When faith in “alternative medicine” endangers children…

When confronted with skeptics who refuse to stay silent in the face of quackery–I’m sorry, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), a large proportion of which is unproven if not outright quackery–shruggies frequently ask, “What’s the harm?” I can reply that so many of these modalities are no more than elaborate placebos reinforced with magical thinking. I can explain why science- and evidence-based medicine is superior. I can even point out that the blandishments of quacks all too frequently convince people to forego or delay effective medical therapy, allowing them to become sicker or even become so sick that conventional medicine can no longer save them.

Or I can show them:

An alternative medicine devotee will spend six months behind bars for causing his sick daughter brain damage by refusing to take her to hospital.

The Brisbane District Court was told today the 11-year-old had been suffering from a heart infection for two weeks before her 45-year-old father finally took her to hospital.

She was gravely ill when she was admitted to Toowoomba Base Hospital in September 2006.

Her temperature was 42C, she had been hallucinating and was weak, pale and could no longer walk.

The court was told her mouth was peeling, black and clogged from the alternative medicine her father had been giving her in extremely high doses.

The doctor who finally examined the 11-year-old said in a report the girl was as “sick as the sickest person I’ve ever seen in 35 years”.

Six months behind bars for neglect that caused his daughter permanent brain damage? That seems incredibly inadequate to me. This father failed in his fundamental duty to his daughter, namely to provide her with medical care.

What probably happened was this girl had endocarditis, an infection of her heart valve. Endocarditis is eminently treatable with the correct antibiotics, but this girl was not treated with the correct antibiotics. What was she treated with? Mannatech:

Instead, he had been relying on the glyconutrient dietary supplement Mannatech to cure his daughter.

A psychologist report tendered in court said the father’s belief in Mannatech bordered on “obsessive” and that he had an “exaggerated view of his own knowledge and ability” about health treatments.

He had been giving her so much Mannatech it had stuck to her teeth and clogged her mouth.

The father also suffered impaired judgment because of a brain injury he suffered in the mid-1990s.

This leaves me with two questions. First, why was the girl in this man’s custody if his judgment was impaired by brain damage? Second, why did no one report how ill the girl was becoming to the authorities? There is a mention that the mother was afraid to push the issue because the man might deny her access to her daughter, but surely someone else must have had an inkling of what was going on. What about the school? Usually when a child is absent that long, it requires a doctor’s note, and if the absence continues too long it’s not uncommon for the school to send out a truant officer to find out why the child has been absent.

I looked around for more information and could only find this:

The court was told the girl’s mother did not seek medical attention for her daughter as she was scared her former husband would not let her see the children again.

At one stage the man, who had the flu at the time, took Panadol but refused to give his daughter any, the court heard.

When the girl’s sister pleaded with him to take her to hospital, he told her: “Your mother’s drumming stupid stuff into your head.”

It wasn’t until several weeks later that he relented and took his daughter to Toowoomba Base Hospital, where the man ordered hospital staff not to give his daughter Panadol or antibiotics.

So, basically this girl’s father’s faith in Mannatech doomed her to a life of severe brain damage and disability. His idiocy robbed her of a normal life. There is no excuse.

But what is Mannatech?

Oddly enough, I haven’t really covered Mannatech before. Basically, Mannatech is a multilevel marketing (a.k.a. cleverly disguised pyramid scheme) company that sells a line of “glyconutrient” supplements. Like many companies selling unregulated dietary supplements, Mannatech claims its products are good for what ails you and “promote health.” Like many such companies, makes all sorts of health claims for its products. Unlike some of the more–shall we say?–discreet supplement companies, Mannatech isn’t afraid to claim its products can treat all manner of diseases and conditions. Its most famous product, Ambrotose, is claimed to “promote cell-cell communication,” whatever that means. Mannatech has claimed that its products can treat all sorts of disease. So said the Texas Attorney General in 2006:

Mannatech, a Dallas-area company that sells sugar pills touted to cure cancer, Down syndrome and a panoply of other conditions, is under investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s Office for possible deceptive trade practices.

“Mannatech has made unproven health claims about its products, such as the ability to cure cancer and numerous other ailments,” the AG’s office wrote in an Oct. 24 response to a public information request. “The claims are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, making the claims potentially in violation of both state and federal law.”

Mannatech even claimed its supplements could treat Down’s syndrome, a genetic disorder.

Few companies can claim to have had a commentary written about them in a scientific journal that slams their claims, but Mannatech can. In 2007, the journal Glycobiology published a scathing review and commentary about Mannatech’s claims entitled A “Glyconutrient Sham” that was uncharacteristically blunt for a scientific journal. Its conclusions were that the supplements sold by Mannatech are either unproven or clearly worthless and that Mannatech’s claims for them are unjustified and unsupported by science. Naturally, as is common for sellers of supplements, lots of science is cited, but most of it, though impressive sounding, does not support the claims of Mannatech for its products or is not as it is represented.

Companies like Mannatech promote their products through a now-familiar combination of grandiose claims intentionally tinged with plausible deniability. That they can get away with this is completely due to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, a law I like to call the “quackery support act.” Indeed, Mannatech was founded in 1994. Whether coincidence or not, it is appropriate. It fits.

I realize that the DSHEA is an American law and consequently does not apply in Australia, where the 11-year-old girl described earlier was injured. However, similar sorts of laws are being promoted worldwide as part of the “health freedom” movement. In reality, the “health freedom” movement is really the “quack freedom” movement. It means freedom from reasonable regulation, freedom for sellers of dubious treatments or supplements to sell what they want when they want. It means freedom of protections against fraud.

Girls like the unnamed 11 year old are the casualties.