients. They spend one or two hours with them sometimes. This isn’t placebo, this is counselling. Of course their clients feel subjectively better, they have the time that any GP worth their salt would give their arm and a leg for. But it’s not the homeopathy, it’s the inadvertent counselling they provide. Homeopathy cheapens your experience; reducing it to a sugar pill, while putting no weight on the beneficial effects that talking to someone can have.

But if you need to speak to someone about depression you shouldn’t go to a homeopath. Go to your doctor first. The NHS has previsions for this and they’re cheaper by the hour than a lot of homeopaths.

As with many people, my life has been touched by depression and suicide. It’s no joke and there’s no “one size fits all” solution. But there is help out there. Real help.

Being told to try homeopathy is being told to give up. Seeing a homeopath is at least the step towards talking to someone about your depression. Once you’ve made that decision see your GP or phone the Samaritans or speak to MIND, instead. I’ve named a couple, but there are many.

At least they won’t sell you false hope.

Homeopathy for Homosexuality

Homeopathy for Rape?

An Update: The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority), Trading Standards and Tearless Teething (www.tearlessteething.com)

The ASA have today released their rulings regarding Tearless Teething’s website.

Tearless Teething sell hazelwood necklaces and bracelets that, according to them, remove the acidity (“toxins”) from the baby or toddlers body, that are apparently produced during teething. This has the business savvy side effect of meaning you have to replace the product every three or so months because the product is “full” of the toxins caused by teething.


I initially wrote about these products back in May 2013, so I’ll summarise my main issues. It wasn’t just the unscientific nonsense about this product that bothered me. While, as a reasonable and rational person, I find these claims indefensible, I can accept that their claims were unlikely to lead to actual direct harm to children, in the case of these specific products. Clay Jones, over at Science Based Medicine, has written a good general overview of teething and some teething products that is well worth a read. His piece demonstrates that some teething products can cause direct harm.

Trading Standards

My main, initial concern was the product itself. The website suggested that children could wear this from birth. That they could wear it at night. This really worried me. At the time my niece was wearing one of these. (I can’t fully explain how frustrating I find it that my sister, a usually sensible and rational human, buys into this nonsense. I guess it only goes to show how a seemingly magic cure is music to the ears of a frustrated parent.)

In private correspondence with Justine, the proprietor of Tearless Teething, I explained my concerns about both the claims made and the safety of the product. I think we may have gone over this again in the comments section on the other blog post, too. Anyway, she assured me that the clasp on the product was secure enough that a child couldn’t break it off. I have two children, one and three, who are strong enough to pull door handles off! I explained that either;

1. It was strong enough to not break and there was a risk of strangulation. Or;

2. It wasn’t strong enough and was a chocking hazard.

It’s really that simple. Children will literally put anything in their mouths that fits. Anything. The crazy thing about hazel wood is that it’s a wood that is known to flake and chip, too! Their website even says in the FAQ section,

“It’s normal for the wood to peel after a while. It’s a natural factor. We have no control over that.”

I, of course, felt duty bound to contact Trading Standards and the Advertising Standards Authority.

Well, there’s good news, more good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good.

Good News – Trading Standards

Since contacting Trading standards the Tearless Teething website has been updated in exactly one way. And it’s a step in the right direction. On the “buy now” page the follow has been added, in nice red font:

“According to EU Toy safety regulations EN-71-1 our necklaces are not suitable to use as Toys for children under 36 months.
Our necklaces and are not toys, please do not allow your children to play with or chew on them. Our children’s jewellery must be worn under adult supervision.”

This is fantastic to see! It’s pleasing to see this company FINALLY applying some legal understanding towards product safety. You know, they could have bothered to remove this line from their FAQ section:

“If you are not comfortable with your baby wearing the necklace at night, another option would be to wrap it around baby’s ankle so they are still getting the benefit of the Hazelwood against their skin. However excessive removal may result in the weakening of the safety clasp.”

But the EU toy warning does make it quite clear to perspective customers that you really shouldn’t be leaving your kids alone with this product. I don’t even know how to deal with the comment about the “weakening of the safety clasp.” Sometimes you just have to shake your head and carry on.

More good news – The ASA

The ASA upheld all four sections of the compliant we made. I say “we” because I wasn’t near a computer at the time, so I asked Shaun Sellars, my friend and co-blogging buddy, to submit it for me (thanks Shaun!)

You can read the full compliant here on the ASA website. They four areas addressed by the complaint were:

An internet user challenged whether the following claims were misleading and could be substantiated:

1. “Acidity imbalance in the body is thought to be a main player in certain medical conditions and connected to teething symptoms”;

2. “… the Hazelwood products have also shown to be helpful with the general well being of the digestive system and certain skin irritations.”;

3. “[The native [sic] Americans] … put Hazelwood Chips on their babies’ neck it would soothe teething pains”; and

4.”Tearless Teething reintroduced this old remedial way to holistic healing in the form of their necklaces and other products to help not only the babies but to take advantage of the natural benefits of the Hazelwood, not only for the infants but the whole family”.

The reason it’s taken so long for this ruling is due to the seemingly never diminishing fairness of the ASA. They received repeated assurances, as Justine had with me, that the evidence to support the claims would be forthcoming. So they waited… and waited… and waited. They contacted her on a couple of occasions and were always reassured that the claims could be substantiated. Nothing came.

I expect it’ll be a long wait before the evidence presents itself.

Bad news

Well, I have to end on a positive note, right? The bad news is the website remains unchanged. Go and have a look for yourself. It’s a great pity the ASA doesn’t have the full legal weight I think it needs. The ASA of New Zealand does and splendid people like Mark Hanna has had great success with similar advertising issues ‘down under.’ Mark’s website, Honest Universe, is a good example of using the rules and laws already in existence to keep misleading claims and advertising in check.

If you want to do something about this, then you can contact Tearless Teething directly and express your concerns about their website. You should remind them of the ASA ruling and suggest how responsible businesses should run. If you live near where the company is based in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, then you might like to contact the local press. If you’re still concerned about the inconsistencies across the website regarding when you should wear the products, despite the EU warning, then you should contact your local trading standards team.

You can take my word for it that I have.

Why I’m still skeptical that there’s a “big cat” loose on the Herts & Essex boarder.

I’d like to address a topic that’s now come up a number of times recently in the local area. Namely “Big Cat” sightings.

This is a copy of my article in the Herts & Essex Observer about an alleged big cat/panther sighting from 21st March 2014. I’ve reproduced it here because yet another story has appeared, this time from a 73 year old man and wife saying they saw a big cat in the area. I’ll address some specific points to this case at the end.

LAST week’s Observer front cover story made for tantalising and terrifying reading. “Is this a panther at large?” the headline asked, with a full-page image of a mysterious, long-tailed creature.

Was this the mysterious panther that people claim to have seen on the Hertfordshire-Essex border over the last decade or so?

It seems not. It appears to have been a local dog, now identified by the daughter of the owners of the field as a fairly regular visitor. The reaction, or lack of, by the horse and goat seems quite likely due to their familiarity with the hound in question.

