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OPEN LETTER: Dear Ivo Vegter, the real quackery lies with Big Pharma

Ivo Vegter finds pharmacists selling quackery more credible than homeopaths, as he wrote in two columns about ethical pharmacists. A true scientist has an open mind, hence should be careful about labelling ostensible “otherness” from the (kn)own paradigm as quackery or ludicrous.

In two columns published in Daily Maverick, Ivo Vegter concludes that he finds pharmacists selling quackery more credible than homeopaths, especially if those pharmacists would openly state that they don’t endorse “selling profitable rubbish” in their aisle. I certainly agree that the pharmacist he refers to is credible, in fact remarkably honest! But indeed not ethical, as per his first article. The legislation “forcing” him/her to do so may indeed be very flawed, but that should not turn your pharmacist into a conman: two wrongs never make a right. The proposed disclaimer, which Vegter pronounces to be a “great idea”, would soothe his conscience. How hypocritical in my opinion. Whereas the pharmacist perceives that he is selling rubbish, the homeopath truly believes that he is helping his clients. However, I am sure not all pharmacists would agree to the general ineffectiveness and dangerous side effects of their non-scheduled remedies. Now, my response is not about defending homeopathy, or Septoguard, nor about the debate of drugs versus herbal remedies, presuming that Vegter understands the vitally important differences between nutritional supplements and herbal remedies. My response is about science. Please remember that a true scientist has an open mind, hence should be careful about labelling ostensible “otherness” from the (kn)own paradigm as quackery, ludicrous, etc., words Vegter used. History shows that ridicule is a common and powerful way of resistance to paradigm shifts, in fact is regarded as one of the very stages of paradigm shifts. I would also like to addresses some of the shortcomings of the conventional medical way of thinking, which Vegter seems to embrace. It is clear that he demands that “mechanisms of actions of medicines” be scientifically confirmed and explained, and that which is unexplained and worse, unexplainable, presumably in terms of that same science, be condemned to the dung heap of quackery. He does not state which type of science he is actually referring to, but to me it seems obvious that he means conventional, classical physics and chemistry. I call this linear science, ie cause-effect based, reproducible and predictable, like the law of gravity. Let’s look at some science that is difficult to explain, is even unexplainable, nonetheless hard-core scientific in its origin. This is a vast topic, so I will have to limit myself to just lifting out a few examples. The roots of Quantum Physics go back almost 100 years. Developed by “regular” physicists, like Heisenberg, Bohr, Planc, one of its principles confirms that the normal cause -> effect, or linear relationship between events in physics does not apply at subatomic level. In fact, subatomic particles and events are subject to the so-called uncertainty principle. In fact they cannot be pinpointed, and respond to the human mind! For example an electron has both wave and particle properties which are not compatible according to classical physics, and when attempting to define the electron as a wave it tends to give a “wave answer”, and similarly does so regarding its particle (mass) aspect. This finding points to how the mind can influence outcomes of physical experiments and has certainly strengthened the need for the double blind method of testing in medicine. But the important point here is that, at the quantum level, ie at the very basis of what appears as solid matter, there is uncertainty, which cannot be explained and where nothing is readily predictable. Epigenetics is a new science, which concerns itself with studying the heritable changes in gene expression WITHOUT changes in the genome (DNA). In other words: the “story” of genetic expression can change without changes in the genetic “alphabet”. These epigenetic changes can have many causes, like environmental changes, nutrition, toxicity, AND our emotions. Heritable means that we can inherit a tendency to e.g. diabetes or emotional luggage from our grandparents. Heritability usually reaches down to the third generation. Our 98% non-coding DNA seems to be the vehicle for emotional trans-generational expression. The scientific experiments here are amazing, including how nutritional measures can alter gene expression. Yep: food can do that! Epigenetic “tags” can be measured, and are usually so-called micro-RNA “tails”, or simple methyl molecules (which can make genes shut up). An amazing discovery is that the tag which alters gene expression in the second generation is often no longer present in the third generation, while the altered gene expression is still present: an epigenetic memory, seemingly without physical causality. Is there a scientific explanation? Both Quantum Science and Epigenetics cannot but change one’s perception of science as a whole. Quantum Science and classical Physics are intimately connected but vastly different, like two different operating systems functioning with simultaneous expression. The same counts for Epigenetics and Genetics. The red thread through all of this is the profound influence our thoughts and emotions have, especially on the variations in how the human body expresses itself. Scientists, who are still exclusively rooted in linear thinking and demand reproducible, explainable outcomes as being the “only” real science, are in for an uncomfortable awakening. Let’s look at another operating system that is not so straightforward: neurotransmitters. These are physical, molecular entities that carry impulses and information between nerve endings. When I make a physical movement the neurotransmitter impulse is generated in the opposite motor cortex in my brain and follows the nerve pathways to the muscles involved with the desired movement as outcome. But… I first had a thought. That though is abstract, non-physical, cannot be quantified, and then, presto, instantly, seemingly OUT OF NOTHING, a physical neurotransmitter is created. How can science explain this every-second-of-every-day phenomenon of life? Scientific, reproducible experiments have shown that human DNA responds to emotions, even when tissue samples are taken from the body, even over large distances, simultaneous to the same DNA changes in the body itself. This is known as a non-local phenomenon: synchronistic (immediate) occurrences that are intimately linked, but are not mediated by any known factor, nor mitigated over any distance. In other scientific experiments it is shown that a vacuum can retain a memory of DNA it previously contained and which influenced photons. If empty space can contain a memory, then