Ridiculous remedies for baldness, snoring and everyday ailments are met with much eye-rolling here at NHS Choices, with the latest vaginal steaming as a cure for many ills really taking the biscuit.
But what we must take seriously is the ‘miracle cure’ exploitation that’s happening on a much darker level. Unscrupulous private clinics continue to promote their unproven therapies to desperate families affected by terminal illnesses; people who have exhausted every NHS treatment and believe there’s nothing to lose by trying it.
There is much to lose. You may remember the recent tragic story of 7-year-old Olivia Downie, who had a rare form of cancer and rapidly deteriorated after trying an experimental therapy from a Mexico clinic. Her parents were forced to appeal for money to fly her home, and she died within 48 hours of her return. Read the government warning I wrote about clinics offering unproven, unlicensed versions of photodynamic therapy.
It doesn’t stop here. This appears to be one of many questionable cancer therapies, and cancer patients are not the only target.
People with incurable brain disorders, too, are apparently paying large sums for phoney stem cell medical treatments (Read the news report).
The clinics get away with it as they’re based in countries whose regulations allow the provision of unlicensed therapies.
Ukraine, for example, has apparently become a world centre for untested stem cell treatments. “The shady ‘stem cell therapy’ industry is expanding across the world and is increasingly targeting behavioural and psychological disorders,” says Mindhacks. “Patients can fly in and have embryonic stem cells implanted in their brain to supposedly treat everything from Alzheimer’s disease to autism.”
You only need to read about the woman with kidney disease who tried stem cell therapy from a private clinic in Thailand to realise there could be nasty unknown effects from these experimental treatments, which have not been through the proper safety checks.
The national media hasn’t always been discouraging about unproven therapies. In the case of stem cells, newspapers have rightly embraced them as an exciting and promising area of medical science, but some have prematurely heralded them a “cure” for such things as blindness, deafness and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s no wonder people invest so much hope in them.
While the media continue to exaggerate the benefits of experimental therapies and well-meaning celebrities and charities help raise money to fund them, these ‘miracle cure’ clinics will continue to prosper and cause harm.
So I'm encouraging people to question sciencey-sounding claims and to Ask for Evidence. The more people Ask for Evidence behind claims they encounter, the more the scammers who exploit the gravely ill will be found out for what they are.
Caroline Finucane is Health Editor at NHS Choices.