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Quack remedies spread by virtue of being useless

Posted in News by Skepdude on May 6, 2009

Eating a vulture won’t clear a bad case of syphilis nor will a drink made of rotting snakes treat leprosy, but these and other bogus medical treatments spread precisely because they don’t work. That’s the counterintuitive finding of a mathematical model of medical quackery.

Ineffective treatments don’t cure an illness, so sufferers demonstrate them to more people than those who recovery quickly after taking real medicines.

“The assumption is that when people pick up treatments to try, they’re basically observing other people,” says Mark Tanaka, a mathematical biologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who led the study. “People don’t necessarily know that what somebody is trying is going to work.”

The World Health Organization is demanding better proof that folk medicines work before they can be approved. And the Malaysian government has rejected more than a third of the 25,000 applications to register traditional medicines it has received because the treatments are ineffective or dangerous.

Despite these efforts, quack medicine persists around the world. Some Nigerians treat malaria with witchcraft, a South African health minister recently claimed that garlic and beetroot treat HIV, and western health stores brim with unproven treatments for almost any disease imaginable. For instance St John’s wort does nothing for attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children, a recent placebo-controlled trial concluded.

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE AT “NEW SCIENTIST”

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