Risky alternative?

More and more parents are taking their children to complementary therapists. But just how safe and effective are such treatments?

There's a baby boom in the world of complementary medicine. Therapists are treating more and more infants, as many parents abandon long waits at the doctor's surgery in favour of costly visits to alternative practitioners.
"There's much more of an awareness of what we do," says June Tranmer, who specialises in paediatric acupuncture at the Healing Clinic in York. "We have had hundreds of children coming through our doors and the numbers keep going up."

Probably the most popular treatments are baby massage and yoga - the infant Leo Blair was reputedly taken to baby massage sessions run by beauty therapist Bharti Vyas - as well as homeopathy and even acupuncture, kinesiology (which claims to diagnose imbalances through analysing movement) and chiropractic. But why is the next generation having these treatments? Alternative therapists usually spend longer with their patients and claim remarkable results. So for parents with money and initiative, they are an attractive option.
Caroline Hind took her twins, Corem and Jaimie, to see Tranmer at the end of last year. The boys, who turn two at the end of this month, had whooping cough. "There was nothing the doctor could do, as it was really a nursing issue," says Hind. "We suffered broken nights with the boys coughing so much they were sick." Tranmer spent an hour with the family, before carrying out acupressure and cupping treatments. "It was a really calming experience for them, and for us," says Hind. "Everything was so gentle. Afterwards both babies slept through the night." The whooping cough didn't go away completely, but Hind is sure the treatments helped. "I suppose you never know for sure, but it did seem to make a difference," she says. "I think doctors are very good at serious illnesses, but for allergies, migraines and the sorts of things where they're at a bit of a loose end, this is a good option. Medicine is so reliant on drugs. This is a gentler alternative."
Many medical professionals, however, disagree. "I remain sceptical until there's good evidence," says paediatrician Jethro Herberg. "My antagonism is proportional to the degree of harm they can do. At best they are benign and, at worst, can do an awful lot of harm. Herbal remedies are littered with case studies where they have done damage. People have an inconsistent view ... If they go to the doctor, they demand an extremely high level of proof that what they're getting is efficient and not harmful. But they'll go and see an alternative practitioner, with no idea whether it could be harmful, or not."
Tranmer admits there is not a "huge body" of research, but questions who would finance it. "You can't do research for nothing, and drug companies won't fund us," she says. "Anyway, if you see a child screaming in pain, and they're better after you treat them, how do you deny it is working?"
Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, agrees that more evidence is needed. "Without proof, we only have hearsay and clinical experience, which can be misleading," he says. "Little children are very fragile and, to me, there is an ethical imperative to find more evidence. The official bodies - the NHS or Wellcome Trust, which have no commercial interest - should fund research."

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