Richard Seah / Guest Writer
Why is The Straits Times waging a vociferous campaign against alternative therapies for autism – and singling out biomedical treatment?
On its own, an ST article questioning alternative and complementary therapies is nothing unusual. But three articles within a space of 10 days does seem, to use a word from one of the articles, "bizarre".
Moreover, two of those articles were written by the same journalist, Radha Basu, and both articles essentially said the same things. Is the ST so short of articles that it needs to repeat itself so soon? Even after another senior writer, Dr Andy Ho, has already affirmed several of the points initially raised?
At the same time, at least two letters to the ST Forum page commenting on those articles - one by me and one by my friend John Yeo, who is a biomedical practitioner with an MSc in Exercise and Nutrition (see below) - have been rejected for publication. Because, you know, "The Straits Times receives an average of 70 letters a day...."
If healthcare professionals who have been aggressively attacked are not given the right to respond, and present their case, who will be?
This "right of reply" is something that the PAP government makes a big issue about whenever it gets criticised by the foreign media. Yet our own media does not grant similar right of reply to our own citizens.
Something strange - bizarre - is going on. Let's take a closer look at those articles.
On 11 August, Radha Basu wrote an article titled Autism 'cures': helpful or harmful?
The article is peppered with emotive words. She describes chelation therapy as "bewildering" and quotes a US report that calls it "voodoo".
[Editor’s note: Chelation - a method of removing certain heavy metals from the bloodstream, used esp. in treating lead or mercury poisoning.]
The article goes on to highlight "reports of at least one botched-up chelation-related death in the US." All this makes it sound as if chelation is highly dangerous, when, in fact, the single case of death was not due to chelation. Rather, it was due to the procedure being "botched up".
The pertinent background, omitted from the ST report, is that in this instance, the doctor had administered the drug via direct injection when it should have been given via a drip, slowly over two to three hours.
Moreover, the drug used in this case was EDTA, which is rarely used in biomedical treatment. The most commonly used drug is DMSA, which is an oral / transdermal drug approved by the US FDA for treating acute lead poisoning.
DMSA has also been found to be effective for treating mercury and other heavy metal poisoning. And since it has been scientifically proven that many autistic children have higher levels of mercury in the body, using DMSA to remove mercury from autistic children is not unjustified.
But by discussing DMSA and then mentioning a case of death (indirectly) involving EDTA, Ms Basu made it seem as if all chelation is dangerous. This is irresponsible reporting. It is fear-mongering.
Ms Basu further describes two other biomedical treatments - hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) and neurofeedback - as "bizarre".
She fails to mention that HBOT has been medically used for decades and is offered by many hospitals around the world, including Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Singapore General Hospital. She also fails to mention that HBOT has been scientifically proven to be safe and effective for the treatment of various physical as well as neurological conditions.
Plus, she fails to mention that soft chamber HBOT (using mild pressure and without pure oxygen - the type used for autism treatment here) is approved by the FDA as a Class IIa medical device for home use in the US.
As for neurofeedback, it is but a modern, enhanced version of biofeedback. And biofeedback itself has been around since the 1950s and has also considerable scientific backing. In fact, biofeedback is endorsed by prestigious mainstream medical institutions including The Mayo Clinic.
It is indeed strange (bizarre) that Ms Basu should describe these two therapies as bizarre.
Throughout, Ms Basu asserts that the various alternative treatments for autism - including nutritional therapy, CFGF (casein free, gluten free) diet, HBOT, etc - are unscientific, ineffective and dangerous.
These assertions are simply NOT TRUE. A simple search on the medical database PubMed will throw up a good number of peer-reviewed and published scientific studies affirming both the safety and efficacy of the various treatments.
Ms Basu goes on to highlight the "high costs" of alternative treatment for autism, ignoring the fact that conventional autism therapy often costs even more money!
As for parents who said their children have benefited from alternative treatment, Ms Basu casts a strong doubt with her own comment, "For now, at least."
Such a comment is utterly insensitive and offensive. If you were the mother interviewed, whose autistic child had shown improvements, how does it feel to have the journalist proclaim to over a million readers that the improvements are only "for now"?
On August 16, ST followed up with a commentary by Dr Andy Ho, who is trained as a medical doctor, titled Autism: Desperately seeking a cure.
Except for calling alternative and biomedical practitioners "quacks", Dr Ho was at least more factual and less emotive in his writing.
But he, too, resorts to scare mongering. For example, he cites the use of two drugs, Avandia and Actos, which he describes as "potentially deadly". In reality, these drugs - in fact, drugs in general - are hardly ever used by alternative practitioners.
Dr Ho offers a simplistic - to the point of being unscientific - explanation as to why autistic kids sometimes get better after alternative treatment. He writes:
"Sometimes, fad therapies seem to work because autism, like many other disorders, displays a natural pattern: Symptoms get worse at times and diminish at others. When symptoms get really bad, parents hunt for magic cures; and when the symptoms abate naturally afterwards, the improvement is attributed to the new 'cure'. Parents want to believe."
Such an explanation totally ignores cases where symptoms had persisted for years and then subsided, or went away completely, following alternative treatment. It also ignores - and belittles - the scientific literature that supports the effectiveness of such treatments.
Dr Ho's comment is that parents "want to believe".
My comment is that doctors and other skeptics like him "don't want to believe".
Finally, on August 20, the ST published a second article by Radha Basu titled Saving people from peddlers of false hope. As mentioned earlier, the article essentially makes the same points as her earlier article, except that it no longer specifically mentions biomedical treatment.
She ends of by calling for penalties against alternative practitioners who make "false claims".
What about journalists who make equally false claims about treatments being unscientific and ineffective, without checking out the research that is readily available?
Shouldn't they, too, be penalised?
The above article reflects the author’s personal views.
About the author:
Richard Seah used to be journalist with Business Times 1980-89 and then self-published a newsletter on natural health, called The Good Life between 1989-96. He is now a free lance writer and web-builder and he work closely with several alternative / complementary health practitioners, including Mr John Yeo, nutritionist of The Authism Recovery Centre - hence his interest in and familiarity with the subject of autism treatment.
About John Yeo
John Yeo is a nutritionist, biomedical practitioner and parent of an autistic teenage daughter.