Cairnarvon has been on me in my Alternative Medicine post. I’m not taking the side of alternative medicine but I am asking what I think is a valid question. This is best illustrated by example.
My alternative medicine friend said that extract of elderberry is an example of an effective alternative medicine. I found the study he referred to on the subject:
Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J.
Department of Virology, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, Israel.
Elderberry has been used in folk medicine for centuries to treat influenza, colds and sinusitis, and has been reported to have antiviral activity against influenza and herpes simplex. We investigated the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry syrup for treating influenza A and B infections. Sixty patients (aged 18-54 years) suffering from influenza-like symptoms for 48 h or less were enrolled in this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study during the influenza season of 1999-2000 in Norway. Patients received 15 ml of elderberry or placebo syrup four times a day for 5 days, and recorded their symptoms using a visual analogue scale. Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier and use of rescue medication was significantly less in those receiving elderberry extract compared with placebo. Elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza. These findings need to be confirmed in a larger study.
First of all, let’s assume this study is correct and that elderberry extract is effective medicine. That’s science, right? We did the study, the extract is effective, it’s real science and real medicine, right?
But what about the fact that Orac and others will have been calling it “woo” until now, dismissing it as junk peddled by quacks. Oh wait, but it works!
My point is somewhat subtle here so let me be explicit: alternative medicine should not get, and currently does get, a free pass from having to prove that it works. Medicine should be evidence based. There is nothing wrong with and everything good about using scientific studies to determine the efficacy of medicine.
But some go too far and assume that all alternative medicine must be bullshit. This is an assumption. If extract of elderberry can work it’s possible that other “alternative” remedies also work.
I do think “woo” is a big danger. Too many people believe really dumb things. It does undermine real medicine when people’s ignorance and superstition gets unwarranted acceptance. So I don’t disagree with Cairnarvon or Orac and I wouldn’t even be writing about this except that I have a friend who believes that he does work based on evidence that helps people using alternative medicine and that got me thinking.