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Response to Terror | The Health Impact

In a Crisis, Go With What Works

Medicine: Threat of anthrax raises warnings by conventional and alternative health practitioners alike about dabbling with unproven treatments.

November 05, 2001|JANE E. ALLEN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Surfing the Internet or listening to talk radio in recent days, you might get the idea that herbs, homeopathy and other alternative health remedies can prevent and cure anthrax infection.

A guest on Howard Stern's talk-radio show last week touted garlic and oil of oregano as natural ways to ward off and cure anthrax. And some Web sites have recommended regular use of anthracinum--a homeopathic remedy derived from super-diluted extracts of the anthrax bacteria itself--to boost immunity and protect workers against anthrax spores.

But medical doctors strongly caution that the only scientifically proven treatments for anthrax are powerful prescription antibiotics. That view is shared by many doctors of Oriental medicine, herbalists and other alternative health practitioners, who believe their profession--and potentially patients--may be harmed by bogus health claims.

Dr. Michael Hirt, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, said he knows of no credible research suggesting that herbal or other alternative therapies can boost the human immune system to protect against anthrax infection or help fight infection after it occurs. "It's definitely a mistake if people think they can thwart the disease just by using natural remedies," he said. "This is an organism that has withstood the test of time. There's nothing new under the sun that anthrax hasn't seen and beaten."

The blitz of pseudo-science comes as Americans are increasingly alarmed by the continuing anthrax scare. Their anxiety is heightened by the death last week of a New York City hospital worker that led public health officials to acknowledge they don't know how the woman contracted inhalation anthrax. About half of all Americans use alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage and herbal supplements for at least some of their health needs, surveys have found, and the anthrax threat has created a new potential audience for opportunistic marketers. The Food and Drug Administration forbids dietary supplement makers from claiming that their products cure or treat disease. After federal regulators issued warnings that they would crack down on manufacturers and distributors who violated those rules to market anthrax-related products and services, some Web sites, such as one advertising "anthrax survival kits," disappeared from the Internet.

Some Web sites, and even some natural health advocates, have been promoting the idea that you can "rev up" your immunity and fend off anthrax without prescribed pharmaceuticals.

While there are well-documented ways to boost your immune system, such as by getting adequate sleep and improving your diet, there is no proof that any of these methods offers protection against anthrax.

And some herbs and extracts that have been shown to destroy bacteria and other germs in the laboratory have not been tested against anthrax.

Even so, nervous Americans are flooding alternative-medicine practitioners with questions about a number of therapies. "A very educated, affluent and intelligent woman I know sent me an e-mail about grapefruit seed extract," said Aviva Jill Romm, a clinical herbalist in Canton, Ga., and executive director of the American Herbalists Guild. The woman read that the extract "is antimicrobial and that's why it would allegedly be able to prevent and treat anthrax."

Romm told the woman that the grapefruit seed's antimicrobial properties come from absorbed pesticides and that she be wary of such a therapy when antibiotics are known to be effective.

Romm said that if any of her four children were exposed to anthrax, "I would give them Cipro or a comparable prescribed antibiotic. Why mess around with it? I would have no hesitation about using appropriate medical treatment."

The American Herbal Products Assn. recently recommended that acupuncturists, herbal-medicine doctors and naturopaths advise patients who may have been exposed to or infected by anthrax to "immediately seek standard medical treatment" and "report any suspected exposure or infection to your local health department."

"We know some substances can kill bacteria in a petri dish. That's not the same as a scientific protocol," said Michael McGuffin, a former herbal products businessman from Venice who is president of the herbal products association.. McGuffin was visiting the Hart Senate Office Building on Oct. 16, after an anthrax-contaminated letter was received by the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

McGuffin, who hasn't taken an antibiotic since 1976, said that should he begin feeling ill and test positive for anthrax, he'd opt for the recommended antibiotics.

Said McGuffin: "I'm not messing around."

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