On March 16, I was lured to a press conference held at the Novaris Foundation in London on the promise that it was going to demonstrate that there is scientific proof that acupuncture really works.
At the conference, Dr Thomas Lundeberg, of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Karolinska Hospital in Sweden, stood up and said that there is no evidence to demonstrate that meridiens, the entire foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine, exists. What we're really talking about, he said, is the stimulation of certain "trigger points", which could be nerve fibres or receptors, which release hormones.
Dr. Adrian White, of the Department of Complementary Medicine, at the University of Exeter, said there was a surprising lack of good quality studies of acupuncture for most diseases.
The only evidence we have shows that acupuncture definitely did work for dental pain, lower back pain and nausea, he said.
But the real point of the meeting appeared to centre on the fact that acupuncture wasn't particularly safe. Dr Hagen Rampes, senior registrar of South Kensington & Chelsea Mental Health Centre in London, performed a search on the electronic database and came up with over 300 serious adverse effects. These included pain, bacterial and viral infections, including septicaemia and endocarditis, plus trauma of tissue organs, including puncture of the lungs. One study from Japan found that 9 per cent of 255 cases of pneumothorax were due to acupuncture.
Now, you know me long enough to know that I am wholeheartedly in favour of scientific appraisal of any treatment, conventional or otherwise. However, there were a number of aspects of this particular appraisal that didn't sit well with me. For one thing, all the people doing the assessing were conventionally trained medical doctors. It's like letting the Iranian Ayatollah choose the next Catholic saint.
There was also the question of the hosts, the Novartis Foundation, which, in case you don't know this, is a non profit charity created originally by the Ciba Geigy drug company and now allied to the Novartis company, the recent merger of Ciba and Sandoz. The Foundation states that its aim is to provide a forum "where scientists from across the world can meet to exchange information and ideas". Not unlike the Wellcome Foundation, with its pure and unbiased intentions.
When Dr Rampes estimated that serious adverse effects occur in every 1 in 10,000 or 1 in 100,000 acupuncture treatments, you could almost hear the collective gasp among the audience of journalists. One piped up that if this kind of track record occurred with a drug, it never would have been let on the market.
But side effects of that magnitude are so commonplace they probably occur with virtually every drug. The Public Health Laboratory Service in Britain recommended the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine after their own study showed that it caused convulsions in one in every 400 children.
Obviously, if practitioner error is common, it's vital that the acupuncture community toughen up on standards, particularly of "casual" acupuncturists who practice after a weekend course.
The crux of the problem, to my mind, isn't so much a secret agenda here, but the fact that scientists schooled in one system of medicine are being allowed to assess a treatment in another system. If all that acupuncture amounts to is the stimulation of the nervous system, then how do you explain its scientifically proven ability to quell nausea or menopausal symptoms?
If meridiens and human energy fields do exist, then they cannot be explained through a western view of the human body. We have to allow for the fact that alternative medicine is a true alternative with its own logic and belief systems. It needs to be judged by people who are prepared to suspend their western disbelief and then start testing.