Camel’s milk: The cure-all that cures autism, too?

The Autism File bills itself as a magazine dealing with all aspects of autism. In reality, it’s basically a crank magazine dedicated to autism biomedical quackery plus a generous helping of antivaccine fear mongering. In fact, this passage should tell you all you need to know about the publication:

Autism File is a lifestyle guide to achieving better health. It is written with your needs in mind but is not a substitute for consulting with your physician or other health care providers. The publisher and authors are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of the suggestions, products or procedures that appear in this website. All matters regarding your health should be supervised by a licensed health care physician.

Yep. It’s what we in the science-based medicine biz call the Quack Miranda Warning. And why would anyone expect otherwise? After all, the editorial advisory board includes such luminaries of the antivaccine movement as Andrew Wakefield himself, Anju Usman, and Mary Holland, while featuring Deirdre Imus as a regular contributor. Certainly, I didn’t. However, I will admit that AF gave me something to be amused at recently. I noticed it when everybody’s favorite antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism promoted an article in this particular “journal.” I should point out here, though, that normal, run-of-the-mill autism quackery wouldn’t have caught my attention so much. After all, I can common quack treatments for autism anywhere. Chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen, various forms of “biomedical woo,” all of these are uninteresting to me these days because I’ve covered them so many times before; that is, unless there is a new twist that rekindles my interest or I see something that I regard as a “teachable” moment.

Then there’s stuff that’s just plain weird, such as the aforementioned article promoted in the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism titled Got [Camel] Milk? The beauty of this article, if you can call it that, is that it doesn’t have to be about autism, vaccines, or any of the other common tropes, beliefs, and quackeries of the antivaccine movement. It could be about any form of quackery because it relies on the same types of bad reasoning that so many other justifications for unproven treatments for so many other conditions rely on. So, even though this is all about an alleged “treatment” for autism, it’s applicable to any kind of quackery. First, we have claims without any evidence beyond anecdotal:

Nomads in Algeria have long said, “Water is the soul, milk is the life.” They may be proved right by emerging reports that camel milk, the drink of nomadic peoples from Mongolia to India, may have a healing effect on various diseases.

Now parents from around the world, as I did in 2007, are also reporting reduced autism symptoms and increased skills in their ASD children. Better sleep, increased motor planning abilities and spatial aware- ness, more eye contact, better language and lessened gastrointestinal problems are now celebrated in global internet posts.

I guess it’s not completely implausible that there might be something in camel’s milk that can help alleviate autistic symptoms, it’s a claim that needs to have either some basic science behind it to suggest prior plausibility or really compelling clinical evidence that suggests it might have an effect before a science-based physician should take such claims seriously. So, trying to keep an open mind (but not so open that my brains fall out, as I like to say), I read on, looking for evidence. My guess is that my readers will not find it to be a spoiler when I reveal that I didn’t find any.

What I did find are a lot of passages like this one:

Dr. Reuven Yagil, a veteran Israeli camel expert who first described the use of camel milk to treat autism, says, “Autism is not a brain affliction but an autoimmune dis- ease afflicting primarily the intestines.” American-Israeli scientist Dr. Amnon Gonenne agrees that while autism is not defined as an inflammatory disease, it appears that in some cases of autism that exhibit allergic symptoms, there is an active inflammatory component.

Never having heard of Dr. Yagil before, I did what any good blogger should always do when encountering a claim by someone of whom he’s never heard: I Googled him. The first thing that came up was a website whose owner, Dina Amouyal, clearly thinks very highly of Dr. Yagil, Camel Milk for Health. Certainly, Ms. Amouyal was very impressed with Dr. Yagil at a symposium held to tout the benefits of camel milk. And Dr. Yagil is apparently a real academic, an emeritus professor of veterinary medicine, with some 59 publications in PubMed to his name. Not surprisingly, none of the publications, as far as I can tell, actually supports the use of camel milk to treat “autistic enterocolitis,” with the possible exception of maybe one. That one is Dr. Yagil’s most recent peer-reviewed paper that I can find was from 2005 and suggested the substitution of camel milk for cow’s milk in children with milk allergies. This is an unimpressive result, to say the least, in that it should not be surprising that substituting a different kind of milk might alleviate symptoms of cow’s milk allergy. It was also a small, unblinded study of only eight children. In any case, if you want to get an idea of Dr. Yagil’s thinking on the matter, note his presentation. In it, he points out that the in a book on the Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud the author points out that camels were created for milk and given by God to cure all illnesses and poverty, which is certainly a strange way to start out a presentation on the alleged medicinal properties of camel milk.

