Alternative treatments can be harmful

Almost exactly 20 years ago, British doctor Andrew Wakefield caused a sensation with a now-notorious article in a respectable medical journal. The article claimed a link between childhood autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

The article was eventually retracted, Wakefield’s license revoked and the content widely discredited, but the damage was done. Two decades later, many parents still believe that vaccines can put their children at risk of autism. So they avoid getting their children vaccinated, leading to a resurgence in illnesses once thought abolished, like measles.

Furthermore, some parents who have had their children vaccinated are frightened into seeking “alternative” treatments based on Wakefield’s disproven theory. Believing that autism is caused by mercury included in vaccines, they turn to chelation therapy to remove it, according to a recent story in Time magazine. But the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated there is no evidence that chelation therapy is an effective treatment for autism or its symptoms.

Chelation therapy is a treatment for heavy-metal poisoning and is approved by the American Medical Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for that purpose alone, according to the FDA’s website.

In chelation therapy, the chemical abbreviated as EDTA is injected into the bloodstream to remove heavy metals or minerals from a person suffering from heavy-metal poisoning. Chelating drugs usually are administered intravenously. Once the drug has bound itself to the metals in a person’s bloodstream, the drugs and metals are removed from the body through urination.

Chelation therapy is safe when done properly and for the right reason — heavy-metal poisoning — but it also has become a popular treatment for other conditions. Unlike some “alternative” treatments, which are useless but harmless, inappropriate use of EDTA can be dangerous. Any healthcare provider using chelation therapy to treat anything other than heavy-metal poisoning is in violation of AMA rules and risks having his or her license revoked and worse.

And, in fact, some deaths have been attributed to chelation therapy, including among children being treated for autism, according to one NBC News story.

Chelation drugs also have been used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Again, no evidence has shown this to be effective.

Here is one other thing to consider if your healthcare provider suggests chelation therapy for an inappropriate condition. Because the treatment is not approved by the AMA, it will most likely not be covered by your insurance plan.

If a physician sends a claim to an insurance company for chelation therapy with a diagnosis of autism, not only will it not be paid but said physician probably will be reported to the AMA or other regulatory agency. Some get around this by billing the patient directly. Others, however, bill the insurance company claiming a diagnosis of heavy metal poisoning. If caught, the physician can be charged with insurance fraud. If you willingly participate in this, you, too, may be guilty of fraud.

You can find additional information on the websites for the Journal of the American Medical Association, jamanetwork.com and the Mayo Clinic, mayoclinic.org.

Gordon Hopkins is an award-winning columnist and feature writer for The Fairbury Journal-News. Prior to that, he worked for several years in the health insurance industry. His latest book is “Nebraska at War: Dispatches from the Home Front and the Front Lines.” You can contact him at gordon.fjn@gmail.com.