On April 13, 2017, officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did something that they should have done 20 years ago: try to put an end to the false promises and harmful therapies offered by unscrupulous “healers” for people suffering from untreatable disorders.
Without question, medicine has limits.
For example, despite the availability of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, cancers such as glioblastoma and brainstem gliomas are essentially incurable. Similarly, pancreatic cancer has a poor prognosis. Where modern medicine fails, alternative healers fill in the gaps. Typically, these healers promote their miracle cures with phrases like, “What your doctor won’t tell you,” or “What the pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know”—hinting at a conspiracy by mainstream practitioners to hide the truth.
Providing false hope can also be found in certain psychiatric disorders, like autism. Appealing to a parent’s desperate desire to do something, anything, to help their children, these healers offer a range of disparate and mutually contradictory treatments. In books, pamphlets, banner ads, and websites, they claim that autism is caused by:
• Decreased oxygen to the brain and should be treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy
• A leaky gut and should be treated with probiotics
• Mercury or lead intoxication and should be treated with medicines that bind heavy metals in the blood (called chelation therapy)
• Immune dysregulation and should be treated with intravenous immune globulins or trips to Mexico or Costa Rica for stem-cell transplantation
• Drug addiction and should be treated with Naltrexone suspended in emu oil
• Vitamin deficiencies and should be treated with intravenous vitamins in quantities vastly greater than the Recommended Daily Allowance
• A chronic viral infection and should be treated with anti-viral medications
• A chronic bacterial infection and should be treated with high doses of long-term antibiotics (Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of Human Immunodeficiency Virus as the cause of AIDS, founded a research institute in Shanghai based on this claim.)
• Blockage of the lymph glands and should be treated with lymphatic drainage massage
• Blockage of spinal fluid and should be treated with cranial manipulation
• Demonic possession and should be treated with exorcism
• Intestinal worms and should be treated by injecting Magic Mineral Solution into the rectum
• Disordered brain ions and should be treated with an ion-rearranging machine placed under the pillow at night (available for only $200)
Apart from the cost, some of these therapies can be deadly. For example, Magic Mineral Solution contains two chemicals, sodium chlorite and citric acid, which combine to form chlorine dioxide—a potent, industrial-strength bleach. MMS therapy, which was invented by a former scientologist turned health evangelist, has been linked to at least one death. Similarly, chelation therapies, which bind heavy metals like lead and mercury, can also bind calcium, which is required for conducting electrical impulses in the heart. A 5-year-old boy with autism named Tariq Nadama died when intravenous chelation therapy caused his heart to stop beating.
Finally, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, which contain high concentrations of oxygen under pressure, are susceptible to fires, caused the death of a 4-year-old boy with cerebral palsy.
According to Commander Jason Humbert, an officer in the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, in April 2017 the FDA finally warned or took action against several companies that have made unsubstantiated claims about preventing, treating, or curing autism. Specifically, the FDA focused on chelation medicines, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and detoxifying baths, which supposedly draw chemical toxins, pollutants, and heavy metals out of the body but do no such thing. The FDA also criticized companies for marketing products like raw camel’s milk and essential oils.
The FDA’s attempts to eliminate bogus therapies are a knife passing through water. The alternative medicine industry, which nets about $36 billion a year, is far too ubiquitous, politically connected, and slippery to be affected. In the end, it’s up to the consumer to beware of the quick fixes and magic cures.
But when parents are desperate, that’s a very hard thing to do.