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Then it came for me

November, 2005

I often get asked by supporters of quackery, in a sneering tone, what I would do if I were to be diagnosed with a serious illness. The implication seems to be that I only oppose snake oil because it doesn't provide any direct benefit to me and I would soon change my opinion if I had some bad news. Well, in November 2005 I did get some bad news when I was told that I have type 2 diabetes. This came as a bit of a surprise as I hadn't been showing any of the usual signs and I don't have any of the family or health issues (other than age) which are usually seen as risk factors. A routine health check showed high blood sugar and I was sent off for more extensive tests. This should be a warning to anyone who doesn't have regular health checks, and I have been told that only about half the people with T2 diabetes are aware of it. It's too late to go to the doctor when you are blind, your toes have fallen off or you have had a stroke. (As an aside, I had just started playing the guitar again after a long absence. The frequent blood tests meant that I could have some balance in my life as now I could have sore fingers on both hands.)

So, what did an opponent of quackery and snake oil do when he was told that he has a serious and incurable medical condition? Well, I fired up Google of course and went looking for a cure. The first search I did was for any combination of the words "diabetes" and "cure" which gave me about six million results. This was a bit much to get through in an afternoon, so I limited the search to the exact phrase "diabetes cure". This gave only 202,000 results, a much more manageable number. Many of these are news items or articles where someone has said something like "a diabetes cure may be available one day", but a quick look over the first few pages of the Google results suggests that most of them are offering something to cure diabetes. This is very encouraging, as if each cure only extended my life by a single day I could look forward to about 500 years of life as I worked my way through the list.

Let's get serious for a moment. There is no cure for diabetes (except pancreas or islets transplants for type 1 diabetes). There are ways of controlling it, but these are not cures. Real medicine doesn't claim cures when it doesn't have them. When I see people claiming, as one web site does, a 95% success rate in curing type 2 diabetes and 64% for type 1 I know that they are lying and stealing people's money and offering disability or even death along with false hope. I don't like the thought that for the rest of my life I might have to hurt one of my fingers several times a day, take daily medication, eat only at certain times, walk when I could use the car, and never eat donuts, but the alternative is to do nothing and hope for the best. Taking any alternative "cure" would be the same as doing nothing, and would have the same results.

There is no doubt that someone who knows something about nutrition can provide good advice, and many alternative practitioners do know about nutrition. The problem is that good nutrition is only part of the answer (both for prevention and management) and many alternatives go far beyond food choices into pure quackery. There is no possibility that acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy or electric zappers can do anything at all. I doesn't matter whether the practitioner is sincere but deluded or an outright charlatan – things which don't work don't work.

This article was submitted for the "First Person" column in the Sydney Morning Herald's Health & Science supplement

The newspaper cancelled the Health & Science section before this could be published, which was probably a good thing. On the day I emailed this article to them the section carried a half-page advertisement for a particularly disgusting form of medical fraud, Advanced Allergy Elimination.


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