Misinformation, alternative medicine and the coronavirus

Alternative medicine practitioners are leveraging fear of COVID-19 to sell unproven products and procedures, says U of A health policy expert Timothy Caulfield.


Unproven health claims from alternative medicine purveyors make it even harder for people to sort fact from fake news about COVID-19—exactly what is not needed during a public health crisis, argues health law and policy expert Timothy Caulfield. (Photo: Getty Images)

Nothing highlights the absurdity and potential harm of alternative medicine like a global public health crisis.

There has been an incredible amount of misinformation about the coronavirus. Indeed, one analysis from Thailand suggests that 75 per cent of the news reports about the outbreak are fake news (unless that is fake news about fake news). Much of this noise is patently ridiculous, like using cow urine as a disinfectant and drinking bleach and snorting cocaine as a cure.

In Iran, news reports suggest 44 have died and hundreds have been hospitalized, after drinking bootleg alcohol following a rumour that booze would help cure or prevent the coronavirus. Alcohol is prohibited in Iran.

A great deal of harmful noise is flowing from the alternative medicine community. Naturopaths have recommended supplements to prevent "and hopefully help treat the virus." Homeopaths have claimed they have a cure. Aromatherapists push "antiviralessential oils" to "help us to avoid being infected." Acupuncturists assert they can assist in the fight against coronavirus because acupuncture "fortif[ies] the lungs and the kidneys" by balancing "certain organic systems." And chiropractors claim that spinal adjustments will help "boost immune system function 200 per cent." (As an added marketing point, some have proposed that chiropractic treatments saved more lives during the 1918 influenza pandemic than conventional medicine.)

Not only is there no evidence to support any of these claims, they aren't even scientifically plausible. Indeed, the entire idea of "boosting" your immune system-a concept that is tremendously popular with the alternative medicine crowd-is biologically suspect. The best way to make sure your immune system is working well doesn't involve special supplements or procedures-it's getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising and cutting out smoking.

These alternative medicine practitioners are merely leveraging the fear and uncertainty surrounding the outbreak to sell products and ill-conceived health theories. And these marketing strategies seem to be working. Demand for alternative services and products has increased.

This kind of misinformation is problematic on many levels. It adds confusion to an already chaotic information environment-exactly what is not needed during a public health crisis. The misinformation can also cause people to waste money and it could subject them to harmful products and procedures. It could distract them from more helpful strategies and delay treatment from a science-informed health-care professional. And because much of the marketing is based on fear, it could also heighten public anxiety.

But, unfortunately, this is exactly what the tolerance of pseudoscience produces. When we enable alternative practitioners by "integrating" them into our publicly funded medical schools, universities and health-care systems, we send the message to the public that their practices are legitimate. When the government sanctions the marketing of homeopathy and other useless natural health products, and when respected news outlets write glowing and uncritical articles about scientifically ludicrous practices-like Reiki and astrology-it becomes more and more difficult for the public to differentiate between nonsense and evidence-based treatments.

Thankfully, there has been some policy reaction to the marketing of unproven alternative therapies in the context of coronavirus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission warned an Ontario-based holistic clinic to stop selling a tea that the company said it has used "with other coronavirus infections, including SARS" and "it works well."

And recently a Calgary naturopath was coaxed into apologizing for making statements about the availability of effective supplements. In response, the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND) issued a public statement that the naturopath had made "false and misleading statements" and noted that there "are no proven methods for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19-claims otherwise made by any health professionals are invalid and should be reported immediately to applicable regulators."

Why are "false and misleading statements"-the language used by CAND-problematic in the context of coronavirus but OK for many of the other treatments marketed, often for serious health conditions, by naturopaths? Let's be honest: false, misleading and unscientific is the norm for much of the rhetoric surrounding alternative practices. If we are stopping it in the context of coronavirus, why not stop it all?

The growing concern about the spread of coronavirus misinformation is an opportunity to rethink our continued tolerance and facilitation of unproven alternative medicine. In this era of fake news, eroded trust and twisted science, universities, governments, health-care systems and the news media need to take a stronger and more conceptually coherent stand against pseudoscience. I'm glad there is growing outrage about the coronavirus bunk. But the bunk has always been there. It shouldn't take a public health crisis to stir action.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and host of the Netflix documentary series A User's Guide to Cheating Death.

This opinion-editorial originally appeared March 12 in Policy Options.