This is what happens when you trust a naturopath to treat a real disease

Naturopathy is a cornucopia of quackery with a patina of plausibility applied in the form of some seemingly reasonable recommendations about diet and exercise. Under the patina, however, lies virtually every form of quackery known to humankind. Be it homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, applied kinesiology, iridology, bogus diagnostic testing, reflexology, craniosacral therapy, or even organ repositioning (nonsurgical, I hasten to point out), no form of pseudoscientific medicine is rejected by naturopaths based on science. This is not surprising, given that naturopathy is based on vitalism, the idea that there is a “vital force” or “life energy” that can be bolstered by the “healing power of nature” and is threatened by (mostly) unnamed “toxins.” Unfortunately, thanks to a clever marketing campaign, the ignorance of legislators, and the indifference of medical societies, here in the US, naturopathy has made inroads to the point where it is a licensed health profession in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Naturopaths, not surprisingly, continue to press for more, including—horrifically—prescribing privileges, even though they have nowhere near enough training to be able to safely prescribe pharmaceuticals. It’s not just a problem in the US, of course. Naturopathy has been big in Europe for a long time, and it’s a problem in Australia as well.

While naturopaths might do minimal harm for the most part when they treat the “worried well” and minor, self-limiting illnesses, whenever they treat something serious, bad things happen. Even when they treat something that’s only moderately serious, bad things often happen. Take, for instance, this story out of Australia that I just found last night:

An eight-month-old baby boy came close to death after he was placed on a naturopathic treatment plan which left him suffering severe malnutrition and developmental problems, NSW police have said.

On Thursday child abuse squad detectives arrested a naturopath, a 59-year-old woman from Leppington in south-west Sydney, alleging she ordered a treatment plan for the baby which resulted in serious harm.

Police were told the boy’s mother had sought alternative health treatments for his eczema in April, and that she was allegedly told by the naturopath to cease all conventional medical and dermatological treatments for him.

Eczema is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the skin that results in itching, blisters that crust over and become scaly, itchy rashes, and dry, thick patches of skin with scales. In babies, severe eczema can result in significant complications. For instance, if large areas of skin are involved, there can be significant fluid loss from the oozing blisters. The open skin can become infected with bacteria, resulting in cellulitis and even sepsis. It can also become infected with a virus, such as herpes simplex, to produce a condition known as eczema herpeticum. The baby in the story above is not alone. Eczema seems to be a magnet for quackery, and babies have died from untreated eczema, an example being a 9 month old baby with eczema who died because her parents persisted in treating it with homeopathy, rather than real medicine. Her parents were ultimately convicted of manslaughter. Even adults are not immune, as there have been deaths from sepsis in adults with eczema.

The naturopath in the current case is Marilyn Bodnar, who practices at the Health and Vitality Centre. The website is down (so don’t bother clicking), and the page is not archived. However, the center’s Facebook page hasn’t been sent down the memory hole yet (amazingly), and neither has her own Facebook page. It didn’t take me much scrolling to find this particular Facebook post:

NVIC "I'm not antivax"

The above photo is from the National Vaccine Information Center, one of the oldest of modern antivaccine groups. So, right off the bat, I can tell that Bodner is antivaccine; no doubt she tells the parents of her pediatric patients not to vaccinate. If you have any doubt, she also shared a photo from the Antivaccination And Natural Therapies Network:

No compulsory vaccine

Oh, and she posts links to antivaccine rants on NaturalNews.com:

Natural News nonsense

But what about eczema? Googling Bodner’s name plus “eczema” brought up mostly stories about how she almost killed an eight month old child, but it also revealed that she hadn’t deleted one of her other web pages, which revealed a typical menu of naturopathic quackery, including:

  • Live Blood Analysis
  • Nutrition & Lifestyle Coach
  • Aromatherapy Massage
  • Bowen Therapy
  • Emmett Muscle Release
  • Sports Injury Therapist, Exercise Therapist
  • Steam Sauna & Hydrotherapy treatments, Thought Field Therapist

There’s not enough there to be able to tell which naturopathic therapies Bodner recommended for the child, but, as news reports relate, we do know that she instructed the parents to stop his medical treatment for eczema and replace it with alternative treatments. We also know that the child was near death when hospitalized, having lost a kilogram of body weight. If any of you are in pediatrics, you know that for an eight month old, losing one kilogram of body weight is basically starvation. Let’s just put it this way. the 50th percentile weight for an 8 month old male is 8.6 kg. Basically, the child lost easily more than 10% of his body weight. If he was smaller than average to begin with, which is not uncommon with children with chronic diseases, the weight loss could have been considerably more.

Although I can’t tell what treatments this particular naturopath used, I thought I’d look around and see what naturopaths typically recommend for eczema. A big one, of course, is homeopathy. The advantage of homeopathic treatments of eczema is that they are, for the most part, water (unless adulterated with real drug or a “weaker” dilution, which in the case of homeopathy means that it was diluted less). Other remedies include virgin coconut oil, vitamin E oil, chamomile tea, aloe vera, gentian tincture, ground horsetail plant, various flowers, and various herbal remedies. Others include magnesium “detox” baths (which sound like a really bad idea to me for people with open skin lesions) and probiotics. There is basically no reliable evidence that any of these approaches work; so in essence most likely the baby treated by Bodner received no treatment at all. Most likely, the baby boy became septic at some point. Fortunately, in this case the baby was hospitalized in time to save his life. Others are not always so fortunate. Even this boy spent more than a month in the hospital before being discharged on Wednesday.

So what’s next? This:

Child Abuse Squad detectives arrested the woman at a Leppington property about 7:30am on Thursday.

She was granted conditional bail to appear at Fairfield Local Court later this month, charged with grievous bodily harm and failure to provide for a child, causing danger of death.

They are often untested, they’ve not been passed through the TGA so we don’t know their real effect and we don’t know their interactions and we don’t know their safety profile.

The child’s mother is facing similar charges.

This is good. This is right and proper. Unfortunately, as always, I tend to be pessimistic that any significant jail time will result. One can only hope that this child is not given back to her parents, who failed him so dramatically.

Finally, in Australia, naturopathy is not a licensed health profession, as it is in some states. Some are making the perverse argument that licensing naturopaths would bring greater accountability, so that practitioners like Bodner couldn’t subject babies to quackery unto near death. Of course, given that the vast majority of naturopathic treatments are quackery, I’ve always found this argument bordering on the ridiculous. So do important Australians:

Dr Brian Morton, chair of the Australian Medical Association’s council of general practice, said while forcing naturopaths to register with an agency might lead to greater accountability, it might also “send a message of acceptability or validity as a health profession, so that’s a problem”.

It’s a problem we in the US also deal with, except that we have 17 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia where naturopathy is licensed. One wonders what would have happened in one of those states if Bodner had been a fully licensed naturopath practicing there. She could have claimed she was practicing according to naturopathic standards of care (mainly because there are no naturopathic stanards of care) and that it wasn’t her fault that it didn’t work and the child nearly died. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that whatever board oversees naturopaths in the state would do much of anything.

Naturopathy is not science-based medicine. It is a patchwork of various “natural therapies,” outright quackery like homeopathy and applied kinesiology, with a little bit of semi-reasonable advice about nutrition and exercise. What happened to this 8 month old baby is what happens whenever naturopathy is used to treat even a moderately severe disease that is not self-limiting.