Tilly: Bizarre remedies


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The Senate will lose one of its longest-serving members when Tom Harkin’s sixth term ends in January 2015. The longtime Democratic senator from Iowa announced last month that he will not seek re-election next year; he’ll leave a considerable legacy largely defined by his signature legislative accomplishment: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. There is, however, one most peculiar aspect of Harkin’s legacy that deserves a bit more attention as we say goodbye.

In 1991, Harkin was responsible for slipping a small provision into a funding appropriations bill for the National Institutes of Health that established a new department called the Office of Alternative Medicine with a budget of $2 million. In a June 1993 hearing about the progress of the new agency, Harkin opened by extolling the virtues of alternative medicine.

About two months before this hearing, Harkin’s story goes, his allergies had reached a fever pitch. Desperate for a cure, the senator said he was guided by a friend to a “guy in Arizona” who treated allergies with bee pollen. Over the course of five days, Harkin swallowed “maybe 250” capsules of pollen.

“By the sixth day,” Harkin told the Senate subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education, “I had no allergies. And since that time I have not taken one Sudafed, on Benadryl, not one Seldane.”

Yes, Harkin believed in alternative medicine. So much so that in 1998, he cosponsored legislation that turned the Alternative Medicine Office into the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and more than doubled its funding. In fiscal 2012, the center had a budget of $128 million.

According to the agency’s website, the center seeks ultimately “to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and alternative-medicine interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.”

Since October 2012, the center has published studies that document “the physical demands of yoga in seniors,” the efect of hypnosis on postmenopausal hot flashes, the impact of “psychoeducational classes” on irritable bowel syndrome, and the effects of meditation on brain activity.

The major areas of focus of the alternative-medicine center include natural products (read: herbal remedies), mind-body medicine (read: meditation, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, etc.) and “Movement Therapies, Traditional Healers, Energy Medicine, and Whole Medical Systems” (read: magic).

Yes, this is the center for which Harkin has been an advocate for more than 20 years. In a 2009 Senate hearing, he lamented the lack of progress the center has made over the years.

“Most of [the center’s] focus has been on disproving things,” Harkin said, “rather than seeking out and approving things.”

Despite his disappointment, however, Harkin has proven himself willing to throw down millions of dollars for the study of such, shall we say, unusual remedies every year.

Sure, some unusual things are worth pursuing. The problem with alternative medicine is, of course, that it’s horribly ineffective and based largely on pseudoscience.

Edzard Ernst, a professor emeritus at the UK’s Exeter University and one of the world’s foremost experts on alternative medicine, has written dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles on the efficacy of alternative therapies from dietary supplements to yoga.

In his massive meta-analysis of alternative-medicine research, Ernst found that around 95 percent of alternative therapies are no better than placebos. According to his website, his research “did not endear [him] to many quasi-religious believers in alternative medicine.”

As one such believer begins his farewell tour, celebrate his service but carry with you this reminder of one supremely bizarre, eminently wasteful piece of Harkin’s rich legacy.

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