Amid Desperation, Fake Cures and False Hope in Haiti

//

In the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquakes, huge amounts of money, food, clothing, water, tents, and other supplies arrived in the country. People showed up as well: professional search and rescue personnel, epidemiologists, nurses, and doctors. And, unfortunately, many people who are offering bogus and ineffective medical “cures” to the sick, wounded, and dying.

On a science blog titled “The White Coat Underground”, an internist blogger noted that in Haiti, “There have been many reports of the Church of Scientology’s faith healers walking around in yellow t-shirts trying to ‘assist’ people’s nervous systems. Homeopaths, the folks who sell water panaceas, have been offering their ‘help’ as well.”

Homeopathy, for those who don’t know, was invented two centuries ago by a German doctor who believed that—contrary to what we know about physics and pharmacology—medicines become more effective the more they are diluted. Homeopathic medications are often so watered-down that they don’t contain a single molecule of the original medicine. It is just water.

Why would people offer bogus remedies and fake cures to some of the world’s most vulnerable people?

Many are convinced that homeopathy, faith healing, and other unproven remedies work. Part of the reason is lobbying and advertising by the multi-billion dollar “alternative medicine” industry, but much of it comes from personal experience: people tried it and it worked for them.

But there’s the problem: One of the little-recognized realities of medicine is that it’s not always clear if a given treatment works or not. The public often assumes that the efficacy of a drug or procedure is self-evident. Either the patient feels better or he doesn’t; either the condition worsens, or it doesn’t.

But medical conditions can get better on their own, and a patient’s self-reported alleviation of pain or other symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The placebo effect has been well known to doctors for centuries; many patients will report feeling better with or without effective medical intervention. The patients’ expectation and belief in the treatment can temporarily relieve pain or other symptoms. While these treatments may (or may not) make a person feel better temporarily, the effect is psychological, not pharmaceutical or medical.

In order to distinguish effective medications from placebos, carefully controlled studies must be done. That’s one reason why medical trials to find out if a medicine or procedure works are often difficult, costly, and expensive. Homeopathy, for example, does not work better than medicines whose efficacy has been proven in carefully-controlled scientific trials.

The hordes of Scientologists, homeopaths, and other so-called “alternative medicine” practitioners who descended on Haiti no doubt are altruistic, goodhearted people. They have interrupted their lives to go to Haiti, and probably think they are helping save lives. But the devastated Haitian people need medicines and therapies that have been scientifically proven to work. They need real medical care—not unproven remedies that would be laughed out of any reputable American hospital.

If voodoo spells, faith healing, and magical cures worked, the Haitians wouldn’t need our help.