First Do No Harm: Alternative Medicine Can Be Lethal to Kids

‘Natural’ remedies may seem a lot safer to give a child than some medication with a mysterious, multisyllabic name with a lot of x’s and y’s. But a just-published study has found that  complementary and alternative medicine treatments can be dangerous and even fatal to children.

The study is published in the latest issue of Archives of Childhood Disease. Researchers reviewed the monthly reporting of adverse events associated with CAM to the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit between 2001 and 2003. 46 instances of adverse events, including four fatalities, associated with CAM were noted in this period. The children were aged 0 to 16. 64% of the cases reported were deemed severe, life threatening or fatal.

From the December 25th Science Daily:

Reports highlighted several areas of concern, including: the substitution of conventional medicine with CAM therapies; changes to medication regimens made by CAM practitioners; and dietary restriction in the belief that this would cure symptoms.
In over three quarters of cases (77%) the adverse events were considered to be probably or definitely related to CAM, and in almost half of cases (44%) the paediatricians said the child had been harmed by a failure to use conventional treatment in favour of CAM therapies.

So why do parents still try echinacea for the common cold, or special diets that restrict foods, or massive doses of vitamins, or hyperbaric oxygen, or omega-5 fatty acids,  just to name a few treatments in a very long list?

When your child is sick, life rotates around her or his needs, at least in our household. My husband Jim and I both work full-time and don’t have any family living nearby who can watch Charlie (who requires caregivers with special training, as he is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum and minimally verbal). I well remember making many a harried call to my colleagues and students about my having to miss classes or a meeting, so I could take care of my sick boy.  (And I’m very lucky to have a job that enables me to have a flexible work schedule and to do a fair amount of work from home.)

Like many parents, I’ve wished there was some quick remedy to help my child feel better. Charlie has had his share of antibiotics but these have the dreaded side-effects, not to mention croupy coughs, an endlessly runny nose, and on and on. (Though I’ll note that, now that he is older, he rarely gets sick and he prefers to go to school and do his usual activities, even if he has the sniffles or is a little under the weather).

Like many parents, I’ve also done my share of researching and reviewing other remedies. Look on the web and you’ll find a plethora involving CAM.

CAM has its attractions for the parent in need of an immediate solution. (Indeed, many parents—-us included—-have tried such remedies to help an autistic child, though the results are mixed, as are opinions about it—but this is a whole other topic I can’t even begin to address here.) What parent does not feel pressed for such a remedy, with a child hacking or spewing; a child in distress?  But we need to be wary lest, in our haste to help a child, we don’t further harm her or him.

Photo by zimpenfish.


Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine6 years ago

Water is lethal if not appropriated correctly with other intake; Allergic reactions can and will cause severe reactions just venturing outdoors. All it takes is simple due diligence and with critical care in minc if so be it. Doctors are not perfect either, they are all still practicing. Pharmaceutical medicines...

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine6 years ago


Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle6 years ago

I understand the author's concern. I understand that the report is documenting real studies, & I'm not pro CAM, per se. However, maybe because I"m an American, & maybe because I'm an R.N., I am skeptical of doctors (who are greatly influenced by the latest drug dropped off at their office by their helpful pharma rep) warning us of natural remedies. This country is inundated with too many meds, med commercials, urging us, & is a profit-based system. I take, with a grain of salt, advice about taking such and such. I tend to research & go for natural old-time remedies, ... and golly gee, they usually work!

This particular study, where parents gave exotic naturals, instead of the drug that would have helped their child, well, maybe they were like the christians who pray over their child, instead of getting medical help. Growing children shouldn't be on extreme diets.

My kids were rarely sick. They got their vaccinations like we were told to do, & I let them play in mud & rain, & their immune systems were strong.

As a nurse working in a hospital, I gave all the prescribed meds I was supposed to, but I also did my own holistic therapies, involving touch and positive thought.

As a person, I rely on organic vegetarian foods, natural vitamins & supplements & natural remedies that our grandmothers used. I'm 66 & healthy.

