IT’S not exactly unusual for alternative health practitioners to make claims of benefits that go well beyond their expertise or, in some cases, the physical laws of the universe.
But “qualified naturopath and nutritionist” Barbara O’Neill arguably took things to a new level with claims including that pregnant women with Streptococcus B infection do not need antibiotics, raw goat’s milk is an appropriate substitute for breast milk, and cancer is a fungus that can be treated with bicarbonate of soda.
Last month, the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) permanently banned the prolific writer and lecturer from providing any health services, including health education.
The HCCC investigation uncovered a head-spinning blend of irrationality, paranoia and hubris in O’Neill’s writings and lectures, which are widely available online.
She is, unsurprisingly, not a fan of immunisation, claiming vaccines contain neurotoxins that “have caused an epidemic of ADHD, autism, epilepsy and cot death”.
“Children can be naturally vaccinated against tetanus by drinking plenty of water, going to bed early, not eating junk food and running around the hills,” she declared in one of her lectures.
In relation to cancer, O’Neill claims there is a conspiracy to hide the true nature of the disease because “if cancer is a fungus and if fungus plays a role in the majority of diseases then medicine would have to acknowledge that some of their main medications are putting it into people”.
Happily, her special diet combined with bicarbonate of soda wraps can reverse all those insidious fungal cancers being introduced by doctors and their nasty drugs. The proof is in the phone calls O’Neill has received from grateful patients telling her their scans are now clear.
In evidence to the HCCC, O’Neill apparently remained unrepentant about her outlandish claims and the potential risk they posed to patients.
She was “not willing to seriously reflect” on her practice or statements when confronted with contradictory evidence, the commission said, finding her approach to be “dangerous and a significant risk to public health and safety”.
“The Commission’s investigation found that Mrs O’Neill does not recognise that she is misleading vulnerable people (including mothers and cancer sufferers) by providing very selective information,” the ruling stated.
It’s good to see a regulator step in to quash the kind of dangerous nonsense O’Neill has been spouting for at least the past 20 years, although you do have to wonder why it has taken so long and why such bans are so rare.
Disturbingly, the Misty Mountain Health Retreat run by O’Neill’s husband, at which she has given many of her lectures, has had registered charity status with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission since 2012.
Information on the charity watchdog’s website says the retreat shows people “how to live a healthier life” through diet, exercise and daily lectures.
“Most receive great outcomes through increased vitality and wellness,” the listing says, specifying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and “people with chronic illness (including terminal illness)” are particular beneficiaries.
The organisation’s charity status is now under review, according to a report in The Guardian, but it’s beyond me how a privately run retreat charging upwards of $2450 per week for its non-evidence-based programs could have been given that kind of official endorsement in the first place.
We may never find a cure for irrational health claims, but we could hope government regulators might stop short of giving them the stamp of approval.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.