It’s always important to be sceptical of these sightings, whether they’re accompanied by photos or videos, or not. People have been known to fake pictures for fun or attention, although I’m not suggesting that Lynn* Lacey did that here.

Soon after the camera had become affordable to the average household, hoaxes began to appear. The Cottingley Fairies in 1917 is a fine example of this, which had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for penning Sherlock Holmes, utterly convinced in the existence of fairies.

We should always be careful to use logic and evaluate plausibility when sightings of big cats or unfamiliar creatures are reported.

A zoologist would tell you that a big cat, like a puma or cheetah, would probably survive for only 15-20 years in the wild. Any animal supposedly released after the tightening of restrictions under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 would have long since died in the early 1990s. I’ve never heard reliable evidence that people did release their big cats into the wild, anyway; most went to zoos or were, sadly, put to sleep.

Even if hundreds were released, they would have to be of opposite gender, of the same species, find each other, like each other, breed and then raise a cub to an age where it could fend for itself. All this while also not killing any food, being caught, being properly photographed or recorded and leaving their remains upon death.

You’ll forgive me for not worrying too much about the Essex Panther or any subsequent blurry sightings. Let’s see some real scientific evidence before we go scaring the locals and whipping up a panic. If I see anything in the garden, I’ll be sure to lasso it with my daughter’s skipping rope!

I have a few specific issues with this new story that add more to the implausibility on the balance of probabilities, rather than being specific logical certainties.

I think my first and probably main concern is the couples familiarity with the area. They are said to be “visiting the village for a family barbecue” which makes me wonder how well they would be able to scale their surroundings. This is a significant deficit that is inherent to nearly all people. We scale things based on our prior knowledge about the sizes of objects. If something isn’t all that familiar, we’re more likely to make sizing guess errors. I’ll give you a very simple example, just to make a point.


The red lines are the same length, but our brains can’t help but add depth to the image that doesn’t exist.

Of course the evolutionary advantage to this bias is fairly obvious. The person that sees an animal and assumes it to be a small cat only needs to be wrong once before getting eaten! The person who sees a small cat and assumes it’s a big cat (and a threat) will likely run and survive another day. We have a constant battle to override our evolutionary biases and we make a lot of judgement errors along the way. If you add in the element of speed; the detail that he was driving and it makes these mistakes more likely.

The size of the creature is also a little bit confusing. Apparently the big cat in question was “the size of a rottweiler, beautifully shiny black, with a big long tail and a bit of underbelly,” said William.” Well, apparently William is unfamiliar with a bread of animal that has a long tail, is shiny black, has a bit of underbelly and is the size of a Rottweiler. It’s a Rottweiler! Or a mix. Possibly a Labrador mix as in the photo below.


Different dog mixes have different facial shapes, tail lengths and fur colours. It would be an easy mistake to make.

I’m not too sure if I should touch on the age of the couple, so I’ll err on the side of not. In general increased age can cause worsening judgements. But I don’t know anything about this man or his wife, so it would be unfair and unnecessary to speculate. I say unnecessary because this would be a simple mistake for anyone of any age to make.

On a personal note I find Michael’s writing of this new article a little bit frustrating. I understand the nature of a local paper and that website visits drive advertising and profit. But he didn’t really need to cite Lynn’s photo as evidence because I already found out that it was a dog, making its inclusion completely irrelevant. Writing the details of the account is significantly more acceptable than presenting a less than wholly honest view of the “evidence” as it stands.

I would say misidentification is the most likely issue here, rather than a size attribution error. But either way it’s fairly unlikely to be a panther/big cat.

There is of course a fairly easy way to shift the balance of probabilities: some actual, testable, verifiable evidence. A legitimately caught specimen would be a fairly solid evidence! I’ve never said that there aren’t big cats in the wilds of Herts or Essex, just that it’s extremely improbable. An extremely improbable claim would need some extremely convincing evidence. As of yet no good, let alone convincing evidence, has been presented. I hold no “belief” either way (as has previously been suggested) and my reasoning wouldn’t change if hundreds were to be discovered. The evidence would change, not the process or logical reasoning behind my skepticism.

No doubt they’ll be more stories like this in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few come out over the next week or so as it plays on people’s minds. It doesn’t take much for people to start seeing things when they’re primed to see them.

(Note: the * marks a spelling correction of Lynn’s name in the article on the paper’s site. Oddly, it was edited in to the story. The copy I sent to the paper had spelt her name correctly as “Lynn.”
I also didn’t choose the title of the article, “Cheetah or cheater?” which I still feel suggests that there was deliberate fakery at hand. I’ve never suggested this, nor do I think it’s fair to make this assumption.)

World Homeopathy Awareness Week – My dad, prostate cancer and homeopathy

A few years ago my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

He was lucky that his cancer was detected very early. It was picked up after having blood work done for a job that required him to be in good physical shape. He’d not felt or seen any symptoms, whatsoever.

Yesterday, my dad told me that he’d looked into homeopathy as a treatment. My dad is a smart and fairly well reasoned man and gladly he realised that diluting something to the point that no active ingredient exists is at best ridiculous.

It was a timely reminder that homeopathy is considered and used by people to treat not just colds and toothache, but life effecting and ending conditions.

This week (10-16th April) is World Homeopathy Awareness Week. I implore you to make yourself aware of homeopathy, so you can make the sensible choices when you hear about a family member using of thinking about it.

You try to protect your friends and family from nonsense, but you can’t always succeed. All you can do is offer the information in a calm and rational way.

Please have a read through this site to that you can protect and inform a friend or family member should this ever come up in conversation about their health.

The Good Thinking Society – World Homeopathy Awareness Week

P.s. My dad has fully recovered and has suffered no side effects from the disease as a result of standard treatment.

Christians make better lovers! – The ASA rule on tube adverts

Back on 16th January I spotted a photo that Giles Wendes added to Facebook. The picture was a photo of an advert on a London Underground train. Here’s the artwork from the photo:

he slogan Christians make better lovers fills three quarters of the advert and the last quarter has a link to the site and a strapline about Christians believing in love and it being in their code

The ads has also received a fair bit of national press, including The Telegraph, London Evening Standard and others.

Someone on the thread (might have been Giles) wondered if the claim was worthy of review by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I tended to agree that a response maybe interesting. While I generally don’t give a toss what Christians believe so long as it’s non intrusive and doesn’t effect educational standards in schools, I was curious as to how the ASA would reach a decision.

This is their response in full:

Dear Mr James

Widernet Communications Ltd t/a Christian Connection

As you know, we’ve been considering your complaint about this ad.

We consider cases relating to harm and offence very seriously and in this case, we submitted the ad to the ASA Council for their decision. The ASA Council has considered the ad and your complaint but didn’t think there were sufficient grounds for us to intervene on this occasion.

