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How not to treat cancer (or anything else)


So long as we’re debating the legal and ethical conduct of certain Australians of recent public note, there’s this bit of unsurprising news:

Penelope Dingle died in August 2005 after initially refusing surgery for rectal cancer, opting to be treated with alternative remedies instead. The 45-year-old underwent emergency surgery in October 2003 to remove a life-threatening tumour but the cancer had already spread to other parts of her body.

Delivering his findings on Friday, West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope said homeopath Francine Scrayen “was not a competent health professional” and had given “dangerous advice” to Mrs Dingle when treating her.

He also said Mrs Dingle’s husband Peter, a prominent toxicologist, was “a victim of his own misinformation” and had “no qualifications in health and wellness”.

Peter Dingle appears to be something of a B-lister in the universe of Aussie quacks, an environmental toxicologist who believes that chemotherapy and radiotherapy are ineffective at treating nearly every form of cancer; that autism in children is caused by poor diet; that sunscreen will kill you; and that the ordinary flu vaccine caused people to contract H1N1. He markets a variety of books on his website, most of which make utterly fantastic claims about how to prevent and treat illness solely through diet and “natural” interventions. Evidently, his wife’s colorectal cancer provided him with further literary inspiration: At the coroner’s inquest, one witness testified that Dingle and his wife’s homeopath, Francine Scrayen, were planning to write a book attesting to homeopathy’s role in curing the disease without surgery, radiation or pharmaceuticals.  (The future of that book project would seem uncertain at this point.)

Penelope Dingle was by all accounts a willing participant in a variety of sham therapies that did nothing but allow her cancer to spread without interruption for 18 months. Rather than see a proper physician, she received encouragement from her husband and Scrayen to treat her rectal hemorrhaging and bowel obstruction with vitamin C and venus flytrap, with an occasional psychic reading or velvet soap enema thrown in for variety. By the time her cancer had metastasized and the main tumor was large enough to rip her bowels open, she weighed about 75 pounds. The head of the Australian Homeopathic Association has evidently suggested that Scrayen might have violated the organization’s Code of Conduct, which — among other things — advises homeopaths not to claim that their magical potions water drops and sugar pills are effective at treating real diseases.

What makes this case especially timely is that Australia is one of at least three nations — Germany and the UK being the others — where legislators are being urged to end all public subsidies for homeopathy, which deserves public funding to the same degree that, say, dowsers ought to be employed by state agricultural bureaus. Medibank, the private insurer owned by the Australian government, doesn’t reimburse patients for homeopathic placebos (though it does reimburse for consultations with “alternative” practitioners); many other private insurers in Australia cover homeopathy, however, and government subsidies for patient premiums means there’s a public cost for modalities that have never been able to bear the slightest scrutiny. The Australian Medical Association has, quite reasonably, come out against further subsidies for homeopathy.

The Dingle inquest — combined with an equally horrific manslaughter case that concluded last year — should bring more attention to the scam, but homeopathy is something of an unsinkable rubber duck. In the UK, for example, the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee published a brutal report in February that recommended the NHS abandon all funding for homeopathy (which by most estimates receives about £4 million annually from the government, a figure that doesn’t include other expenses like the £20 million squandered on renovations to the London Homeopathic Hospital early last decade). The British Medical Association agreed. In spite of it all, the government decided a week ago that although homeopathy is worthless, that the NHS embarrasses itself by associating with it in any way, and that homeopathy doesn’t deserve public support, Whitehall won’t actually prohibit the NHS from supporting it. It’s a preview of what I expect will happen in Australia and Germany (if the debates even carry that far).

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