The History of Medicine
“I have an earache.”
2000 B.C. – Here, eat this root
1000 A.D. – That root is heathen; say this prayer.
1850 A.D. – That prayer is superstition; drink this potion.
1940 A.D. – That potion is snake oil; swallow this pill.
1985 A.D. – That pill is ineffective; take this antibiotic.
2000 A.D. – That antibiotic is artificial; here, eat this root.
Ever since man walked on two legs and discovered that a particular herb soothed a particular hurt, there have been people who have tried to take advantage, by pretending that their ‘cure’ was both better and more valuable than any others. These people were called charlatans, mountebanks, or quacksalvers (from old Dutch, meaning people who bragged about their ointments). Today we just call them quacks and they’re just as much in evidence as they always were - perhaps more so with the technological possibilities of the internet.
If people are afflicted with something for which there is no cure, they become desperate and desperate people take desperate measures. Because their ailment is too scientifically complex to understand, they don’t have enough knowledge of the physiology to know when they’re being sold a dud or not. It is into this arena of despair that quacks step in with dollar signs in their eyes.
You probably know the saying, ‘caveat emptor’ meaning ‘let the buyer beware’ but too many of us ignore it completely when ordering stuff on-line. It also becomes an excuse to let fraudsters off the hook when they’re tackled about their morality. Counterfeit medicines are a multi-billion dollar, worldwide industry and still growing. It’s thought that +- 15% of all drugs sold worldwide are fake and that would be much higher if badly-made copies were added to the mix. In Africa and parts of Asia, it can be more than 50% but nowhere is immune because of the growth of on-line buying.
You’ve all seen them in your spam boxes; the on-line pharmacies that look utterly professional on the surface but are ruthless con men underneath. It began with Viagra, which of course was way over-priced, forcing people to look for cheaper alternatives and copies with supposedly the same components. Soon enough, con-men realised that there was money to be made by exploiting people’s fears of other diseases too and birth control pills, hormone replacements, schizophrenia meds, cancer drugs and cures, weight loss miracles and by no means least, HIV therapies were all addressed.
The drug companies have to bear some responsibility for this mushrooming on-line businesses in drugs because in their quest for profits, they price themselves out of many people’s reach and where drugs aren’t available or are just too expensive, people find alternative sources on-line. The risks become secondary; it’s human nature.
“The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest estimates that fake medicine sales in the United States totals $75 billion every year, and has doubled since 2005.” More info here.
Fortunately, in an attempt to control the problem, an international effort to do something about it has just begun. You may have noticed in the media recently, the International Internet Week of Action (Operation Pangea), which has been coordinated by Interpol. It involved 81 countries and has led to dozens of arrests, the closure of internet sites and the seizure of millions of potentially dangerous medicines.
Aline Plancon, Head of Pharmaceutical Crime Unit at Interpol gave specific figures. “We have shut down more than 10,000 illegal pharmacy sites online and taken almost 10 million medicines.”
It’s a start but as we all know from attempts to shut down media download sites, where one shuts down, another pops up to take its place. This will be a long-term operation.
Quacks and Health
"The medicine that I use has two things that distinguish it from some other forms of "medicine:" 1. It appears to work anywhere on the planet. 2. I don't have to believe in it for it to work.”
David Ramey, DVM
It’s funny how things change. Non-medically approved medicines and treatments used to be called ‘fringe’ medicines, or ‘unconventional’ treatments and those two words carried an implicit warning with them. They weren’t approved by doctors or scientists therefore you indulged at your own risk. Today the language has changed and the boundaries have blurred, so much so that ‘alternative’, ‘complementary’, holistic’, ‘homeopathic’ and ‘integrative’ are almost seen as the equals of and sometimes preferable to, chemical, science-based treatments. Mainstream doctors, clinics and hospitals often have dietary supplements in their medicine closets and offer treatments like reiki, massage, chiropractic and acupuncture as a matter of course.
Why is this? Are the alternative treatments now seen as trustworthy alternatives to regular medicine? Not necessarily but many are accepted as being intrinsically harmless and may actually improve many conditions. This is the result of clever marketing and the gradual trend since the 60’s, of regarding chemical drugs with a modicum of suspicion. Mainstream medicine has taken alternative medicine on board mainly because of patient demand and even the largest drug companies have their fingers in the alternative medicine pie.
Marketing has been so successful that many critics have moderated their attitudes and now subscribe to the following:
"There cannot be two kinds of medicine - conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted."
Angell M, Kassirer JP, ‘Alternative medicine--the risks of untested and unregulated remedies.’
So the rise and rise of alternative medicine has not been due to hundreds of proven studies and deep scientific research but more to an unstoppable marketing force and public opinion that these things are natural, therefore must be good. Logically, every sensible person will conclude that that can’t always be the case.
Quacks and HIV
If you’re reading this then you will be more interested in what sort of effect quack medicines have had on people living with HIV. You might reasonably assume that anybody offering a cure for HIV/AIDS is a fraudulent operator; in 2013 we know that for a fact, yet countless people across the planet are still taken in every day by false claims for worthless products and lose their money (and sometimes their health) accordingly. In Africa and Asia the problem is almost endemic, partly because access to effective ARV treatment is more difficult; partly because people have been less exposed to the sly tricks of advertising than in more developed lands and partly because local medicine (sales)men are culturally far more acceptable. Whatever the reasons, where there is a desperate need for help, quacks take full advantage, with often tragic consequences.
In 2006 in South Africa, even the government health minister endorsed a mix of beetroot, lemon and garlic as being definitely able to delay the onset of AIDS and furthermore, defended the use of traditional medicines in helping combat the virus. When your own government is hampered by ignorance, it’s difficult to dissuade people from turning to quacks. More info here.
In the rest of the world, quack treatments and medicines have been offered since the beginning of the epidemic. You can generally split them into three groups: those who sell worthless and sometimes dangerous products which sound so unlikely they must be true; those from the burgeoning health food industry who play on our ignorance of how the body actually works and sell supplements, vitamins and herbal therapies for every aspect of HIV/AIDS and those who offer ‘alternative’ treatments. The last two groups make money by claiming to boost the immune system and people’s psychological states so that they can in some way resist viral attack and degradation.
It’s important to acknowledge that certain supplements are undoubtedly helpful for certain side effects of ARV treatments, as are certain treatments like acupuncture, Reiki and yoga but these generally address the state of mind of the patient and not the virus itself. Any claims to the contrary travel along that tightrope between credible and fraudulent.
HIV/AIDS has had more than its fair share of false cure claims. Take a glance through the following to see the range of ‘cures’ for HIV/AIDS that have had people both believing and wasting money and energy on since the beginning of the virus.
If you’re snorting in disbelief and thinking that these are things only the gullible and uneducated have been taken in by, think again:-