IN EVERYTHING, common sense. Think, research, listen to medical advice, use your own best judgment

Sandy G.
Sandy G7 years ago

I'm a little late on this one, returning from vacation and just now catching up to these posts but I had to comment that the fear that many people have of traditional medicines is usually directly related to the greatly-inflated fear mongering efforts done by the medical community to protect Big Pharma. As someone else already mentioned in the posts below, there are FAR more deaths, actually exponentially greater death and severe side effect counts from pharmaceuticals, than from natural remedies. I find it frightening that the medical and pharmaceutical companies are demonizing remedies that were commonly used up throughout our parents childhoods because those much safer, gentler remedies are compromising said companies' profit margins. That's about as evil as you can get.

Elisabeth R.
Elisabeth R7 years ago

And by the way....

This, boys and girls, is why it's important to really understand science and how it works, and why it is *so* critical to make sure our kids understand it too. When people don't really understand science or how it works, it's much more difficult for them to differentiate between science-y sounding hack pieces like this (and "research" funded by big companies which is designed to produce the results those companies want), and they are more likely to be mislead by the charlatans, propagandists, and shills for the big corporations that are really running our country, and who would prefer that you pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. If every adult in this country actually paid attention in science class, and actually understood how science works, there would be NO debate about global climate change. The public would demand that something be done, and the politicians would go along with it because it would be suicide (both political and literal) not to. Unfortunately, this is not currently the case. So parents, do your patriotic duty, and make sure your kids understand the scientific method, how it works, and what science can and can not tell us.

Elisabeth R.
Elisabeth R7 years ago

There are already a little over 200 other people essentially saying the same thing I would have, which is that the author of the article doesn't really give enough information about the study she cites to determine whether it was a well-designed study, or just a pharma-funded hack job. She doesn't tell us anything about the sample size, or give any comparison between CAM and allopathic therapies. It sounds very alarming, for instance, to hear that CAM therapies were responsible for 46 deaths of children over 2 years, until you find out how many children die every year from allopathic therapies (I don't actually know that number off the top of my head, but I know it's greater than 46. There are multiple studies that show that allopathic medicine is responsible for thousands of deaths a year; even if most of those are adults, we're still killing far more kids with allopathic medicine than alternative therapies. Additionally, the author fails to state which alternative therapies were included in the study. That fact alone makes the article entirely worthless in terms of gleaning useful, science-based information. This article is only "useful" as propaganda to scare people away from safe, effective, and affordable alternatives to allopathic medicine. I cannot imagine what the motivation of the author was in writing it, but it would not surprise me at all to discover that she works in the allopathic medical industry, perhaps even for Big Pharma.)

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons7 years ago

what about all the damage done by poorly tested pharmaceuticals? CAM is not as dangerous as some common drugs used by doctors.

Nancy M.
Nancy M7 years ago

"What are scientists to do when cynics put up a barrier and refuse to believe a word they say? "

Great question.

Brian Steele
Brian Steele7 years ago

The difficulty is that cynics are always quoting statistic after statistic designed to cast doubt on the safety of pharmaceutical medicines when the establishment have very little counter argument to use.

Why? Because alternative medicines are by and large untested, unregulated and uncontrolled and are dispensed by (mostly) un- or poorly-qualified practitioners.

In other words, anyone can dish out alternative medicines and claim that they are safe and effective, because there is no framework by which they can demonstrate that they are in fact unsafe and/or ineffective.

Even that ignores the fact that all remedies are chemicals, whether they are conventional or alternative.

Two obvious examples:
- My wife used to work in a surgery coding medical conditions. One of these was for "Chinese Herbal Medicine Liver Failure", a condition sufficiently common to warrant its own coding.
- Homeopathy is used around the world by many people convinced it is effective, despite the fact that medical trials have proved it to be less effective even than a placebo.

What are scientists to do when cynics put up a barrier and refuse to believe a word they say?

When one trial shows a link between autism and the MMR and a battery of trials show there is none, everyone believes the single conspiracy theory and stops having the vaccine. The upshot? No change in autism rates, but a raft of measles and rubella epidemics.

Manuela B.
Manuela B7 years ago

I owe my life to both chemical and natural drugs, which one actually worked is a good question. I think they complimented eachother. The chemical drug (chemotheraphy) kept me from dying and the natural herb Pau D'Arco kept my immune system healthy so that I didn't get leukaemia again. I also ate alot of hot chillie and topped it off with prayer......that was 24 years ago.... you decide.