Monday, 15 September 2008

You lose, quack

Another fantastic result for the mighty Ben Goldacre: a nutritionist by the name of Matthias Rath was suing Dr Goldacre, and the Guardian newspaper, which publishes his Saturday column. Dr Goldacre had criticised Rath for his advice that nutritional supplements could reverse the course of AIDS, and that patients should stop taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVDs). Rath has now dropped the case, and been ordered to pay costs. Hopefully this will generate enough publicity for people to realise just how dangerous bad, unevidenced health advice can be.

We know that ARVDs work, and we know that nutritional supplements do not work, for treating people with AIDS. So what Rath was doing was advising people not to take drugs that work, and instead to take nutritional supplements which could have had no effect on the course of their illness. It is difficult to describe this as anything other than murderous quackery. There seems to be little doubt that people have died because of this advice.

You may think it is fair to say that Rath probably doesn't fall into the 'mainstream' of nutritionists. But I am not so sure. Patrick Holford, for example, a prominent UK nutritionist, has said that "AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”. This is superficially based on an actual scientific study. But it goes far, far beyond a reasonable interpretation of the study, which looked at what happens to some cells in a dish on a lab bench when you put some vitamin C on them. It is simply impossible to take that kind of bench research and apply it to what happens in something hugely complex like the human body. Holford is not a marginal figure: he is at the top of his profession. At least he doesn't suggest that ARVDs don't save lives.

Rath is clearly barking. But he thrives in the environment of denigration of mainstream science, and misunderstanding of science, that obtains in the world of nutritionism. The difference is that Rath, in taking his supplement quackery to somewhere that desperately needed drugs, not vitamins, he was able to cause a hell of a lot of damage.

As Ben Goldacre points out, the title "Nutritionist" is not protected, so anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. It follows that I am a nutritionist too. As your nutritionist, I would suggest that if you feel that you need nutritional advice, you should seek out a registered dietitian, who will actually be a qualified health professional.

6 comments:

Le Canard Noir said...

Is Rath mainstream?

On the face of it, no. But I think we shall find out that the answer is a very deserving, yes.

The biggest piece of evidence is that none of the big names in the supplement business have spoken out about him and condemned him.

We need to see organisations and commercial concerns like BANT, Holland and Barrett, Boots, ION and all the others who profit from these useless pills unequivocally condemn what Rath is up to.

A line in the sand needs to be drawn. If it is not, then all these are organisations are complicit in Rath's guilt.

Paul Wilson said...

Indeed, none of these organisations seem to have anything to say on the matter.

The ION website has, on its front page, a quote from Thomas Edison:

"the doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition"

Dr* T said...

Hmmm...might be worth giving them a call and asking for statement.

Might have time tomoz.....

jdc325 said...

Warning: loser-length post.

"We need to see organisations and commercial concerns like BANT, Holland and Barrett, Boots, ION and all the others who profit from these useless pills unequivocally condemn what Rath is up to."
I think you're right LCN, but I think those in charge of these commercial organisations have an 'us-and-them' mentality and will not speak out even against anyone as dodgy as Rath (a) because it wouldn't fit with their daft characterisation of criticism of the industry as being something that is planned – I seriously think there is a paranoia problem in the industry and they think that Big Pharma /the EU / the Government [delete as applicable] are out to get them - and (b) even if they are not indulging in paranoid fantasies about plots to ban vitamins, they are probably wondering where it will end [the "thin end of the wedge" concern]. If they criticise Rath's tactics of promoting vitamins for AIDS, where will the line be drawn - might there not be concern over potential criticism of, say, the pushing of fish oil pills to solve complex problems or B Vitamins for heart disease or antioxidants for cancer. I reckon a fair few businesses would have something to fear if those approaches were being criticised.

Can anyone from the industry be in a position to tell the honest truth? Yes, if they are an individual rather than a commercial concern - but if they are an employee and they do it publicly they may well get sacked. If they do it on an anonymous blog, who will listen? Will anyone believe they are a member of the industry? Will they still be safe in their job or will some twat track them down and give them the boot?

FWIW, I predict silence on this issue.

Paul Wilson said...

"Warning: loser-length post".

Don't worry jdc, I actively welcome loser-length posts...

Valueaddedwater said...

"I think those in charge of these commercial organisations have an 'us-and-them' mentality and will not speak out even against anyone as dodgy as Rath (a) because it wouldn't fit with their daft characterisation of criticism of the industry as being something that is planned – I seriously think there is a paranoia problem in the industry and they think that Big Pharma /the EU / the Government [delete as applicable] are out to get them "

I suspect they think that if they ignore it, it will go away, then it will be business as normal. What seems to be not understood, is that if Quacks like Rath, are not seen to be put in place, or others come out of the woodwork to replace him, longterm the industry is going to come under closer scrutiny, and if it STILL doesn't put its house in order they will end up being regulated hard. The MHRA and consumer protection organisations will have no choice