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Is Taxpayer Money Well Spent or Wasted on Alternative-Medicine Research?

Newspaper article

Is Taxpayer Money Well Spent or Wasted on Alternative-Medicine Research?

Article excerpt

In 1992, two Democratic politicians from Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin and former Rep. Berkley Bedell, persuaded Congress to create the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) "to explore complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science."

Both men cited personal anecdotes as their motivation to launch the new agency. Harkin said bee pollen had cured his hayfever, and Bedell believed cow colostrum had cured his Lyme disease.

In 1999, OAM was renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and housed within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its annual budget climbed steadily during the ensuing years, to $130 million in 2012. Together, OAM and NCCAM have spent $1.6 billion since their inception.

But has that money been well spent?

Just 'placebos'

No, says Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania (and a leading critic of the anti-vaccine movement), in a commentary published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Study after study funded by NCCAM has "failed to prove that complementary or alternative therapies are anything more than placebos," he writes.

In fact, many of the studies are biologically nonsensical, "which should be an important requirement for funding," he adds.

For example, NCCAM officials have spent $374,000 to find that inhaling lemon and lavender scents does not promote wound healing; $750,000 to find that prayer does not cure AIDS or hasten recovery from breast-reconstruction surgery; $390,000 to find that ancient Indian remedies do not control type 2 diabetes; $700,000 to find that magnets do not treat arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or migraine headaches; and $406,000 to find that coffee enemas do not cure pancreatic cancer.

No change in behavior

Studies that turn up negative results can, of course, be helpful. A good example, says Offit, are the epidemiological studies (not funded by NCCAM) that found no association between the measles-mump- rubella vaccine and autism. Those studies have helped doctors reassure frightened parents -- and, thus, changed behavior. …

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