Lives are at the mercy of quacks online

Independent on Sunday

Sunday 23 December 2012

The most surprising people go in for magical thinking. Faced with a devastating diagnosis, they ignore medical advice and try alternative treatments they’ve heard about from friends or on the internet. Towards the end of his life, the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, told his biographer he regretted delaying surgery and chemotherapy after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003. Jobs is regarded by some of his admirers as a genius, yet he reportedly lived on fruit and vegetables, and tried hydrotherapy before finally opting for the most advanced treatments available.

Two days ago, the High Court had to decide whether to allow doctors to give radiotherapy to a seven-year-old boy, Neon Roberts. It’s a distressing case because the boy’s mother, Sally Roberts, has been in and out of court in attempts to prevent an operation to remove a brain tumour and radiotherapy. Earlier this month, she even went on the run for four days, arguing that she was “not persuaded” of the need for surgery and was worried about side-effects. Doctors said it was “highly, highly likely” that the boy would die quite soon without it and the operation went ahead last week. But Roberts was in court again on Friday.

Why would a parent reject what is so clearly in the best interests of a child? It’s not unknown for adults to refuse life-saving treatment for themselves: five years ago, a 22-year-old Jehovah’s Witness died in hospital in Shrewsbury when she refused an urgent blood transfusion after giving birth to twins. Emma Gough chose to die rather than go against her church’s teaching that blood transfusions are forbidden by the Bible. That’s perplexing enough to outsiders, who find it hard to understand how a woman could deny her children a mother because of irrational beliefs held by a religious sect.

In this latest case, Neon’s mother appears to be risking her son’s life for irrational reasons. A lawyer representing the hospital trust was scathing about the private practitioners consulted by Mrs Roberts, pointing out that one could not spell the name of the boy’s tumour and seemed to have culled information about it from the internet. She said the practitioners’ websites offered herbs, nutritional supplements, enzymes, diets and “psychological healing strategies” to treat cancer.

A belief in this nonsense, when evidence-based conventional medicine is available, is a textbook example of magical thinking. Sigmund Freud used the term to describe what happens when individuals respond to a crisis by over-estimating their knowledge and capacity to influence events. Steve Jobs had a rare form of pancreatic cancer which might have responded to prompt surgery and chemotherapy, but he ignored medical advice for nine months.

In the Roberts case, a court intervened and the boy is getting the radiotherapy he urgently needs. But when thousands of quack therapies are available at the click of a mouse, it’s clear that this new form of superstition threatens lives.


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