The Sciences

Ex-Naturopath Wins Award for Standing up for Science. Is the Indian Govt Listening?

Britt Hermes's winning the 2018 Maddox Prize is a jab in the side of the Indian government for its misplaced allegiance to medicinal systems that don't work.

Britt Hermes has been named one of the winners of the 2018 John Maddox Prize, awarded to scientists who stand up for science. The prize is given every year by the Sense About Science charity and the journal Nature. Hermes receives the award for speaking up against quack herbal treatments. Hermes was herself a naturopath in her previous life. However, as she began to examine the data which naturopaths claimed legitimised their treatments, she found that little held up to scrutiny. She rebelled, speaking out against former colleagues and peers, and denounced her field. She has since been an advocate against alternative medical treatments, including homeopathy, especially for diseases like cancer. “Today, we are swarmed with information, both good and bad, and naturopaths are capitalising on this great ambiguity, allowing alternative facts to generate profit at the expense of people’s health and safety,” she tweeted, after learning that she was one of the Maddox Prize winners. Naturopaths believe some cancers can be completely cured using herbal therapies alone. Hermes has found these claims are never backed by evidence and that they are dangerous and ineffective. Such ‘cures’ are offered by multiple naturopaths in India, and for a variety of ailments. It’s one thing to take a glass of warm milk with turmeric for a sore throat; quite another to be led to believe that dietary changes might cure your pancreatic cancer. But this is exactly what the Government of India has been enabling: rather than curbing the practice or spread of pseudoscientific healthcare, it facilitates them through the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). No proper scientific studies have been undertaken by the ministry to assess whether naturopathic treatments – including ayurveda – actually work. Still the ministry lavishes practitioners with support and funds, allowing quacks across the country to claim their work is officially licensed. The biggest beneficiary of this regime is Baba Ramdev, whose Patanjali Ayurved Ltd. advertises itself as the “fastest growing FMCG company in India”. Hermes deserves her prize and the praise for standing up for the rights of patients to reliable, evidence-based healthcare. But her victory is also a jab in the side of the Indian government for its misplaced allegiance to medicinal systems that don’t work. She is currently battling a lawsuit filed by Colleen Huber, an American naturopath who believes cancer can be “killed” without non-invasive drugs, using “intravenous vitamins, mistletoe injections, and special diets” instead (source). Huber has sued Hermes for defamation. It’s a SLAPP suit, basically. Meanwhile, the ministry of AYUSH has pushed homeopathic and ayurvedic treatments for diabetes. The Tamil Nadu government distributed an herbal concoction last year claiming that it could ‘cure’ dengue. In July this year, researchers at a university in Gujarat claimed to have proved that cow urine could kill cancer cells. Even a health ministry attempt to allow homeopaths to practice a ‘limited allopathy’ was strongly opposed from within the government’s ranks. The National Medical Commission Bill 2017, which enables this, was sent to a Parliamentary standing committee earlier this year. These are just a few scattered examples of a nationwide obeisance being paid to pseudoscience by lawmakers and party leaders alike. Hermes’s fight is ours as well. The fourth National Health and Family Survey found that only about 0.5% of urban Indians and 1.2% of rural Indians (among respondents) sought the help of traditional Indian medicine. It’s time we reduce that to zero, before more ludicrous notions are transformed into products to give false hope to sick people.