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Quacks and the placebo effect
Going to see a doctor sometimes is like taking your car to the mechanic. As soon as you enter the compound, the ache goes and the squeak stops. The last time I saw a doctor for a routine check-up I felt so proud when she told me I was well. As I walked out of the office, I felt even prouder: “I'm healthy!”
But of course, I know that; I should. So what is it that makes the ache go away so suddenly? What is it that makes you feel good simply by visiting a doctor—any one will do, even if the chap graduated 24 hours ago and hardly knows his navel from his umbilicus? It's called the placebo effect and it's responsible for that upsurge in emotion that we feel when we visit a doctor or one of the many non-medical quacks pretending to be doctors, as commonly occurs in T&T.
The placebo effect is an excellent demonstration of the power of the mind. For thousands of years there wasn’t much difference between scientific medical practices and medical quackery: the earth was the centre of the universe, and your diseases were caused by demons inside you (a biggie in some West Indian parliaments). Everyone had their own opinion on how to get those demons out, including quickly passing certain sections of new laws.
It is a scientific fact, known for hundreds of years, that if you give a sugar tablet to 100 people with headaches, about one-third of them will get better. They will be completely satisfied and will immediately spread the glorious news about your miracle cure. The two-thirds whose headaches continue will stay quiet until they get tired of hearing about the miracle cure and start talking themselves.
By that time, the sugar tablet will have become an injection of salt water or vitamin B12 or a computer and the price will have gone up. If the injection is red or hurts dreadfully, the more effective the placebo. If the computer can show you a picture of what is inside you and has bells, the better the placebo effect. More expensive too.
Of course, if the illness is more serious than a headache or head cold, the placebo may trick your mind into believing in its power, but the rest of the body won’t be so easily fooled. Some of the most famous “medicines” to take advantage of the placebo effect have been documented at howstuffworks.com, and the list makes for enthralling reading.
Not exactly placebos but equally fascinating were the child-calming patent medicines that were popular in the early half of the 20th century. These took advantage of the reasonable desire of parents to get a good night’s sleep, because babies were supposed to come out of the womb and sleep through the night in their own bed, a fallacy that unfortunately is becoming more and more common.
And this is what these “medicines” did. They allowed the infant, and its parents, to sleep soundly through the night. They had lovely calming names like: The Infant’s Friend; Dr Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and Kopp’s Baby Friend.
Everybody wanted to be a friend to the baby and to soothe it, and they worked as advertised! But see what Kopp’s Baby Friend contained: 8.5 per cent alcohol (beer is around four per cent) and one-eighth grain of opium—about eight milligrams - per ounce. No wonder they worked.
How many babies died from overdoses was never recorded nor how many became baby addicts, but the popularity of these baby-friends began to wane in the early 1990s to be replaced by other smart-men products like the ever-popular gripe-water which, up to 20 years ago, was simply a solution of the same alcohol in water.
These days there’s something touted to be good for a mysterious baby ailment called gripe and the amount of gripe-water used in the Caribbean in a week must be enough to supply all of central with water during lock-off times.
Closer to home was Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer, which promised to cure baldness because it “fed the starved roots of your hair and destroyed the bacteria that caused the hair loss.” The formula was said to come from a mysterious Sicilian.
There is always a mysterious foreigner in the background of these plots. In Venezuela the obeah men or women are always Trinidadians and many a fatigue I had was to take in medical school. In sweet La Trinite, the obeah woman either is a “small islander” or has a Venezuelan accent. A local English accent, however, is a sure sign that you are a tad above the rest of the charlatans.
But perhaps the crème de la crème of baldness treatment was Burnett’s Cocoaine, which did not contain cocaine, as one might think, but rather coconut-oil, righteously spelled cocoa-nut oil, which might just please certain people at UWI who rigorously believe in the oil of the coconut for any malady.
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