perhaps water can, too. Think of the work by Masaru Emoto, eg his “The Hidden Messages in Water” where he shows scientifically (reproducibly) that water molecules (‘just’ H2O) respond to our thoughts, emotions, and indeed music! Just have a look at his magnificent photographs of ice crystals and ask yourself again whether it is a ‘ludicrous idea’ that water has memory. Subsequent to Emoto’s work other scientists have confirmed the existence of water memory. Don’t take my word for it; just Google it and have fun. Water actually does have memory. All of this is mind-blowing stuff. The main reasons for the above comments: Reality may not be what it seems to be, eg the human system is much greater than a physical clockwork mechanism, and not every reality can be scientifically explained, at least not in terms of classical physics and chemistry. Thus your demand for linear scientific explanations is a very tall order, especially re human beings, who are not machines that can be predictably manipulated. The following few comments relate to “the gold standard” of medical testing: the randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled trials of pharmaceutical drugs. But first, the following background: Factors which influence our health are genetics and epigenetics, nutrition, toxicity, life style choices, the environment and ‘wear and tear’, and lastly the mind, emotions and soul connection. Each of these categories offers a myriad of possibilities, meaning there are many variables, and thus there are many causes of ill health. Mainstream medicine very often confuses any illness with its manifestations, eg cancer is regarded as a tumour, instead of as the many processes that manifest in that tumour. There are many different causes of the same cancer, or any (chronic) illness. See above. Different people with the same cancer have different problems. That means that there are many different solutions, varying from person to person. And that means that medicine needs to be individualised. Using one drug for one manifestation of illness can never be a meaningful solution. In fact, pharmaceutical drugs can never address any of the many causes of any illness: you don’t have a headache because of an aspirin deficiency; you don’t have cancer because of a chemo deficiency, and so on. Pharmaceutical drugs obviously have a very important role to play, especially in emergency medicine and to relieve suffering, but they do not offer solutions to restoring health. I don’t want to go into the concept of randomising, nor the double-blind placebo-controlled method. Everyone is unique and one simply cannot exclude the influence of the mind. But, let’s accept that this method has a role to play. Far more serious to me is the utterly flawed thinking that one should assess a single drug to combat a medical problem. As pointed out there are many causes of any single disorder, hence many solutions, and drugs cannot ever address these. My own hypothesis (not scientific fact), is that the more predictable and reproducible the results of these so-called scientific medical studies on drugs are, the more harm these drugs cause. He mentions that there are potential harmful effects of untested herbal and other remedies, whereas that “homeopathy’s harm lies exclusively in convincing people to forego real medicine, and these people becoming sicker or even dying when they might have been cured”. This is quite a mouthful all in one sentence. I would like to reply with equally challenging statements: Mainstream pharma-based medicine is one of the known leading causes of disease and death, not herbal medicine. The problems with drugs lie much deeper than immediately noticeable side effects. Example: you correctly state that antibiotics also kill good bacteria and cause gastro-intestinal complications. The microbiome (which populates the gut) includes more beneficial bacteria than human cells in the entire body; we have more bacterial DNA in our body than human DNA! These beneficial bacteria are indeed “the gate keepers” of our health. Knocking them off by the billions will cause problems. Doing that over and over and over and over again will eventually contribute majorly to, or cause any allergic manifestation, autoimmunity, cancer, mental disorders, and more, including death. Never mind the alarming increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics, or the associated viral and yeast conditions, which do not respond to antibiotics. How do you know homeopaths convince their clients to forego real medicine? I don’t think any practitioner in his right mind will do that. I am an MD and I don’t do it. All I can do is point out the dangers of the drugs, what the alternatives are, explain “both sides of the fence” to the best of my ability, and leave the patient with the decision. You may still call that “convincing” the patient, but my point is that the onus lies with the patient, not the practitioner. The “one side of the fence only” practitioner does not offer any choice, in fact seldom explains anything at all to their patients. Drugs are not real medicine. They cannot cure any condition. Many conditions, as mentioned above, are exacerbated by the drugs used with these very conditions. As symptoms are not necessarily signs of illness, but invariably meaningful signs of healing and/or warning, symptomatic treatment often slows down recovery, or worse. I am not anti-drugs. I am very anti the portrayal of drugs as solutions to (or worse: cures of) any illness. This does not mean all natural products are safe and effective, just generally so much safer than drugs. Period. Science in medicine certainly has a major role to play but given the human factor, this will never be easy. In my opinion one should use an integrated approach to evaluate any condition. The healthcare industry needs to live up to its name and support health rather than just treat symptoms. So when you proclaim the need for scientific explanations I again ask ‘which scientific paradigm are you referring to’. My thinking is inclusive of all paradigms, with the understanding that everything is connected. It’s called holism. I sincerely hope these few comments may entice Ivo Vegter to examine his premises. Unfortunately, given space constraints, I cannot delve any deeper here. I do wish every pharmacist would train further in nutrition, stock quality supplements in their profit-making aisle so that they can proudly sell quality pro-health products without having to hide behind a disclaimer for the quackery they may perceive they’re selling. I am totally convinced that the real quackery lies with big pharma, in fact, that quackery is a euphemism here. In my opinion the pharmaceutical and commercial food industries have lost all focus on health. Good journalism can contribute to a more enlightened public, better able to make pro-health decisions. DM Dr Charles Wildervanck MD is a practitioner of Integrative Medicine