While Council acknowledged that the ad may not be to everyone’s taste, they noted that it did not refer to non-Christians in a derogatory or critical way. Council considered that consumers were generally likely to interpret the claim “CHRISTIANS MAKE BETTER LOVERS” as being the advertiser’s opinion, and that in the context of an ad for an online dating site for Christians, that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or mislead consumers for the reasons suggested.

I realise the Council’s decision will disappoint you, but I’ve passed your comments to the advertiser (without revealing your identity) so that they are aware of your views and we will continue to monitor the response to this campaign.

Our website, www.asa.org.uk, contains information about the ASA and the work we do, including the results of investigations into other complaints, many of which have been upheld.

Yours sincerely

Jo Davis
Complaints Executive

While it would seem fair to make a direct comparison to the claims of homeopaths being their “opinion”, it isn’t. Medical, nutritional, gambling, tobacco and many other types of advertising have specific categories and rules. There are some very strict rules regarding claims of efficacy in these areas that don’t apply here. I wonder if they should, but they don’t!

I could, however, make an argument against the ASA’s ruling based on a couple of points. But they’d be speculative at best and overall I don’t disagree with their decision. Any perceived offence on my part is really manufactured. The claim doesn’t speak to the product they’re selling, either.

Point 4.1 of the code is clear here:

Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.

Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.

The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code.

The ASA did recently take the rare step of asking an advertiser (Paddy Power) to withdraw an advert even before they had reached a conclusion, like above. The advert was deemed to bring advertising itself into disrepute as well as causing widespread offence.

The two adverts are, in someways, comparable. They both attempted to play on a certain amount of ‘shock value.’ They both had people writing print and online press about them, which is just added value for their respective campaigns. This is, however, where any real comparison ends.

While it’s fair to say I don’t agree with the sentiment Christian Connections are sharing, I do feel they have the right to say it and I suppose I’m glad the ASA agree… begrudgingly!

I wonder how many complaints an atheist dating site using similar tactics would receive? I’d like to hope the ASA would be as level handed.

Anyway, enough of this.

Stanislaw Burzynski and the Burzynski Clinic “Fail to protect the rights, safety and welfare of subjects”, says FDA

As a lot of you will know, two documents were finally released this week by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), that should be of great interest to Burzynski supporters and skeptics alike.

For more background into Stanislaw Burzynski, please read this post with more details into his shameless practices.

I was made aware of these reports several months ago. Late March, early April time. I, along with a handful of others, made a conscious decision not to release details of these documents at the time. While the documents were of course received through completely legitimate means, they hadn’t been released by the FDA and formed, as they still do, part of a still open investigation into practices at the clinic. I had hoped that the FDA would have acted significantly faster in moving from these reports being filed to actually taking definitive action against Stanislaw Burzynski and his shameful practices. I waited for this to happen and it didn’t.

It’s important, before going through the details of the documents, to remember that the FDA and The Texas Medical Board have continued to let Burzynski practice medicine since this report was filed on March 15th this year. Beyond the rightful skepticism of the efficacy of the treatments offered at the clinic, the documents demonstrate to me a man who shouldn’t be allow in the same room as vulnerable cancer patients, let alone treating them.

Each report shows the observations made over (in total) 50 days between Janurary 7th and March 15th this year. For this post, I’m only going to look at the larger (ten page) document.

Observational Report 1 – FEI No. 3003426453

Observation 1

“You failed to comply with protocol requirements related to the primary outcome, therapeutic response for studies [redacted] for 18 of 27 (67%) of study subjects reviewed during the inspection.”

What follows is several pages listing where errors have occurred in specific protocols (studies), for specific patient (“subjects”). The specific errors are all around the clinic’s misrepresentation of the change in tumour sizes during the trial use of ANP (antineoplastons). This means that patients have been incorrectly labeled as either “PR” (Partial Response), “CR” (Complete response) or “SD” (Stable Disease) when this wasn’t accurate.

This is a massive deal! Misrepresentation of the data to a staggering degree. In summary:

In one protocol 3 out of 3 subjects were mislabeled at CR, 2 out of 2 were mislabeled as PR and 5 out of 7 were labeled as SD. That’s 10 out of 12 patients who’s response to ANP was mislabeled.

What does this mean? Well, one thing for certain. Any assessments that may have been gathered to support a trials findings are of little use. Incorrect determination of tumour growth, reduction or stability in patient records is a huge issue and on this level seems to be little else but outright fraud.

Remembering that Burzynski can ONLY use ANP in a trial setting, can’t advertise the efficacy of ANP because no efficacy has been establish (hence trials) and has to enlist patients based on media sensationalisation of patients own reports, it seems likely that patients have also been lied to about their responsiveness to the treatment. We know only too well that a trail of death leads from the clinic, with patients both reporting improvement before dying and more shockingly, that their worsening tumour measurement are a sign of improvement.

Observation 1 continues to astound. Here is a headline summary of the many other ways in which Burzynski and The Burzynski Clinic failed to follow even the simplest rules of their own protocols and endangered the health and safety of those in his care.

- Failure to ensure patients even met the entrance criteria for the studies. To meet the criteria patients had to have been off chemotherapy for four weeks.

“The subject discontinued chemotherapy on 07-17-12 and being treatment with the investigational product [redacted] one day later, 07-18-12″

This may of course lead to a response being recorded, that’s actually due to the after effect of chemotherapy.

- The Clinic are required to ensure that a local physician will provide continuing medical care and also collect and provide data. One doctor offered to treat the patient, but refused to help with the study, and the clinic did nothing to ensure that another doctor would collect data.

- The clinic failed to discontinue the protocol when serum sodium levels went outside the safe bounds established in the protocol criteria (147 mmol/L). For one patient the protocol continued for at least 8 days after the bounds (159 mmol/L) were breached. Only when the patient was admitted to hospital with left-sided facial palsy, increased intracranial pressure and hypernatremia (excessive sodium intake, resulting, in simplest terms, to dehydration).

- Nine patients suffered “Adverse Effects” (AE) that should have seen them excluded from continuing in any of Burzynski’s studies. This included hypernatremia (a seeming very common issue of ANP use), fever, uncontrollable twitching, incontinence, headaches, confusion and hair loss.

- Failure to “protect the rights, safety, and welfare of subjects under your care.” Namely, Forty-eight subjects experienced 102 investigational drug overdoses between Janurary 1st, 2005 and February 22nd, 2013. This includes many examples of family members accidentally overdosing their relatives. Side effects experienced included slurred speech, vomiting, persistent focal seizure and bilateral tinnitus.

- Despite these 102 overdoses being reported to Burzynski at the three times weekly staff meetings, not one single corrective effort was made.

- The FDA inspection team recorded that their were also several overdoses that weren’t reported.

Lets summarise. Patients we regularly attributed response effects that were wrong. Patents were allowed into studies that they didn’t fit the criteria for and weren’t removed from studies that they no longer fitted the criteria of. Data wasn’t collected for all patients, which is pretty much the main reason to conduct studies. Serious side-effects were either not reported correctly or when they were, patients weren’t removed from the protocols and often continued the treatment until ending up hospitalised. Overdoses weren’t always reported correctly or if they were, patients weren’t removed from the studies at the criteria requires.

