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The Myth of the Benign Nature of Herbal Remedies

Man does not live by rationality alone.

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

April 24, 2012 - 12:01 am
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Of course, as with any side effect, one must not only consider its severity but its frequency. Something that happens once in a million cases is of very different significance from something that happens once in a hundred. Even the most familiar and supposedly innocuous drug can sometimes have catastrophic effects. The question is not so much whether or not a drug causes a particular side effect, but whether the risk is worth taking. And this is not a simple calculation, because it depends in part on the severity of what is being treated, whether alternatives exist, etc.; and often there can be no definitive answer. Decisions should be made in the light of information but cannot be made by consideration of information alone.

In Taiwan, the herbal remedy is used for hepatitis, urinary tract infection, rhinitis, dysmenorrhoea, and eczema. Alternatives are available, though in some cases they may not be entirely satisfactory, and the effectiveness of the remedy is not in any case proved. It is very unlikely, however, that it does any possible good done that makes it worth risking the potential harm.

However, I do not expect superstitious belief in the essential benignity of herbal remedies to die in the near future as a result of the paper in the Proceedings. I remember a patient who, hearing foxglove was good for the failing heart, made herself a nice cup of foxglove tea from the foxgloves in her garden. She suffered quite severe poisoning; unhappily, she did not realize that, where medicine is concerned, there could be too much of a good thing, though this has been known for hundreds of years.

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Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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