Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Reality Check

Assaulting alternative medicine: worthwhile or witch hunt?

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 15 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1075

Re: Assaulting alternative medicine: worthwhile or witch hunt?

Professor David Colquhoun says

"If it was left to people like Viera Scheibner, we'd still live in a world where smallpox and polio were rampant.

I rest my case."

I don't know Viera Scheibner, but I'm intrigued by the good professor's comments about polio.

In 1995 India was claimed to have 30,000 cases of paralytic polio in children every year. A polio eradication programme was instigated with previous cases diagnosed as polio renamed Acute Flaccid Paralysis, or polio-like paralysis, with cases being screened for polio infection and only polio positive cases being called polio... the other clinically identical paralysis cases were classified as AFP.

The good professor implies that polio is no longer rampant.

Given that the WHO has recently announced to all and sundry that India is now officially polio free, let's look at the WHO's own data, from their website.

Despite claims that there were 30,000+ cases of polio in 1995, only 1,005 cases of AFP were notified in 1996, all of them being diagnosed as polio. In 2011, there were 60,849 cases of clinically diagnosed polio-like paralysis, one (1) of which was confirmed as polio...

No doubt Professor Colquhoun is celebrating the wonderful success of the polio vaccination programme in India where children still got polio until recently even after having 30 plus polio vaccinations.

I wonder if redefining what was called polio before the vaccination eradication programme to AFP, or polio-like paralysis is what the good professor would call a medical success?

I suspect the parents of the 60,848 mostly vaccinated children (up to 30+ polio vaccine doses) paralysed by a polio-like illness will be rejoicing that polio is no longer rampant... that's 252,000 children diagnosed with polio-like paralysis in the past five years. [see graph]

And the good professor rests his case that polio is no longer rampant while reclassified polio-like paralysis continues unabated.

Perhaps the good professor could explain how reclassifying a disease and then claiming eradication of the disease is a medical success? Is that what he means when he said that medicine has moved on?

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 March 2012
Ron Law
Risk & Policy Adviser
Juderon Associates
25 Mudgeways Road, Auckland, New Zealand