It’s not a comfortable read, is it? The implications seem fairly clear. Patients had to either die or make the choice to discontinue treatment in order for treatment to stop. This is something that has been suspected for a very long time and for me it seems fairly clear that there’s only one reason to keep patients in trials that they have no right to be in. Money. The longer patients are in the trials the more treatments they pay for.

You can’t legitimately come close to claiming that Burzynski knew the treatments were effective, because these were the very trials that would be used to determine efficacy! If you exclude people from the trials for insignificant details like toxic overdoes, uncontrollable twitching and persistent focal seizures then that’s a few less people paying. So just keep them in, right? Ignore the rules set up to determine it the treatment has any merit.

Not only heartless exploitation of people dying of various cancers, but medical negligence that beggars belief.

Observation 2

Okay. We’ll set that aside for a minute. Maybe, just maybe, some data has been collected that can be of use. Ruling out all the inadmissible patients, which would see a good peer-reviewed journal, like The Lancet laughing at your submission. Maybe there some patients fitted the criteria and good tumour measurement could be judged?

No. Why?

“Your MRI tumour measurements initially recorded on worksheets at baseline and on-treatment MRI studies for all study subjects were destroyed and are not available for FDA inspectional review.”

If you don’t understand the significance of this statement, let me explain. If there was ever any intention to publish any of the findings of any of the studies conducted you sort of need evidence! No MRI measurements means the studies are basically useless for determining any efficacy.

Also, original case report forms, on which other patient data is recorded, was not available for the FDA inspectional review.

This lays out some fairly horrific details in back and white. In so many ways the entire study system in the case of the Burzynski Clinic is nothing more than jumping poorly through regulation hoops in order to treat people with a drug that has no determined benefit, for significant sums of money, with seemingly no intention of ever publishing results.

It’s hard to see how this could be much clearer beyond an admission from the clinic.

While I don’t want to really miss any details (and there are a significant amount more), I want to highlight some other key details from the Investigation Review document.

Observation 4

“The informed consent document did not include a statement of any additional cost that might result from participation in the research”

Specifically that the informed consent document did not include or reference a separate treatment billing agreement as part of the informed consent process. This may seem like a minor detail, but it’s a detail that has come up time and again with patients own reports. Patients start treatment, only to realise that there are massive financial costs for other supplementary drugs.Wayne Merritt was one such patient, whose story you should read. You’ll see elements of this report tie into his story.

Observation 6

This relates more to the overall fairly poor record keeping at the clinic, but it leads to a point that, again, has been seen in a number of cases. It also adds to showing little interest was shown by the Burzynski Clinic in receiving accurate data for research.


You’ll note that beyond just poor record keeping, there are huge discrepancies with amounts of ANP patients have been receiving. Some importance here, because as an Investigational New Drug (IND) the clinic has very specific responsibilities for shipping ANP both across State lines and internationally. Not accounting for the drugs you dispense, investigational or not, leaves the clinic in murky legal waters. Like there wasn’t enough here for that already.


This is damming as to leave no doubt in my mind. Long suspected of abusing the trial process as a way of profiteering from desperate cancer patients, it seems hard to see how many other conclusions can be drawn. Stanislaw Burzynski is a despicable man who has done nothing but add to human suffering. I sincerely hope the FDA, Texas Medical Board and FBI can get their acts together and rightly prevent this man and his clinic from ever doing harm to another already suffering human.

I want to leave you with a quote from the blog of a patients mother, written in February. The child in question is a sweet 4 year old, whose been through more than any parent could ever expect their child to go though. Bare in mind what you’ve just read about the clinic and their practices as you read it. I think it speaks to the desperateness of hope and it reminds me that the Burzynski Clinic prey on the most vulnerable in our world.

“The Burzynski Clinic is going through some issues right now. They are in the process of getting audited for the past month by the FDA. The FDA has also gotten approved to continue their audit for another month. I believe it was August [last year], the FDA stopped new pediatric patients because a child had went into a tumor related coma and did not get enough water during treatment, thus spiking the sodium level to a fatal level. Now, in January, for reasons unknown to me, the FDA has suspended new adult patients from the ANP as well. I do not know when the new patients will be allowed again or if any restrictions on current patients will also follow. Friday, the Burzynski Clinic shipped us 3 months of ANP, where they normally only ship 2 weeks. They are being proactive and making sure we have the meds she needs just in case any medicine production is stopped. Apparently, a person who monitors the medicine production had a serious medical emergency. This, along with the FDA auditing has us a little on edge waiting to see how it all plays out. Even though this is bad news for the clinic, there is silver lining because when this is finished, the clinic should be moving into Phase 3 of the clinical trail and hospitals and doctors should be able to start prescribing the ANP and doing clinical trials of their own. To my knowledge, Dr. Burzynski has the only medicine not sponsored or picked up by a pharma company. I think that’s why things don’t work like they do for normal drug approval.”

Do you know what the Burzynski Clinic’s motto is? “First, do no harm.”

High Court forces children to have MMR – What happens when parents disagree.

Being a parent runs you through a hundred emotions every day. So does not being a parent. But you have the added pleasure of worrying for someone who has almost no ability to think safely for themselves. They are walking disaster zones for years.

What really pisses me off is other parents who are unable to separate fact from feeling. Well, overwhelming scientific consensus from a fear of their own ignorance. Anti-vaccine (anti-vaxxers, as they’re often referred to) are high on this list for me.

It may come as little surprise that my wife and I follow the best available evidence when it comes to our children’s health. Both my children are vaccinated against everything they should be, for their respective ages. But not all parents are born equal. Some chose the path less walked. Some find reason to mistrust science, scientist, doctors, the government or whoever they’ve decided to mistrust, for whatever reason or reasons. They justify their mistrust with “evidence” and anecdote, often disproven, often wrong. They don’t just do this at their own risk, but at the risk of their children and mine.

I read this piece on the BBC website with some interest, “High Court orders two sisters must receive MMR vaccine”

It’s a sad case of two parents, now divorced, unable to reach a decision as to the welfare of their children. While this isn’t the first time the courts in the UK have ruled on such cases, they still remain rare enough to be newsworthy.

Facebook groups like the Vaccination Information Network (VINE) have reported this as a travesty. Of children being forced to do something they don’t want to do. That in someway their liberties are being infringed upon. But that’s not really what’s going on here. What is going on is two parents disagree over some aspect of their children’s care and have been unable to reach an amicable solution. Just for arguments sake, let’s make it about eating fruit.

The mother thinks that fruit is bad for you. That it contains dangerous ingredients. Eating fruit will cause untold damage to her children. The children agree with their mother. The father believes the opposite. He believes that eating fruit is good for your long term health and isn’t to be feared.

