From cow urine to a North Korean wonder drug: the weirdest alternative health stories of 2016

Picking out the highlights in alternative medicine in 2016 got me thinking for quite a while. There have been many dramatic events, including fatalities and other disasters. But, at this time of year, we don’t want to dwell on negativity — so let’s focus on the many funny, exotic or wondrous things that happened across the globe.

Homeopathy
Take, for instance, the announcement that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will no longer tolerate bogus claims for homeopathic products. It was long overdue, yet a leading homeopath’s reaction to it was as typical as it was hilarious; Dana Ullman was quoted as saying: ‘One cannot help but wonder who or what is pulling their strings … it is clear that this governmental agency is ignoring important scientific evidence, and one must wonder if they are protecting Big Pharma’. Sufficient proof, I’d say, that homeopathy does not work for paranoia.

Just one further homeopathic hilarity, if I may. A German medical society, the Bund Katholischer Aerzte (Association of Catholic Doctors), claimed that homeopathy could ‘cure’ homosexuality. Specifically, they advised that ‘…the working group Homeopathy of the association notes homeopathic therapy options for homosexual tendencies… repertories contain special rubrics pointing to characteristic signs of homosexual behaviour, including sexual peculiarities such as anal intercourse.’ Confronted with statements like these, one can only cry or laugh; I suggest the latter.

Wonder drugs
North Korea recently claimed to have developed a drug that not only cures Aids, but also eradicates Ebola and cancer. It consists of ginseng and other undisclosed ingredients. A spokesperson said: ‘The researchers insert rare earth elements (REE) into insam (gingseng) by applying the mico-elementary fertilisers of REE to the fields of insam. The injection is made of extracts from those complex compounds. As a strong-immuno-activator, the injection has been recognised to prevent different malignant epidemics.’ Makes sense? Only if you know that quacks live by advertising falsehoods: a Canadian survey just demonstrated that the majority of alternative healthcare clinics advertise interventions which are unproven and/or dangerous.

Urine therapy
Yes, urine has become a most valuable commodity in alternative medicine, according to an Indian news site. ‘The popularity of alternative medicine and a back-to-nature rush has meant that those seeking gomutra (cow urine) as the cure for all ailments — it is touted as a cure for cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, psoriasis among others — has spurred a rise of gomutra products in the Indian market. A year ago the Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research even initiated projects to study the anti-cancer and anti-infection properties… cow urine and dung.’

In the realm of alternative medicine, nothing is too weird for words.

Alternative resuscitation
A Russian healer reportedly spent more than four months trying to bring her dead husband back to life — with the help of holy water and prayer. The retired therapist said she didn’t report the death of her 87-year-old husband because she believed she could revive him by sprinkling holy water on his body and reading prayers. ‘When we started talking to the woman, it turned out that she was fascinated by alternative medicine and believed that, by sprinkling holy water on her husband, she would be able to bring him back, to revive him,’ the chief investigator said.

Ear candles
The Daily Mail reported about ear candles and the fact that Dr Dawn Harper had recommended them for clearing ears of wax and was subsequently heavily criticised for it. The article quoted me as saying that ear candles do more harm than good.

It continued: ‘Ironically, since the publication of Professor Ernst’s paper in 2004, ear candles have become more, not less, popular… Lynne Hatcher, a complementary health practitioner from Wolverhampton, claims ear candles are ‘a pleasant and non-invasive treatment of the ears, used to treat a variety of conditions’. Writing on her website she adds: ‘This is an ancient and natural therapy handed down by many civilisations. It is believed that the ancient Greeks used ear candles…’

At least three things are amusing or wondrous here, in my view: first, ear candles are, of course, nonsense, regardless of the condition you might try them for. Second, despite admitting this, the Mail still manages to heavily promote nonsense. And third, the reporter never actually interviewed me. Where, I ask myself, do the words they put in my mouth come from?

Donald Trump
‘Donald Trump is more holistic and health-oriented than Hillary Clinton,’ it was reported several months ago:

What has catapulted Trump to the top of GOP polls? His frank, honest – and admittedly blunt – discussion about illegal immigrants, many of whom he correctly noted were criminals: rapists, murderers and gang thugs…

The Donald, as NaturalNews has reported, is a consumer of organic food. His daughter, Ivanka, has said that the whole family consumes mostly fresh, organic meals which she often prepares herself. In addition, Trump’s children help oversee foods served at the family hotels – meals that include vegan, organic and gluten-free in-room dining choices. And when it can, the hotel chain obtains locally grown organic foods as a way of giving back to the communities they serve. The family’s diet even has a name: the Trump Wellness Plan, which fits with Trump’s overall health and fitness lifestyle.

