17th October 2013
Lynne McTaggart is cross. The Times reported how various bloggers and medical professionals have accused her publication – What Doctors Don’t Tell You – of claiming, in an article she wrote for the February 2013 edition, that vitamin C cures AIDS. She protests:
What the Times Article Didn’t Tell You
3.You failed to represent the meaning of our magazine’s content fairly. You inferred the content of one ‘story’ from a front cover headline and even misquoted that. Our vitamin C article never claimed that vitamin C cures AIDS. It simply quoted a study by Dr. Robert Cathcart showing a favourable response when he used it against HIV.
McTaggart repeats the same explanation in an interview with the Press Gazette
Numerous bloggers have already shown us the front page and article heading which make a clear claim that “vitamin C is a mega-cure for the incurables”, including AIDS.
Here’s the front cover headline:
And the article’s first page
That seems pretty clear to me so far. However, Lynne McTaggart has said that
I’ve already looked at this and argued that it’s bad practice for a publication that aspires to be a scientific journal to mislead its readership with headlines that don’t match the content. It’s not great, as an editor, to be admitting to misleading your readers. However, let’s test the assertion that the headline claims don’t match the article. We’ll take a look to see if there is reason to think the article is making the same claim as the cover – that vitamin C can cure serious diseases.
Abandon reason, ye who enter here.
Within the body of the article, we find a set of anecdotes, chiefly about the experiences of two people who, pretty much on a hunch, tried giving doses of vitamin C to patients with various illnesses, or giving diseases to monkeys and trying to treat them with vitamin C. As far as humans are concerned it appears to be a series of individual case anecdotes, with only apparently positive results mentioned.
To take an example:
I’m going to leave to one side the ethical questions that might reasonably arise from conducting what is presumably unapproved research into an unproven treatment on your own children, and merely comment that a measles symptom duration of four days hardly seems like a big breakthrough. It’s within the normal range of the disease.
If this was all there was, then we might say we were indeed looking at a situation where the headline’s confident claims did not fairly represent the content of the article, because while we clearly haven’t seen evidence to support the headlines, we also wouldn’t have seen any positive conclusions being drawn. However, the research (such as it is) is described in very fulsome terms:
This is very bold. Vitamin C is a potent and effective cure, it says. It has proved useful, it says. All this is presented entirely uncritically, with no caveats, no warnings to say that the evidence for vitamin C’s efficacy in treating these diseases is anecdotal. At this stage, we’d have to conclude that the article isn’t mismatched, it’s making the exact same claim as the headline, that vitamin C has been proven to cure things. So now we ask: can this claim be substantiated?
We’ll examine the references in the article in a minute, to try and work out whether or not they can support the claim for vitamin C. Maybe the article has just done a bad job of translating the research to the page. But first, let’s see if we can unpick any more of what Lynne McTaggart’s views might be, to see if we can understand whether she’s simply quoting research or drawing a conclusion from it for herself.
First up, McTaggart, in a truly wonderful attack on Simon Singh, posted this on Facebook:
Never, ever engage in grown-up debate of the actual issues raised: that numerous countries have banned Gardasil and many scientists are questioning the safety and efficacy of that vaccine; or why it is that a reputable GP would not want her patients to take the MMR; or what can we learn from the buried evidence about vitamin C’s extraordinary healing properties that has come to light, or what else we should explore in cancer research since conventional medicine cures cancer only 12 per cent of the time.
(My bold.) This seems to me to be going somewhat beyond simply quoting a study. And so is this at the end of the article:
Here we perhaps see an agenda the article has been working to support. Everybody in mainstream medicine is covering up vitamin C’s curative powers in order to profit from selling expensive treatments. But hang on. Despite saying when she launched WDDTY as a newsletter back in 1989 that she would accept no advertising – “we have to remain pure” – when we look inside the February 2013 edition of WDDTY, advertising is what we find these days. On the inside front cover, nestled between the “Mega-cure” front cover and the editorial which describes the article, there is a full-page advert for a vitamin C supplement. The article itself runs from pages 56 to 65 of the magazine, and page 62 consists of an ad for another supplement containing vitamin C. Checking through a couple of other issues from around the same period, we can see that WDDTY usually carries at least two full page ads for supplements containing vitamin C.