Christina Adams’ article, unsurprisingly, doesn’t add much to Dr. Yagil’s “evidence,” such as it is.. Her article is long on testimonials and hyperbole and short on actual scientific evidence. For instance, she includes a long testimonial about how camel milk supposedly helped her autistic son “Jonah” (it was Adams, not I, who put the quotes around his name). After a description of her trials and tribulations trying to get raw camel’s milk into the US, including a description of how much money she spent doing it, Adams writes:

Finally, we were ready, and at bedtime one night, I gave him a half-cup of milk with cereal. The next morning, his speech fluidity and eye con- tact was remarkably increased. He stunned me with a new and mature flow of loving ex- pressions, emotions, and complex conversations at the breakfast table. Within three days, he was able to cross the parking lot and street alone. The behavior breakdowns stopped and his eating needs lessened.

After upping the dose to a cup per day–the amount commonly used by adult camel milk users in Israel–he developed an odd jerking move- ment in his arm and some facial grimaces. I lowered the dosage, and the symptoms stopped. The constant white bumps under his cheeks faded and disappeared. His ADHD-specialty school documented improvements in their daily data sheets, and Jonah was able to return to regular public school. He tested with a college-level vocabulary, and his pragmatics and range were even better.

Wow! And, if you believe Adams, camel milk isn’t just good for autism. It’s pretty darned close to being a cure-all:

Eyal Lifshitz, manager of a camel milk research center and owner of Milk From Eden camel farm, believes there are apparent positive responses in patients with inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and colitis. Other research suggests that patients undergoing chemotherapy and those suffering from viral infections such as hepatitis may also benefit from camel milk. Even the rare and fatal familial genetic disorder Machado-Joseph is reportedly being treated with camel milk, getting patients “from wheelchair to stick to walking freely” in just months, Lifshitz states.

And if you don’t believe that, then there’s a link to Dr. Yagil’s website OasisMagic, which states baldly that “camel milk is a known cure for many diseases!” There, camel milk is touted as a bactericide, fungicide, and viricide. It’s claimed that camel milk can treat anemia, diabetes, allergies, autism, Crohn’s disease, and even cancer. And you might not believe this, little fella, but it’ll cure your asthma, too. Also, apparently, it’ll cure your erectile dysfunction as well, if we’re to believe Adams, who refers to camel’s milk as “male Viagra,” which struck me as odd, given that males already make up by far the largest group of Viagra users. One worries that there’ll be no camel milk left for autistic children once horny old men find out about this.

Meanwhile, Dr. Yagil laments that he has been derided as a crank and implies that it’s dogma that keeps the scientific world from recognizing what a magical cure-all camel’s milk is.

Again, I must point out that it is certainly not impossible that camel milk might have medicinal properties. It is, after all, made up of proteins, lipids, and a lot of other substances that might result in physiological effects. However, the evidence presented consists of testimonials, uncontrolled tiny pilot studies, and a lot of hand-waving. Moreover, whenever anyone makes claims that something like camel milk can treat a wide variety of diseases and disorders that do not share a common pathophysiology (example: acupuncture), it’s best to be very, very skeptical. Camel’s milk probably isn’t harmful. After all, people have been drinking it for millennia. However, the claims of miraculous medicinal properties are no different than most other claims for miraculous medicinal properties of various natural substances; i.e., they’re not particularly convincing and they’re being made by people selling camel milk.

Camel milk, apparently, is good for one thing. It’s good for Christina Adams getting a speaking gig at this year’s autism quackfest, Autism One. Yes, indeed, Adams will be right there giving a talk Practical Magic: The Benefits and Realities of Camel Milk Therapy for ASD.