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Faith healing, a dangerous alternative

Edzard Ernst looks at some disturbing evidence on the effects of faith healing on children.

For some time now, I have been critical of the notion that faith healing is more than an elaborate placebo. I have many reasons for this:

• It is not biologically plausible

• It promotes irrationality

• The findings of rigorous clinical trials are not positive

• Many published positive studies of faith healing are suspected to be fraudulent fabrications

• It can put patients at risk.

Here I want to elaborate on the latter point by citing the work of US paediatricians1. They studied 172 cases of child fatality in faith healing sects which occurred between 1975 and 1995. In all instances, death occurred when faith healing was administered instead of conventional medical care and 140 of these deaths were from conditions for which survival with adequate medical care would have exceeded 90%.

These are obviously extreme and tragic examples. I hope they are true rarities. But, even if they are, they highlight the fact that any inherently harmless therapy can become life-threateningly dangerous, whenever it is used as a true alternative to effective healthcare.

Some readers and most faith healers probably think I am exaggerating and alarmist. They should read a very recent study of serious adverse effects in children treated with various alternative therapies 2. These included deaths after homeopathy and naturopathy. Are you still thinking I exaggerate?

Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter

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