Personally, I do wonder what Trump’s wellness plan will mean for our planet.

David Tredinnick
David Tredinnick, the quackery-obsessed Tory MP for Bosworth, recently claimed that many of his constituents were alive today only because of alternative medicine, and he urged ministers to spend more money on alternative therapies on the NHS. Tredinnick also told his fellow MPs: ‘I was talking… to practitioners about what they are able to do for cancer patients, and there is actually a very long list of types of cancer that can be treated using traditional Chinese herbal medicine.’ Tredinnick also characterised those who speak out against NHS spending on homeopathy ‘at best as foolish and at worst as wicked’.

Under English law, it is an offence to claim that any treatment can cure cancer, I believe. I suggest we laugh at politicians like Tredinnick, who probably would not recognise good evidence if they fell over it. Taking them seriously is simply too frightening a prospect.

Prince Charles
As so often when we discuss alternative medicine, our heir to the throne takes the proverbial biscuit. Prince Charles recently proposed a solution to the problem of antibiotic over-use in animals and humans. In the presence of our chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies (who once told a parliamentary committee that homeopathy in humans was ‘rubbish’ and that she was ‘perpetually surprised that homeopathy is available on the NHS’), the prince addressed an international conference at the Royal Society in London with scientists and government officials from 20 countries. Charles explained that he had switched to organic farming on his estates because of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance. Now he treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication.

The solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance is homeopathy? It seems that ‘eminence-based medicine’ is alive and kicking.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of Homeopathy: The Undiluted Facts and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.


  • Acleron

    And there is always homeopathic dinosaur to rid ourselves of Christmas bloat. 🙂

  • ReallyGoodMedicine

    Big pharma uses horse urine in drugs used to treat menopausal symptoms. Apparently using urine is only bogus when it can be asserted that it’s an alternative treatment.

    • Acleron

      As usual, BBF seeks to deceive. Premarin is a hormone replacement treatment that consists of conjugated oestrogens isolated from pregnant mare’s urine. The same treatment is available isolated from plants or synthetic sources.

      The difference between a substance, isolated, characterised and clinically tested and selling bovine urine is a gulf that BBF will never understand.

    • Big Pharma does indeed to that, but as Acleron makes clear below, not the way you present it.

      Homeopathy on the other hand uses bullshit. Search for “Bos primigenius taurus /Excrementum tauri” for the details.

  • John Hunter

    Now he treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication.

    The solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance is homeopathy?

    Living proof you can have someone with all the status the world, with many influential friends, advisors and professional doctors, consultants, etc. at their disposal, he himself had millions spent on him, was sent to the best schools, had elite education opportunities available and yet after all that, he is no more intelligent than a poor hick in a backward country who might through no fault of his own not know better because he was denied the same opportunities to better himself.

    Hope he realise that he could inadvertently create a breeding ground for disease.
    Is he mentally challenged or suffer from some cognitive defect?
    Common sense is something that is very uncommon there.

    • Acleron

      He is certainly pretty thick.

  • So exactly how would UNconventional healthcare have treated the genetic disorder that destroyed my liver? Mind you, a homeopathic transplant would presumably have left me with a smaller scar.

  • Ah… Attacking the person rather that the claims made. That’s going to win you a lot of points from the alt-med crowd. They are that irrational.

  • Jonnybones

    OK So who is irrational?

    No Deaths from Supplements. No Deaths from Minerals or Amino Acids. No Deaths from Homeopathics or Herbs
    Mowry JB, Spyker DA, Brooks DE et al. 2015 Annual Report of the American
    Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System
    (NPDS): 33rd Annual Report. Clinical Toxicology 2016, 54:10, 924-1109,
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15563650.2016.1245421

    Countless deaths from conventional medicine. Go figure.

    • Acleron

      Admittedly, somewhat safe but totally ineffective. Only somewhat safe because your list has killed and injured people either by inaction or by actively poisoning them.

      • Jonnybones

        My favourite statistic, when doctors strike the death rate falls.

        • Acleron

          From treatment with conventional medicinal drugs?