independent

Monday 21 April 2014

If a cure contains nothing, then the chances are it does nothing

IT'S 20 years since I was in Tralee General for an endoscopy. They shoved a camera down my throat to look at my stomach. Okay, it wasn't that bad. They'd given me some meds, which had me grinning like a fool throughout.

They looked at and took a sample of my stomach lining to test. I had the procedure because for two years I'd been suffering from indigestion, stomach pain and was throwing up blood. There was very little drama involved though, as we all knew what we'd find.

It'd be duodenal ulcers and a bacteria called helicobactor pylori. This is a common bacteria, identified in 1982 by a couple of Australian doctors to be the main culprit behind ulcers. No one had previously thought bacteria could survive in the acidic world of the stomach. They completely rewrote the medical books on the subject and got themselves a Nobel Prize too.

This is important because instead of being diagnosed with a chronic and life limiting condition, as ulcers once were, I was instead diagnosed with a curable disease. I was given a course of drugs and the pain ended. More importantly, it wasn't necessary to see a dietician, who'd have explained to me what white foods were e.g. boiled chicken. Shudder.

These days if someone suffers the same symptoms I'd had, there might be a temptation to visit a homeopath. This form of alternative medicine became very popular during the boom. Almost as popular as buying holiday homes in Bulgaria.

Not that I'm suggesting homeopathy is a ridiculous and futile waste of time. Each of us is free to spend our money as we see fit. Each of us is free to seek whatever advice we want. It is however important to inform ourselves about how best to make a decision regarding our health.

On the one hand we have overpaid and arrogant consultants. A bunch of largely conservative men who were slow to accept the existence of germs, the best way to treat polio, that woman could be doctors and who even today still lag behind nurses in hand hygiene. A bunch of men tied to the not always honest, multi-billion euro drugs industry.

Then there are the homeopaths who sell pills that are so diluted, no active ingredient can be detected. Homeopaths claim that the more dilute something is, the stronger it is. Good luck convincing your mother that the weaker something is the stronger it is, when you next make her a mug of tea. She'll quickly explain to you what weak really means.

To prove a drug works, we use a double-blind test. This means randomly dividing a group into two, one of which is given the experimental drug. Those being tested, don't know what they've been given. Even the doctors and nurses giving the drugs don't know. It's a pure test.

This is the gold standard. They terrify drugs companies because they may have billions tied up in the development of just one drug. If it fails the double-blind, then that company could go under.

Homeopathy, despite being around for over two centuries, has yet to prove itself to be a credible medication. In spite of this, you can still buy them, since a pill with no active ingredients isn't harmful. One cannot overdose or have bad side-effects taking what is essentially nothing.

Remember that when you feel let down by your doctor. See a second and even a third doctor, before giving in to the alternative.

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