I have WDDTY’s advertising price list in front of me, and the list price for the two full page advertisements comes to a shade over £5000, although there’s probably a discount for regular clients. Lynne McTaggart herself said to the Times that taking advertising would make her publication impure. How impure do you become if you are paid by advertisers to advertise the treatments you then uncritically praise in your articles?
I would be interested to know whether Lypo-Spheric Nutrients or Solgar Vitamin and Herb, the two companies advertising supplements in this issue, knew when they placed their ads that they would be appearing next to claims that vitamin C could cure AIDS, polio, and other serious illnesses.
So, onwards to those references. Do they give sufficient evidence to justify the bold claims of a cure?
Keep digging! It must be here somewhere!
Because the key premise of this article is that “buried evidence in medical journals” points to Vitamin C as a cure for deadly diseases, it is reasonable to expect this article to be well-stocked with references to such evidence in journals. So let’s have a look. Because we’re discussing evidence in journals, I’m going to reject references to non-journal sources.
I haven’t managed to obtain every article referenced (my thanks go to the friends (and one bastard) who did most of the leg-work for this bit), but I think there’s enough to draw some conclusions from; I’ll update this page with any new ones that surface later. Here we go.
1. TIME Magazine, September 18, 1939; Vol XXXIV No. 12 – An edition of TIME magazine from 1939. Not a good start.
2. J Exp Med, 1935; 62: 317-21: A paper about rabbit pox. No mention of vitamin C or polio that I can find.
3. J Exp Med, 1937;65:127-46;66:459-77; 1939;70:315-32 Three separate articles. The first two were investigations of the treatment of polio-infected monkeys with vitamin C, with sample sizes of 62 and 380 subjects. From the abstract of the first paper: “treatment with large doses of vitamin C was without any beneficial effect.”
The third article comprises further discussion of vitamin C in polio-infected monkeys. From the abstract: “With an infection of maximum severity, induced by flooding the nasal portal of entry with large amounts of virus, vitamin C administration fails to exert any demonstrable influence on the course of the disease. With a less forceful method of droplet instillation, the picture of the disease in control animals becomes so variable that the results cannot be easily interpreted;”
4. J Orthomol Med, 2006; 21:102-6; http://www.doctoryourself.com/jungeblut.html – A series of anecdotes, with no new research.
6. J Orthomol Psychiatry, 1981;10: 125-32 – Cathcart RF, The method of determining proper doses of vitamin C for the treatment of disease by titrating bowel tolerance. Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry, 1981;10: 125-32. Okay, this is Cathcart talking about his dosing methods, and hypothesising without evidence that major diseases cause scurvy.
7. J Appl Nutr, 1953; 6: 274-78 – This is Klenner, F.R. “The use of vitamin C as an antibiotic”. J Appl Nutr, 1953; 6: 274-78. I can’t get hold of a full copy, and whale.to seems to be the closest source, risking an invocation of Scopie’s Law. It’s not what one might term actual experimental research, at least not in the form presented there.
8. South Med Surg, 1948; 110: 36-8 – the nearest seems to be whale.to again. It’s not research.
10. South Med Surg, 1951; 113: 101-7 – Looks like whale.to once more. This one’s a conference presentation.
13. J lnt Acad PrevMed, 1974; 1: 45-69 – This publication is not indexed in Pubmed. Would appear to be defunct, and the paper is not available. The paper seems to be Klenner, F. R., Significance high intake ascorbate, Journal of the International Academy of Preventive Medicine, 1:1, 45-69, 1974. Further searches bring up references to whale.to)
14. Smith L. The Clinical Experiences of Frederick R. Klenner,M.D.: Clinical Guide to the Use of Vitamin C. Portland, OR: Life Sciences Press, 1988 – a book, not a research paper.