The court has to decide of the best available evidence. Well, the best available evidence is that fruit is good for you. That as part of a healthy lifestyle you should eat fruit. But just to make sure that all arguments are given an equal hearing, the court hears from the children. The children share similar, unscientific, non evidenced based views as their mother. The court rules that the children should eat fruit and find the children don’t posses the ability to make this decision for themselves.

Sounds a bit ridiculous when you make it fruit, but vaccines are about as safe.

Here’s the thing. They’re children. The court has to rule based on this. The mother is an adult and receives the freedom of choice, however stupid, that she wants for herself. The children were given even opportunity by the court to offer reasonable objections to being vaccinated. They weren’t able to. They could only offer the typical anti-vax nonsense that their mother has probably fed them. As a child, claiming that the ingredients in the MMR vaccine aren’t all included on the labelling and that the vaccines are dangerous based on dishonest research, forces the court to believe that the children are unable to make an informed decision. That they are unable to evaluate the evidence available.

This was a family court, not an emancipation of minors hearing! Hearing from the children has confused people that this is any more than a parental decision that a court has had to rule on because they couldn’t reach their own decision. In this case, they are the children and the parents are the parents.

For me, it’s as ridiculous as the courts having to rule on eating fruit. The science, frankly, is done. There is no controversy, just sadly misinformed people. Yes, children have adverse reactions to vaccines but some people have allergic reactions to fruit.

Of course the example breaks down a bit when you consider the benefits of vaccines to the wider community, like heard immunity, but ho-hum.

What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You – More moaning by Lynne McTaggart!

This just gets better and better!

Tom Whipple, The Times science corespondent is on form this week and keeping Lynne McTaggart and the folks at What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You under rightful scrutiny.

For some background into the recent WDDTY story, you should read Anarchic Teapot’s splendid summary of events so far. Also, always worth looking at Josephine Jones’ Masterlist of WDDTY blogs for a broader background.

So, to continue from where AT left off, today Lynne continued her offensive-defence against Tom Whipple and his article in The Times that ran earlier this week.(summary not behind paywall here.)

Luckily Tom is on fine form and keeping an eye on the WDDTY Facebook page. Below is the latest press release, so to speak, on behalf of WDDTY by editor Lynne. Tom has responded to every point raised and I’ve added these into the release for readability:

Lynne McTaggart

@Tom Whipple: the following are all the reasons your article fails to meet the most basic standards of responsible journalism:

1.You did not make sure to get hold of us to give us right of reply. None of our editorial team has any record of calls or emails – other than your contacting our distributor Comag’s export division, which didn’t know anything about us.

“Please see call and email logs, as screengrabs posted on previous thread. These definitively show I did contact you.”

screen grab of an email to WDDTY from Tom
(added from previous post)

2.This story had no news deadline and need not have been published until you did get hold of us. The only responsible thing to do, when you are writing a story that is critical of an organization and individuals, particularly when you only represent the views of an organization sponsored by the very industry the magazine is critical of, is to wait to publish until you’ve given the publication a right to reply.

“There was an imperative to run because I knew another news organisation was interested. Never in ten years of journalism though have I had the situation where a company of your size has failed to get back to me in the time I gave you – I saw no reason it would happen this time, so pitched this as a story on the Monday morning. I held off from writing it on Sudnay, despite the editor beign interested, because I feared I might not get you then.”

3.You failed to represent the meaning of our magazine’s content fairly. You inferred the content of one ‘story’ from a front cover headline and even misquoted that. Our vitamin C article never claimed that vitamin C cures AIDS. It simply quoted a study by Dr. Robert Cathcart showing a favourable response when he used it against HIV.

“You had a front cover headline stating “Mega-cure for the incurables – Vitamin C fights it all from AIDS to measles” That is wholly umabiguous to me. As someone with the journalism experience you say you have, you will know puffs and headlines need to represent the article – especially when they are on the front of a magazine.”

4. You mistake the views of the subject of an article for the views of the publication itself, as you did with the MMR article, where we simply interviewed a doctor critical of the MMR. If the Times quotes the King of Syria’s views in favour of his country’s chemical attacks, does that mean the Times is also in favour of those attacks? By your reckoning it does.

“As someone with experience in journalism you will also know that a magazine is responsible, legally, for the views of the people it represents, and how it represents them. That was why the lawyers at The Times made me cut some quotes I had from other people before using this piece. You puffed a box of advice from a GP uncritically – as advice for readers. I am extremely comfortable with this as being a view put forward by your magazine. If you are not, please do speak to our lawyers.”

5. You misrepresented as the actual content of a story the promise of a story. Your ‘evidence’ for our story about homeopathy and cancer was a two-sentence teaser about a story we haven’t even published yet. You have no idea yet what we’re going to write about, so how can you say we’re going to write that homeopathy ‘cures’ cancer?

“Will your article about homeopathy and cancer not imply that it could be used to treat it? If so, I will be flabbergasted – and will apologise.”

6. You seem to confuse simple reporting of information for editorial claims of ‘cures’. When we do publish that homeopathy story, we will report on scientific studies carried out by the US government and successful use in a particular clinic. Reporting – not claims of ‘cure’.

“I said your magazine “suggests homeopathy could be used to treat cancer”. Will it not do that?”

7. You misrepresent the facts that we did publish. You say we ‘imply’ the HPV has killed hundreds of girls. On the Gardasil story what we actually wrote was that 1) the US government has reports of 68 deaths, 2) VAERS reporting system logs in about a tenth of vaccine adverse events and 3) a charity set up by the family of one dead girl has logged more than a 100 deaths following the vaccine – names, photos, stories from the families themselves. Do your homework.This information is not news. It has been widely reported throughout America. Many doctors have condemned that vaccine. It’s just news over here.

“Current edition, “Thousands of young girls have died or suffered permanent harm after being given the vaccine”. Previously, you have said, “your doctor and your daughter’s school nurse are not likely to tell you about the 100-plus American girls who suddenly died after receiving an HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine.””

8. You have dressed up your own opinions as ‘news’. This article was shot through with your own prejudices and views about our magazine and coloured your misrepresentation of our material. The article was an opinion piece. It had no business being in the news section of the newspaper.

9. Finally, and most shamefully, you allowed yourself and the Times to be the patsy of an industry-backed organization with an agenda to kill a publication critical of that industry. And we’re talking about an industry with a track record of well documented deceit over the safety of its products – the very information your newspaper should be revealing, and not defending.

Your article is laced with malicious falsehoods and falls lamentably below the professional standards of the Times, which has always sought to be fair-minded and to write balanced views. Shame on you.

What professional training have you had?

“I think I’ll leave 8 and 9 because they do not deal with fact. Again, please desist from slandering me on this page. If you have a genuine grievance, there is our reader’s editor, then the PCC then – if that fails – the legal route. Please take it.”

It feels like some kind of Streisand Effect is occurring here! As you can see on the WDDTY Facebook page, Lynne keeps making the same points over and over again, despite having received quality answers and evidence against her assertions. It’s basically like arguing with a copy of their magazine! Your just not going to get anywhere positive.

