Issue 48 / 10 December 2012

WHILE doing a research project some years ago, I came across a 19th-century advertisement for a potion called Vitadatio, described as “the great healer of all blood diseases” and “the only genuine Tasmanian herbal remedy”.

The tonic cured (bear with me here): “Consumption, Hydatids, Bright’s Disease, Kidney Troubles, Liver Troubles, Bladder Troubles, Stricture, Gravel, Diabetes, Piles, Cancer, Insomnia, Nervous Debility, Epilepsy, Erysipelas, Rheumatism, Gout, Sciatica, Eczema, Ringworm, Spreading Sores, Poverty of Blood, Wasting Disease, Indigestion, Influenza, Gall Stones, etc.”

I’m glad the medicine’s inventor, a bearded gentleman called S A Palmer, added “etc”.

“VITADATIO has proved itself”, the ad concluded. “Therefore it can be relied upon.”

In that spirit, it gives me great pleasure to announce the inaugural Vitadatio awards for exceptional achievement in the interpretation of research.

With so many worthy contenders, it’s hard to know where to start.

An honourable mention must go to the homeopaths of Australia and the private health funds that offer benefits for their services.

When a draft NHMRC statement describing homeopathic treatment as unethical because it had “been shown not to be efficacious” was leaked to the media earlier this year, it didn’t dent the faith of the true believers.

Australian Homeopathic Association president, Greg Cope, told The Age there was “strong” evidence supporting the practice, including clinical trials that were being submitted to the NHMRC for consideration.

We await the release of these with anticipation but, in the meantime, the Vitadatio tradition lives on in Australian practitioners who promote use of homeopathic remedies for conditions as varied as AIDS, autism, arthritis, asthma, etc (and that’s just sticking to the As).

The Australian Association of Professional Homeopaths describes homeopathic medicine as being “at the forefront of a revolution in scientific thinking”. Now, if that’s not worthy of an award, I don’t know what is.

However, competition in this arena is fierce.

The runner-up in this year’s Vitadatio awards is the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), an organisation with a fine pedigree in creative interpretation of research as well as in constructing elaborate theories about doctor/government conspiracies to hide the truth about vaccines.

On the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, for example, the AVN tells us the purported connection between HPV and cervical cancer is “tenuous at best — incomprehensible at worst”.

The basis for this appears to be the fact that most sexually active women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives, yet relatively few go on to develop cervical cancer.

“Anybody who takes this vaccine or who allows it to be administered to their child is playing a fine game of vaccination roulette with an unknown benefit and a possibility of great risk”, the AVN concludes.

Incomprehensible seems about right, but even that was not enough to win the anti-immunisation lobby group the Gold Vitadatio.

This year’s top gong goes to those exemplars of civic responsibility, the big tobacco companies, for their fine efforts in opposing the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes.

Big tobacco perhaps has an unfair advantage, given the years it has spent honing its skills in creative interpretation of data. Who could forget the footage of the seven CEOs of major tobacco companies in 1994 solemnly telling the US Congress that nicotine was not addictive?

This year’s achievement didn’t quite reach those heights, but is a worthy winner nonetheless. Not content with trying to convince us the plain packs would usher in a totalitarian regime and drive small business owners to the wall, the industry also argued they would have a negative impact on public health.

In a media release back in August British American Tobacco Australasia said: “We believe [plain packaging] will actually increase smoking rates particularly in young people …”.

Congratulations, big tobacco. You deserve the Gold Vitadatio.

A happy festive season to all readers. And don’t hit the Vitadatio too hard —apparently it was pure gin.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 10 December 1012

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11 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Fool’s gold

  1. Annette Nicholls says:

    I realise you are mocking the benefits of Vitadatio but you need to correct your facts. The inventor was not Palmer, he was the recipient who was “cured” by the tonic and then promoted and distributed it throughout the colonies. It was my great grandfather who actually invented created the tonic for himself, family and friends and his grocer store/ hop manufacturing store in Launceston Tasmania. His name is William F Webber.