16. Lancet, 1990; 335: 235 Letters to the editor on the subject of glutathione and HIV infection. One questions the role of glutathione, three discuss various aspects of and mechanisms for mitigating glutathione deficiency. A fifth letter is the only one which mentions vitamin C; the author of that letter is the same as in reference 17 (below), and he simply offers unevidenced hypotheses along the same lines as in his Medical Hypotheses paper.
17. Med Hypotheses, 1985; 18: 61-77 – Medical Hypotheses has a bit of a reputation. Anyway, this paper offers no evidence, just some hypotheses about vitamin C, including this unevidenced assertion: “I think that most crib deaths are due to acute induced scurvy.” The author offers the view that the more ill somebody is, the more vitamin C they can tolerate, without any more than anecdotal evidence.
18. Am J Clin Nutr,2005; 81: 736-45 – An article discussing safe dosage for vitamins C and E. Nothing about efficacy for any purpose. The abstract says “vitamin C supplements of </=2000 mg/d are safe for most adults” – note that the WDDTY article is proposing doses between 10 and 100 times this quoted safe amount.
19. Nutr Rev, 1999; 57: 71-7 – Vitamin C in human health and disease is still a mystery ? An overview. A discussion of ascorbic acid, with the following text in the conclusion: “Many health benefits have been attributed to ascorbic acid namely antioxidant, anti-atherogenic and anti-carcinogenic activity. Lately some of these beneficial effects of ascorbic acid are contradicted. The relation between ascorbic acid and cancer is still a debatable as the molecular mechanism underlying anti-carcinogenic activity of ascorbic acid is not clearly elucidated.” and “Thus, though ascorbic acid was discovered in 17th century, the role of this important vitamin in human health and disease still remains a mystery in view of many beneficial claims and contradictions. “
20. J Nutr Environ Med, 2008; 17:169-77 From the paper’s abstract: “This was a single blind study, measuring plasma levels in two subjects, in samples taken half‐hourly or hourly for 6 hours, following ingestion of vitamin C.”
Yes, two subjects.
No doubt there will be claims that I’ve cherry-picked which of the references to critique. I haven’t, but somebody will no doubt claim this. To such people, I say:
- You’re missing the point. These references were chosen by the author to support the article, in this instance every faulty reference is important; looking at three quarters of them, they often don’t present actual solid evidence. Where they do provide any evidence, at best they don’t support the article and at worst they actively contradict it.
- If anybody can get me access to the other papers, I’ll take a look at them and add them to the end of the page. I’m not medically qualified (which is to say, I’m as qualified as Lynne McTaggart is), but I’ll see what I can see.
Now obviously I haven’t read the others yet, but if they’re of the same quality as these I have seen, we’d have to say the evidence for vitamin C as an “all-purpose elixir” is pretty damn thin. No way is there enough evidence to support the bold claims made by WDDTY here. Meanwhile, the doses the article recommends are between 10 and 100 times larger than the safety limits described in the papers it references, and there are multiple statements in those papers casting doubt on there being any evidence that megadoses work at all. For anything. A BBC News website article today raises the same concern, accompanying an edition of BBC2’s Trust Me I’m A Doctor shown on 17th October 2013.
I’ve picked particularly on this WDDTY article because this is an area where there is a real risk, and the consequences have already been clearly and tragically shown.
When the vitamin pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath started selling his vitamin pills in South Africa as an alternative to anti-retroviral drugs, he contributed to a scandalous situation in which well-proven and cost-effective treatment programmes were stopped, and people died. Lots of people. Lots and lots of people.
One study estimates that if the South African national government had used anti-retroviral drugs for prevention and treatment at the same rate as the Western Cape province (which defied national policy on the issue), around 171,000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths could have been prevented between 1999 and 2007. Another study estimates that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unnecessary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unnecessarily born with HIV because of the failure to implement a cheap and simple mother-to-child-transmission prevention program. Between one and three doses of an ARV drug can reduce transmission dramatically. The cost is negligible. It was not available.
I strongly recommend you read the linked chapter from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and then ask yourself. Do we really have to repeat the same mistakes?
“Accuracy is a powerful weapon” Lynne McTaggart said to the Times back in 1989. If this is true, she is firing blanks.