The real positive that many people are aiming for it to see supermarkets, like Tesco, live up to their own corporate values and remove this dangerous magazine from their shelves.

Tesco can run their business however they want. They choose to set their own moral codes and as such we, as consumers, should expect them to apply them evenly. They were happy to remove a Halloween costume for being in bad taste. Well, the same rules should apply.

They lend completely unacceptable legitimacy to a dangerous alt-med rag. If you type ‘magazine’ into google this is fairly unlikely to appear, yet any 14, 15, 16 year old girl can wander into Tesco and pick this up and read a terrifying and inaccurate article about the HPV vaccine. Customers expect ALL the products on the shelves of their local Tesco to have undergone at least the most basic of safety checks. This doesn’t appear to apply to this product. I demand a recall!

It seems like there should be a place for a regulator around here somewhere.

Lynne admits contact! Huzzar!


Did Hannah Smith bully herself via Ask.fm?

By Alex J. Brown

I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day who is convinced that the entire Internet is housed in one big shed somewhere, which brought to mind the episode of South Park where the Internet is represented by a gigantic Linksys router. And you know what? That’s fine. There are plenty of people who use all sorts of things every day without much knowledge of how they work.

David, Shaun and I had a long discussion the other night about the recent case of Hannah Smith, the 14 year old who took her own life after having received bullying messages via her account on the social networking site Ask.fm. A quote from The Daily Mail, is as follows:

A source at the firm based in Riga, Latvia, said: ‘With the Hannah case, the company have looked at every identity – the [computer] IP addresses are trackable. She posted the anonymous things herself.’

Ask.fm have claimed that the vast majority of these anonymous posts (all but four of them) were sent from Hannah’s own IP address. Shocking, but certainly a claim based on what we can assume is hard evidence. What they have also claimed, though, is that, because the posts have come from her IP address, she was the one that posted them. And it is at this point, dear readers, at which I’d like to begin.

In order to understand this properly, you might need a bit of technical background; an Internet 101, if you will. What follows is an explanation of what an IP address is and how information gets from one part of the Internet to the other. Please also bear in mind that pretty much everything below comes with the caveat of, “It’s a bit more complicated than that…”

What is an IP address? (go to “On with the story” to skip the technical bit)

An IP (Internet Protocol) address is a unique code that points to a specific location on a network. It comprises of four numbers between 0 and 255, separated by dots. For example:

IPs are interpreted by a computer from left to right in a similar way to us reading a postal address from bottom to top; the most general point comes first, then it keeps going until the last most specific number, which is a bit like a house number.

When you type in an address into your web browser (say, http://www.skeptical.gb.net/) your web browser will translate that into an IP address (in this case, It then uses that to talk directly to the server in question and download the number.
In order to communicate on the Internet, when you turn on your broadband router, it asks your Internet provider for an IP address. Once it has that, it can communicate with other computers which are also connected to the Internet.

Think of the Internet as one big postal service. In the same way that a parcel can get from one place to another on the other side of the world using a postal address, it is possible for a web page to get from the California coast to a cottage in the Cotswolds, passing through maybe hundreds of network devices before it arrives.
Say you wanted to send a letter from here in the UK to an address in Russia. You take it to the Post Office and hand it over. The Post Office then sends your letter to the local sorting office. Now, the sorting office can’t deliver the letter directly to the Russian address – in fact, the workers in the sorting office might not even know how to interpret a Russian address. But because they know that it’s a letter for Russia, all they have to do is pass it to the department which collates all the post for Russia. That department then puts all the post to Russia on a plane. When the plane arrives in Russia, your letter is offloaded and then sorted based on its postcode. Finally, a local sorting office delivers it to the address in Russia.

Now, think of your broadband router as your local Post Office, and your letter as a request packet to download a web page from Russia Today’s website. Your router isn’t connected with one long cable straight to Russia Today’s web server, so it has to find another router somewhere nearby which will be able to forward on your request. In this case it’ll be a router at your Internet Provider. That router might then pass your request on to another router, and then another, each time further along the journey towards its destination. Once the request gets to a Russian router, it is passed on to Russia Today’s Internet Provider, which then passes it on to Russia Today’s own router, and then finally to their web server. And all this happens in a matter of milliseconds.

So, how does each router know where to forward your packet on to? By using its routing table. Based on a proportion of the first half of the destination IP address (where you’re sending the packet to), or sometimes even the whole address, a router can use its routing table to find another nearby router which it thinks will be able to handle your packet.

At home, your public IP address (the one your Internet Provider gives your broadband router) is unique. It can change depending on your Internet Provider, but at any one time it is unique to you. When you go to a web page, the web site you’re accessing will use your IP address to send the web page you’ve requested back to you. Using logs from a web server alongside logs from an Internet Provider of assigned IP addresses, it is possible to work out that someone in your house requested a web page at a certain time.

On with the story

So, Ask.fm are claiming that, because they have the IP address logged against these posts, they have come to the conclusion that Hannah must have written them. On the face of it, it seems convincing enough.

But there’s a complication. Consumer broadband routers use a technology call NAT (Network Address Translation). This allows multiple PCs on a private network to be presented to the world behind a single public IP address.

For example, where I work we have 100 PCs, servers, mobile devices and other bits of network kit, all sitting behind a NAT router. As far as the outside world is concerned, any Internet traffic going into or coming out of our network comes from one IP address. This is done for two reasons. First, it allows private networks to use a range of IP addresses reserved for home use. And second, it makes it harder for a hacker to get to your PC.

This is where Ask.fm’s argument fails.

The only thing that their IP logs show is that their website was accessed by a device in the household, not which device they came from. This opens up a number of possibilites as to where the messages were sent from.

1. A network device inside the house. While this could have been Hannah’s PC, it could also have been any other PC or wireless device, such as a mobile phone or a tablet.

2. On a wireless device very near the house using the Smiths’ WiFi.

3. Something installed on a PC in the house that either allowed the person to remotely control the PC or, more likely, use a PC as a router, forwarding on information as though it had come from the PC itself. As any activity using this method would have been from behind a NAT router, only the public IP address of the router would be visible to the web server at the other end.

Out of these three options, the last one is by far the least likely. It would have to be a very dedicated, particularly tech-savvy and decidedly sadistic bully to have gone to this sort of length to mask their tracks and make it look like the bullying was being done from inside her own house. But considering this does bring up a significant point: it’s not actually possible for Ask.fm to definitively say that the posts even originated from the same physical location, let alone from a specific PC.

