Information on alternative medicine websites risk to patients, warns study

CANCER patients should exercise caution when using alternative medicines over fears that false and misleading claims on internet sites could prove dangerous.

The warning comes as research published yesterday in the British Journal of Cancer found false and misleading information on alternative medicine internet sites could be dangerous to cancer patients.

“This is an issue that we face most days. Patients are naturally looking for information and they will go to the internet, but the problem is the information there is very varying,” said Dr Michael Moriarty, a consultant radiotherapist and member of the Irish Cancer Society’s medical committee.

Dr Moriarty said that although there were benefits in using some alternative medications, there was often an element of someone trying to pass off snake oil at the customer’s expense.

The survey of 13 sites, carried out by a team from Exeter University’s Department of Complimentary Medicine, found five of the sites studied were potentially harmful to patients, with a further two sites, www.alternativemedicine.com and www.heall.com, described as dangerous.

The researchers found that both sites were offering advice to cancer patients which was dangerous for them to follow. For example on www.alternativemedicine.com conventional cancer treatments were found to have been pared down to dangerously simplistic statements.

Among the worst offences found during the research were completely false statements claiming that women who suffered from breast cancer are likely to die faster with chemotherapy than without. The report also criticises www.heall.com for not providing research details for the therapies it provides.

The Irish Medicines Board said it constantly monitors websites offering medications, as well as any new herbal medications which come on the market. Last year IMB enforcement officers closed down a Dublin-based site which was illegally selling alternative and prescription medications on-line.

Meanwhile, a Dutch study has found that St John’s Wort, a popular herbal medicine used to treat depression, may reduce the effect of the chemotherapy drug irinotecan. The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found St John’s Wort combined with irinotecan appeared to reduce the cancer drug’s ability to suppress bone marrow cells, a potentially toxic side effect of the treatment that increases patients’ susceptibility to infections.

Dr Moriarty was not surprised at the finding. “We’re quite concerned about encouraging people to take some alternative medications because there is a slight worry of a conflict with their cancer medication,” he said.

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