October 5th 2007, 11:19
So it's official - herbal medicine is dangerous and ineffective. It's a view that has been enshrined in a review paper with the authoritative title 'A systematic review of randomised clinical trials of individualised herbal medicine in any indication', and published by a prestigious medical journal.
It's just the stuff that medical regulators, and indeed the drug industry, have been looking for in order to control, ban, destroy or take over herbal medicine.
A closer inspection of the paper suggests that it is far from being a systematic review at all. In fact, the damning evidence against herbal medicine is based on just three trials, even though the herbal medicine groups submitted 1,345 papers for review.
As far as the reviewers were concerned, 1,342 of them were just too 'unscientific' to be considered. Instead, they focused on a 16-week trial involving IBS sufferers, another that lasted 10 weeks on people with osteoarthritis of the knee joints, and a third that reviewed the progress of patients with breast or colon cancer.
Does this very limited coverage warrant the title of 'any indication', as the paper claims? And are the conclusions any worse than those thousands of papers that every day point to the dangers, and limitations of prescription drugs - without a single one making a mark on the day's media?
Industry watchers will not be surprised to read that one of the paper's authors is Prof Edzard Ernst (family motto: 'I have not come to praise alternative medicine, I have come to bury it') who has hardly said a good word for alternative medicine in all the years he has held the recently-created Complementary Medicine chair at Exter University.
Following the publication of the paper, he had this to say to journalists: "A depressed person who takes St John's wort and comes out of depression arguably gathers enough strength to commit suicide, so it is dangerous." This suggests that St John's wort is an effective antidepressant (which it is in mild cases), but it's so effective that the sufferer will commit suicide once he regains a more positive outlook!
The problem is that we live in a headline, soundbite world, and the damage will be done by the paper's title and conclusion.
It's not good science, but it is good ammunition.