The first two seem to me to be the most likely. The commonality between these two is the WiFi. Could someone have hacked their WiFi? Yes, absolutely, although I’d say that it’s unlikely. Although in the past wireless routers were generally left open, nowadays the major ISPs (BT, TalkTalk, Virgin, Sky) all supply their routers with pre-secured WiFi. But would a bully of this sort really take the time to stand outside someone’s house to hack their WiFi? Even for a close neighbour, safely ensconced in their own home but still within reach of their WiFi signal, it seems like too much work. But this could be a simple case of social engineering – someone could have visited the house and simply asked for their wireless key. Not only that, I know that BT’s and Sky’s routers have a colourful sticker with the default wireless key stuck to the bottom. Although it is possible to set your own wireless key, people rarely do. And it really doesn’t take much to find the router in someone’s house and quickly take a photo of the sticker.
A WiFi connection can have a range of 400 feet when unencumbered by other wireless networks or physical obstructions, like walls. But that rarely happens in the suburban jungle – normally there’ll be many wireless networks all jostling for the same small set of frequencies. On my small estate I can see 13 different wireless networks, all from neighbouring houses. Because of all this interference, the range is dramatically reduced – sometimes down to as low as 30 feet. If someone had made these posts from outside the house, they would have to be very close nearby, preferably out in the open.

Strictly speaking, there is an outside possibility that both the Smiths and the bully happen to use the same Internet Provider and, coincidentally, they’ve been given the same IP address at different times. But this is highly unlikely to the point of freakish proportions! A large Internet Provider would have hundreds of thousands of IP addresses ready to be leased to their customers. Also, because most people rarely turn off their broadband routers, an IP address could be held on to for weeks, maybe even months. Some ISPs offer broadband packages with a static IP so that you always get the same IP address, even if you restart your router, but this is definitely the exception rather than the norm. An ISP would have a log of which IP addresses have been assigned to which customer, and when they were assigned.

All this goes to show that, using the IP address along, there really is no way that Ask.fm could say that these definitely all came from the same PC, let alone Hannah’s. In fact, they can’t really even say with certainty that they came from within the same building. So, what could be used alongside an IP address to truly pinpoint a PC?

Although Ask.fm haven’t said as much, it is feasible that they are using other methods to monitor exactly which PC is using their site. For example, they could be using an identification cookie similar to what is used with many Internet advertising networks, not deleted when a user logs off from a site. This would have a randomly generated code, unique to the PC in question.
Another way of differentiating PCs is to look at something called the User Agent. This is a long string of text which includes information such as the type of browser, the type of device (PC, Mac, iPhone, etc), and the type of operating system. This is regularly used by web developers to make sure that a web site is displayed correctly on your device. Although this could be recorded alongside the IP address, it doesn’t always happen. When it is recorded, it can serve to work out whether a series of requests have come from the same device. This, again, isn’t a perfect way to identify a PC — on a larger network it is more likely that there would be multiple PCs with the same setup — but in the average home with a mish-mash of only a few devices, that could help to narrow down the search.

Let me get to the point

So, after going through all the technical bits and bobs, we have to conclude that looking solely at the IP address can’t explain the whole story. That Ask.fm can’t say for certain that Hannah did anonymously post attacking messages on her own account.

In fact, even if they could say with any certainty that the posts came from her PC, there is one thing for sure; they can’t say that it was actually Hannah using the PC when the messages were posted. Or that it was Hannah using any of the network devices connected to that IP address, posting those messages.

It could be a family member, a family friend, a neighbour. I am absolutely not making any accusations. I have absolutely no opinion on who might have posted these bullying messages. I am looking at this from a purely technical point. I know only as much about the family as has been reported in the media. But neither do Ask.fm. And that’s my point.

Of course, if it does turn out that Hannah did post these messages, then that would be incredibly tragic. If this tale is used for anything by the media (and it will be) it should be to raise awareness of teenage mental health issues, a subject which people still seem to dismiss more often than not as growing pains. It certainly shouldn’t be treated as some sort of smear campaign against a clearly troubled teenage girl.

For the Daily Mail, the Mirror and The Sunday Times to all report Ask.fm’s claim that it was definitely Hannah who posted these anonymous, bullying messages on her own page based on the IP address alone is disingenuous.

But you would have thought that just one person at the Daily Mail, or the Mirror, or the Sunday Times, would have had a basic grounding in networking. Because, if they did, unchecked claims such as these wouldn’t be published without the correct context.

And surely a reputable publication like the Daily Mail wouldn’t have ignored evidence? Surely?

Holland & Barrett: Advice that’s hard to swallow

I popped into my local Holland and Barrett recently. I was suffering from a self diagnosed migraine. More specifically, I was just recovering from a migraine. I didn’t appear to be in a good way either. I was shaking and had difficulty with the lights of the shop and outside.

I wanted to know if I would have products suggested. Would any concern for my medical history or the self diagnosis make any difference to any sale? I know this place isn’t a pharmacy, but these guys are supposed to know what they’re selling, right?

Here’s a nice picture of the products I purchased:

Homeopathic remedy, herbal remedy and amino acid

I did have the idea in mind that I wanted to select a homeopathic remedy as well as a herbal remedy before I went in, just to see if they were recommended.

I’ve received some super fantastic help from Sparkle Wildfire with this post. She’s a community pharmacist from the North East area and writes the blog “A healthy dose of Skepticism“. I’ll position the advice and details I was offered against comments Sparkle has kindly given me, which reflect the advice she would give to a customer in the same situation.

I spoke to the store’s manager. They were happy to answer my questions and to offer their opinions and advice.

I explained that I had been suffering from a migraine and that I suffer from them fairly often (at least one a month, but usually more regularly) and that I had “tried some pharmaceutical stuff that my wife bought, but it hadn’t helped”. I wasn’t asked if I’d sought any medical advice or diagnosis, which surprised me actually, because I ask people that question often, especially if they mention a regular complaint or health issue. They weren’t, in my opinion, hugely interested. Which is a shame from a customer service point of view and because they didn’t show any care in the selection of products I would subsequently choose.

Sparkle’s thoughts:

The key to treating migraines over the counter is careful questioning. There are different types of migraine, and often misconceptions about what constitutes one, so I always like to check the diagnosis before recommending anything. Migraine type symptoms might also be indicative of something more serious, so I want to make sure that there are no warning signs that require referral. I would usually encourage someone who has self-diagnosed to book an appointment to see their doctor at some point, just to check the diagnosis, and to discuss other options like migraine preventative treatment if appropriate.

If David had come to my pharmacy counter to ask me for something to treat migraines, I would have used a stepwise approach. Firstly, has he tried “simple” painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen? In some patients these are perfectly adequate to treat the symptoms. If sickness is a problem, I might consider Migraleve Pink, which are just co-codamol, but with an added anti-emetic component. I would never, ever recommend Migraleve yellow, because they are merely a ridiculously over-expensive version of co-codamol.

If none of these options work, I may recommend sumatriptan. If the patient hadn’t already been prescribed it, I would have to ask quite a few questions to ensure it was safe for them to use. In fact, there used to be a two page questionnaire for a patient to fill in before you could sell them, although asking a patient with a migraine to fill it in sometimes resulted in some death-laser type looks.

I was standing next to the homeopathic remedies, which coincidently was next to where the first product I asked about was; MirgraHerb. MigraHerb is the trading name for the Feverfew herb. The shop manager told me that this product had been “scientifically tested” and “proven to work” which was “why it can say on the box what it does.” They also went on to tell me that they didn’t sell much of this and that they sold another product (which we’ll get to!) much more often.

