I do find the Bible disappointing in one or two areas. For a work supposedly divinely inspired, it is remarkably lacking in handy life enhancing tips like how to cure nasty diseases and relieve common aches and pains. There really is little in the way of pharmacology and medicine in the Bible. Not even basic lifestyle, exercise and nutrition tips. “Do not smoke” should have made it into the commandments, you would have thought.
In the earlier parts of the big book, we are told at great length about how menstruating women, homosexuals and shellfish are unclean, but it is very short on details about why this should be so, and how we can generalise from these nuggets of wisdom to better understand the world. In the later parts of the book we find illness being described as caused by demons, and that possession can be cured by wandering prophets who can also just simply command people to get better. Very few of us are blessed with such talents, and so these stories do not help a great deal. Wouldn’t it be great if there were just a few little health pointers: say to using willow bark to ease toothache, or even better, how certain moulds can kill infections. Imagine the Roman Army with penicillin. They might have taken over the world!
And so, it would be fair to say that nothing of modern medicine owes its origins to the Bible. What is even more remarkable is we see little quackery derived from these ancient religious texts. The Society of Homeopaths do not go around casting demons into swine. (Maybe the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths do, but I have not studied them so much.) We do not see Patrick Holford calling the children to him and turning a few fish into a multitude of miraculous brain pills. Or maybe we do.
But I would contend there is one story that features some quackery quite prominently – the nativity and the three wise men. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We are told that these gifts have symbolic meaning – kingship, priestliness and death. An odd gift set for a child born in an animal stable. As wags have put it, sugar, soap and candles might have been more useful from genuinely wise men. But for me, these were gifts representing the three strands of quackery: the idiotic and dangerous, the potty and harmless, and the avaricious and cruel.
As a kid, I always found frankincense and myrrh a little tricky to understand. What the hell are these gifts? Now gold, I did understand. It was a good gift then and it is a good gift now. If you are still undecided about what to send le canard noir this Christmas, then gold will do. Weight is more important than artistic merit.
And what has gold got to do with medicine? Well, if you can rely on one set of quacks to turn any old substance into a miraculous cure you can count on the homeopaths. Yes, aurum metallicum is a homeopathic preparation made from diluted gold. You can buy it from all reputable homeopathic pharmacies, but remember, you will not be getting any real gold. All the atoms have gone away. Aurum is good for:
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
- Congestion of blood in various organs associated with heart and vascular problems
- Over sensitive to smells, touch, taste and music
- Mental exhaustion
- Digestive problems
So, with no actual gold in the remedy and it being used for serious depressives with digestive problems, its probably not the best gift for the baby Jesus. Nelson’s non-individualised homeopathic Teetha might have been better. Homeopathy is idiotic and dangerous. There are homeopaths out there now, loose in the world, who think that non-existent gold in water can prevent someone commiting suicide. And that sugar-free powder can ease baby’s teething pains.
Frankinsense is not used quite so idiotically. It is a common ingredient for the aromatherapist. You can go into Neal’s Yard and buy some Organic Frankincense Toning Body Cream. Great Xmas gift. Especially for post-natal mums. It’s potty and probably harmless. The beauty industry is full of daft claims for their ingredients – but no-one is claiming that their frankincense and lavender massage rub oil will cure AIDS or protect you from malaria. Its tolerable quackery. And it smells nice.
And so to myrrh – a resinous and bitter plant extract used for centuries in all sorts of healing rituals. The Chinese have used it for massaging your spleen meridian. In India, its usages have been for circulation and arthritis. It has been used as an antiseptic, as a rejuvenator and to induce labour (the wise men were late on this one). There is talk of using myrrh for study as a archeopharmaceutical – drug research based on ancient texts, but I am sceptical of this. The wide range of uses and wildly different ascribed properties may mean that its usage has been more cultural in its significance rather than strictly medical.
With such a deep cultural significance, and widespread historical medical uses, myrrh would appear the perfect substance to use as a modern quack product. Egyptian pharmaceutical company Pharco has leaped on the potential and produced a myrrh derived pharmaceutical called Mirazid. It is marketed as a antihelminthic drug , “derived purely from a natural botanical source”, and has been registered by the Egyptian ministry of health as a treatment for schistosomiasis (bilharzia).
An early trial by the ‘discoverers’ showed a miraculous cure rate of 91.7%. However, this trial looks like it needed careful attention: this trial had no control group and the participants described it as “a marvelous clinical cure without any side-effects”. Sound familiar? The results had not been replicated by an independent team and the result was controversy, not least because there is already an effective treatment for this nasty condition on the market. Praziquantel has been tested thoroughly for safety and efficacy and does well, but it is not without its drawbacks. It does not prevent re-infection in areas where the disease causing snails are endemic.
Concerns that Mirazid was being used by private doctor’s throughout Egypt when its efficacy had not been properly established led to a new study that directly compared Mirazid with Praziquantel. They concluded, ” The cure rate with myrrh was very low, 15.6% after the first treatment, and 8.9% after the second treatment” and with “Praziquantel [the] cure rate was 73.7% and 76.3%”
The discrepancies between the first and second study are hard to explain, although the authors of the second report are highly critical of the methodology of the first. They conclude that “Mirazid is not in fact antischistosomal”.
Nasty Big Pharma. Only science and legislation can stop them now.