Alternative Medicine Peddling Alternative Facts?

With some naturopaths jumping on the anti-vaccination bandwagon, what can be done to stem the tide of harmful junk science?


Naturopaths and other such complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners are in the firing line of a new report that calls for tighter regulation to stop the spread of misinformation.

The University of Alberta study took a look at 330 websites of naturopaths throughout Alberta and British Columbia and scrutinized them for keywords like ‘vaccine’, ‘vaccination’, ‘flu’, ‘immune’, and ‘immunization’.

The objective was to find dialogue promoting vaccine-hesitancy and offers of alternative services. Of the websites studied, 53 explicitly stated vaccine-hesitant language, suggested an alternative to vaccination, or both.

The authors noted even outside of those 53, very few seemed keen on promoting the line of mainstream medical science, with little or no words supporting vaccinations. Pseudo-scientific claims about autism or Asperger’s were abundant; in particular, mercury was often singled out as a cause of these conditions.

One such clinic, Vancouver Naturopathic Clinic, claims that ‘babies are especially susceptible to small amounts of mercury injected directly into their tiny bodies. It is now suspected that the increase in autism and Asperger Syndrome is related to the mercury in childhood vaccinations.’

There is no evidence whatsoever that links mercury to either of these conditions and almost all vaccines in Canada are made without mercury anyway. Another common false claim is the supposed prevalence of allergic reactions, yet the figures are clear on the matter – allergic reactions to shots are rare.

Bizarre alternatives to vaccinations included procedures or prescriptions such as ‘biopuncture’, ultraviolet blood irradiation, acupuncture, Vitamin C & D, herbs, and ‘immune booster shots’. The most common alternative was some form of homeopathy, a widely discredited practice that has no clinical evidence supporting its efficacy.

How did we get here?

The ‘anti-vaxx movement’ is often traced back to the fraudulent work of Andrew Wakefield, a discredited medical researcher from England.

The results of his 1998 paper that linked the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to autism and bowel disease could not be reproduced by other researchers, prompting an inquiry by the British General Medical Council. He was subsequently struck off the UK Medical Register in 2010.

Since then, Wakefield has directed an anti-vaccination propaganda film called Vaxxed: From Coverup to Catastrophe and inspired the rise of groups and organizations that support his cause via campaigning. Declining immunization rates across the Anglosphere have been attributed to Wakefield and his followers who now thrive on social media platforms.

Several outbreaks of preventable diseases have been documented across the US in the last decade, including a recent high profile case in Minnesota. But why are people likely to subscribe to discredited practices and hypotheses?

The fact of the matter is, not everybody thinks in rational and scientific terms. Cultural and social influences play significant roles in the development of opinion and belief, however false and misguided they may be.

Cognitive bias is the term used to describe how people only look for information or claims that support their perspective. Opposing facts, figures, and opinions are filtered out, so once someone becomes ingrained in a ‘bubble’ of cognitive bias, it’s pretty tough to reason them out of it.

Social media is a haven for such bubbles, and the team referenced a plethora of studies showing how platforms such as Facebook algorithmically insulate people from opposing views.

Facebook’s coding makeup means that you don’t see a balance of opinion on an issue, just what you’re likely to click on, and that’s going to be something that backs up your point of view.

A 2016 study found that ‘false information about vaccination online and in social media was perceived to be the most important cause of vaccine hesitancy by participants.’

This goes far beyond the vaccination debate, of course; Facebook refuses to be listed as a publisher as this would indict them and force them to take responsibility for what goes up. So for now, misinformation is rampant and uncontested on the platform despite the influential weight of its media distribution.

What can be done?

Very few naturopathic practitioners have been disciplined for professional misconduct that endangers their patients despite guidelines within the industry regarding deception.

‘Despite the ubiquity of the inaccurate representations, we are not aware of a case of regulatory action in relation to vaccination misrepresentations,’ wrote co-author Timothy Caulfield in a recent opinion piece for the Globe and Mail.

Should medical doctors recommend a strange or novel treatment to a patient, they have an obligation to inform their patients that there is little or no scientific evidence to back it up. A failure to do so can result in a charge of negligence.

The deception and false advertising that is rampant in pseudo-scientific practices endanger and harm people by leading them away from the care they need.

‘Federal regulators need to be more aggressive in their application of truth in advertising standards. Health Canada could also do more to shut down the marketing of completely bogus products, such as homeopathic vaccines,’ added Caulfield.

Indeed, some provinces have legally incorporated CAM practitioners, allowing them to become primary care providers for their communities.

This needs to be overturned. Health boards, bodies, and provincial or federal organizations should have no affiliation with naturopathy. People should have the freedom to choose, but not to deceive and cause damage no matter how indirect it may be.

Frauds and ill-informed practitioners are contributing to the decline in vaccination coverage, yet widespread if not total coverage is entirely necessary to create herd immunization and make vaccination programs effective.

As the report concludes, ‘misrepresentations relating to vaccination can be matters of life and death. As such, it is essential to employ the various legal tools that could be used to help address this dangerous social trend.’

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.