Sparkle’s thoughts:

FeverFew – This is a herbal medicine, and the most logical choice out of the products Holland and Barrett have sold. It’s also a THM (Traditional Herbal Medicine) registered brand, which means there is at least a guarantee of safety but not necessarily efficacy. There is some evidence that feverfew may reduce the frequency of migraines and pain symptoms, but there is also evidence that it doesn’t make any difference at all. In short, there is conflicting information on whether or not it works, and it would need to be used daily as a preventative, rather than as symptom control during a migraine.

Careful questioning will be required with regards to the patient’s medical history and allergies, as feverfew can trigger allergic reactions and potentially interact with a lot of medicines. It can affect a number of types of a group of enzymes in the liver that are responsible for clearing medicines from our system, so its use may lead to toxicity from conventional medicines or other herbs.

A withdrawal-type reaction (anxiety, headaches, insomnia, muscle stiffness) has been noted in some patients who have been taking feverfew in the long term then discontinue it.

So not “proven to work” as I was told. Product one successfully chosen. I’d already had a look at the homeopathic choices before I’d asked to speak to the manager, so I knew the range. In my haste, I just picked up the nearest one without actually reading which it was! As it turns out, it was Calc. Carb. 30C. Now, as you probably know homeopathic remedies are nonsensical in their basic premise. They are rarely more than sugar and water, especially at a dilution of 30C. The 1023 website provides all the detail you need if you are unfamiliar with this disproven alternative to medicine.

This wasn’t quite what I was told in Holland and Barrett. In fact, to the uninitiated what I was told could prove fairly confusing. I asked if it would help, they said “yes”. No qualifying detail, just “yes”. So I asked what homeopathy was and was then given completely inaccurate information which actually relates to herbal medicines and THM registered brands! I was told that the homeopathic range was being discontinued and that soon they would only be selling brands with 30 years traditional use within Europe and 15 years traditional use in the UK. This is just wrong. While I would welcome Holland and Barrett discontinuing homeopathic remedies, this seems unlikely. I was also told that despite this “everyone who takes it swears by it”. Sparkle’s thoughts would seem to contradict those of the shop’s manager:

Homeopathic calc carb 30C – There’s basically no point in discussing the choice of calc carb (plain old chalk) because there will be no molecules of it in the product. It’s slightly bizarre that a homeopathic product is being sold in combination with a herbal product as this is in direct contravention of the “law of infinitesimals” which (despite being nonsensical) is fundamental to homeopathy.

If this is being sold, the person selling it needs to give enough information to the patient to be able to make an informed choice.

Sparkle makes a good point. Why would you sell them together? Well, I guess if you weren’t the “wise owl” you’re supposed to be. My general feelings about the manager at this point were that she neither knew what she was talking about or really cared. They were significantly more interested in the sale than abiding by homeopathic principals. I guess when you manage a shop that sell contradictory alternatives to medicine you either need to be credulous, ideologically involved or a bit of both.

Now, my third choice was probably the most interesting, because I didn’t choose it. Also, it seems to make equally as little sense as the homeopathy, but with significant actual risks. It was recommended as the “best selling product for migraines” and that this “would certainly help relieve the pain caused by migraines”. The product is dl-phenylalanine. I didn’t really know anything about this product, so my questions were fairly limited. I accepted the recommendation and completed my purchase of the three. The manager didn’t serve me at the checkout, but oddly waited until I had entered my pin before leaving. It seemed as though they were suspicious of my motives and were ready for me to leave having gained the information I was after. I may not have been the first person they had dealt with who had done that.

Sparkle provided my first real insight into why dl-phenylalanine was such a strange and potentially dangerous recommendation:

dl-phenylalanine – This is a dietary supplement. I can see no reason at all why Holland and Barrett would think this would work to treat migraines, and indeed it would seem that some sources suggest it can actually be a cause of them. There is no evidence whatsoever that this could improve migraines.

It is imperative to check if a patient wanting to buy this product does not have a disorder called phenylketonuria. In such patients, consumption of this product could lead to a wide range of adverse effects including mental retardation, hypertension, and stroke. Pretty serious, eh? Additionally, it can worsen certain aspects of schizophrenia and Parkinsons Disease.

It strikes me as a fairly odd recommendation, but she was probably just going on what some else had told her. Herein lies one of my main concerns. You’d be right to ask me, “what do you expect? After all, they are a shop attempting to make a profit”. Well yes, they are. But they don’t market themselves accordingly.

If I went into Wilko’s I wouldn’t expect to be offered advice or for them to make informed recommendations. But Holland & Barrett do market themselves as a shop that can provide advice and answer questions about their products. They claim to be “qualified to advise”, but I saw no evidence that, in this case, the manager was. If you want to play at being a pharmacist I recommend you do more than a one year course in ‘Understanding the application of Holland & Barrett Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements and Health Products’.

Their recent “Ask our Owls” campaign was not well received. I feel this has only lead to increased pressure on Holland & Barrett employees to offer ‘any advice’ and not necessarily ‘good advice’ or ‘no advice’ in order to avoid having to offer people an extra 20% off their purchases, as the offer promotes.

Ask our Owls poster ad from Holland and Barrett website

As a company they lend legitimacy to their recommendations through their staff training and their advertising. Members of the public expect to receive good, sound advice. Members of the public will probably be disappointed.

I’m not going to say that pharmacists aren’t prone to selling alt-med. Some do and that puts them in a similar category as Holland & Barrett. Probably worse. Nothing was asked about me or my medical history. It was just another sale, disguised behind the pretence of informed advice.

All I can say with some confidence is that Holland & Barrett training doesn’t mean they should be offering advice to people about treatments and conditions that they simply don’t know enough about. It’s foolish and potentially dangerous. I expect more from any company that wishes to be seen as a purveyor of advice, that hold themselves to any kind of ethical standard.

I’ll leave you with some wiser words than mine. A summary of why Sparkle as a skeptical pharmacist wouldn’t recommend any of the products I was sold:

I would not recommend any herbal, homeopathic or dietary supplements. For a number of reasons:

1. Because NHS Guidance for primary care practitioners (Clinical Knowledge Summaries) states this, and these are researched and based on evidence or expert opinion where possible.

2. Because in a community pharmacy setting I am unlikely to have access to the information resources (and time!) that I would require to properly ensure that any remedies were going to be efficacious and safe for a patient

3. Because homeopathic “medicine” contains no active ingredient, and there is no evidence that it works, there is zero evidence that phenylalanine works for migraines, and only limited evidence that feverfew may possibly be effective.

4. Because supplements, herbal medicines and homeopathic medicines are often very expensive.

Big thank you to Sparkle Wildfire! (This obviously isn’t her real name, by the way!)

I’d be interested in your good and bad experiences with Holland & Barrett and pharmacists when it comes to alternatives to medicine. Let me know your thoughts!

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