  2. Graham Row says:

    Jane, I don’t like your poking fun at nineteenth century remedies. “Row’s Embrocation” or “The Bushman’s Friend” was very beneficial for many of the distempers of man and beast. It retained its efficacy for generations and no stable or dairy could afford to be without it.

  3. cboughton says:

    Jane: you certainly merit the plaudits on Feedback for your Vitadatio essay. All frauds you mentioned should also qualify for the Ig Nobel award. Trouble is that the correct data available on all these issues, are not considered or are misconstrued or misquoted. All three issues, Big Tobacco, homeopathy and anti-immunisation, can and do, conduce to illness and sometimes, death. This is especially concerning when babies and small children are denied protection against preventable infections. And the unborn can be severely damaged by maternal rubella, and older children may acquire such diseases when they travel o’seas.

  4. Max king says:

    Denying children the protection of vaccination is tantamount to child abuse. Thus, AVN gets the Wicked Witch Award.
    The Assoc. of (Professional – LOL) Homeopaths gets the LSD Award for drawing the gullible into a web of fatuousness by conjuring wild fantasies. Maybe the devotees would ultimately be eligible for a Darwin Award.
    “Big Tobacco”, seeing itself as the ruler of the Universe gets the Ming the Magnificent Award.

  5. Stephen Macdonald says:

    Surely a contender for “exceptional achievement in the interpretation of research” must be the third international stroke trial (IST-3), Lancet 2012, 379, 2352-6, which is the largest clinical trial of tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA) in acute stroke. There was a significant increase in early deaths with t-PA, and no difference in the primary outcome of the proportion alive and independent at 6 months. Nevertheless the authors conclude that t-PA improves functional outcome (based on an exploratory secondary analysis) and that the findings support extending the use of t-PA to more patients with stroke.
    Interpreting data to fit preconceptions is not confined to the “alternative” medicine community.

  6. Paul says:

    Hi Bruni,

    FYI Homeopathy doesn’t “work on it’s own merits”. If the theories of Hahnemann aren’t true, and the consensus of scientific opinion are true, then homeopathic preparations are just water.
    Conversely, if water really has a “memory”, then all homeopathic preparations are full of shit.

    I have nothing against people enjoying placebo effects, (say, from homeopathic “medicine” (ie diluted water), or acupuncture (which may actually elevate endogenous opiate levels)), AS LONG AS the practitioner is ethical, and doesn’t discourage the person from seeking real medical assistance when appropriate.

    However discouraging people from vaccinating their children with horrendous misinformation, batches of allegedly “homeopathic” and herbal medicines that contain heavy metals and other ingredients that may be harmful, and chiropractic are all things that I do see problems with.

  7. bruni brewin says:

    My thoughts here are the awesome placebo effect any inert substance can have – if indeed homeopathy doesn’t work on its own merits. I see a greater danger in this day and age of the medical profession legally having to tell people that they may die if this or that comes back, or this or that happens. Words are very powerful – they can create the nocebo effect and this has proven to be the case. They can also create the placebo effect – what is the placebo effect? Through belief, the persons own inner healing system creates the healing. I am all for that.

  8. Dr David De Leacy says:

    May your words of wisdom and none too gentle irony be spread to many other bloggs in this unbelievably dumb country. Even flouridation is now under threat in the centre of the intellectual world (Qld) in which I reside.
    “Against stupidity even the gods fail” Nietche.
    Have a safe and joyous Xmas and New Year.

  9. Paul says:

    Hi Jane,

    I think I am falling in love with you.

    Keep up the excellent work!


  10. Sue Ieraci says:

    Nice essay, Jane. May we all enjoy a non-homeopathic dose of good cheer over the festive season, and return with renewed energy to a healthy and rational 2012!

  11. Aimee says:

    Jane – you are awesome! I love reading your posts. Keep them coming in 2013!

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