Sunday, 20 December 2009

Happy Heraklesmas

Jesus is not the only birthday boy. There is another son of a virgin and a god born at this time.

Having a divine father and human mother was pretty routine in ancient mythology - Dionysus, Zoroaster, Perseus, Jason, Minos and Asclepius did, among others.

And Herakles, son of Zeus and the virgin Alcmene.

He was not just a strong man who performed Twelve Labours and became the star of a slightly daft TV series, he was worshipped around the Attic world as a saviour who died and rose again.

He was known to his followers as the Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World, the Shepherd. He was greeted each morning in his solar incarnation with the words 'He is risen'. (Sound familiar? See the Gospel of Mark 16:6)

Herakles (aka Hercules in Roman mythology) was born at the Winter Solstice, sacrificed at the Spring Equinox, rose again and ascended into heaven to be with his divine father. The winter solstice was celebrated on December 25th in the Julian calendar, which was in use from 45BC.

When he was born, the jealous goddess Hera tried to kill him. When Jesus was born, the jealous king Herod tried to kill him. There is equal historical evidence for both events. None. Herod died in 4BC.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Tarsus was one of the centres of Herakles worship. It was also the home of St Paul, who appears to have been into recycling in a big way.

And here is a picture of the Son of God with his shirt off.

There are no surviving images of Jesus flexing his pecs for comparison. Herakles was quite a fan of sex too, with both men and women, which makes him a much hotter man-god. As far as I know, there have been no wars declared in the name of Herakles although both he and Jesus had dads who could be pretty grumpy and were a bit too fond of smiting.

I am now going to eat mince pies and have unholy thoughts about the Son of God. You know which one. Happy Heraklesmas.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Pouring Petrol On The Flames

As the season of the Virgin Birth bears down on us, the media is carrying a story about teenagers being given the contraceptive pill 'on demand'.

Reporting varies from the factual to 'The pill is being handed out to teenagers like Smarties, it's the end of civilization as we know it' (again).

First, the facts. An NHS pilot scheme is offering the Pill to teenagers in pharmacies without prescription in Southwark and Lambeth, two London boroughs.

Just to reiterate, it's a pilot scheme. It may work, it may not. That's what pilots are for - to try something and if it doesn't work, then it's on to the next thing. Doing nothing is not an option in any responsible society, as the current statistics show.

In 2007, 4.2% of women under 18 in England got pregnant. In Southwark, it was 7.6%. So it would seem a good idea to trial new preventive measures there.

The morning after pill is already available over the counter (except from pharmacists who have religious objections to selling it). And contrary to what some papers are implying, the Pill is already available 'on demand' from doctors. Teenagers in Southwark and Lambeth are not just being given it in cavalier fashion. Three specially trained pharmacists are offering contraceptive consultations to young women asking for the morning after pill. They are taken through a series of checks similar to those done by GPs. The idea is that this will be a more accessible service for young women who may also have issues around confidentiality with family doctors and potential parental disapproval.

If the trial works, the scheme will be rolled out more widely. This would seem to be a sensible idea - fewer abortions, fewer single mothers, fewer young couples struggling to raise children, often in deprived areas. You'd think the right wing press would be in favour of anything that cuts down on the number of dole scroungers.

But yet again, voices of moral and religious opposition are being raised against the trial in the mainstream media.

Tory MP Julian Brazier said: 'This looks just like an advertisement for washing powder. It is very worrying. It is yet another example of Labour abandoning civil society' and another Tory, Nadine Dorries, said: 'The poster looks as though it's designed to market something as benign and attractive as sweets, sending entirely the wrong moral message'. Could there be an election coming up?

The spokesman for the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) said: "I'm not aware of any evidence this is going to be effective. It may be pouring petrol on the flames".

By which I assume they mean the usual 'it will just encourage them to have sex'.

The CMF and I are old friends (I use the term loosely). I've already written about their take on abortion (makes you mad and gives you cancer) and their interesting relationship with the truth about condoms. I've also written about how religious groups try to whip up fear and loathing over PSHE (sex education), another vital way of helping teenagers understand and manage their sexuality. As far as the religious are concerned, it's abstinence or nothing. And we all know how well abstinence works.

Of course, there are other issues; preventing pregnancy is not the whole story while transmission rates of STIs grow. But it's a start.

One surprising voice in favour of contraception is Cherie Blair. This good Catholic girl is anti-abortion but pro-contraception. In an article in the Tatler, she said that "Controlling our fertility has been one of the key reasons why women have been able to progress."

Not surprisingly, some of her fellow believers have been outraged by this. John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said that her comments 'are wrong in so many ways'. He recommends the Billings Ovulation Method. But only for married women, of course.

This method was invented by John Billings, a staunch Catholic who got a Papal knighthood for it. It's a newer version of the rhythm method that relies on women being aware of changing sensations in the vulva and variations in vaginal discharge. It also relies on them being able to fend their husbands off at fertile times and does not protect from infections. There is some evidence that trials in third world countries and China have found it successful but the evidence is presented by its religious proponents so needs closer examination.

The Billings website says that 'Emotional harmony between husband and wife is also essential for normal functioning of the woman's reproductive system'. If that were true, the birth rate would be a whole lot lower worldwide. There would be countless malfunctioning wombs.

The Billings Method, abstinence promotion and the current outcry about the Pill have one thing in common. They may claim to be founded on care for women, especially in poorer countries, on helping them control fertility and preventing them being infected but in reality, they are all founded on the religious disapproval of sex outside marriage and/or contraception.

For believers, sex is only for married couples and the outcome of it must rest in God's hands. There must be a chance that a sperm can connect with an egg if He so wills it.

I'm not sure why an omnipotent being can't get a sperm through a condom or cap, and why he can't make a baby when a woman is on the Pill. But apparently he can't, even though he managed to put baby Jesus into Mary. And so women must be either virgins or mothers (or both at once in Mary's case).

Even media and people who are not ostensibly religious are culturally informed by this view, this moral disapproval of sex for fun that has its roots in Christianity and more specifically in the writings of that gift to womankind, St Paul. This is the root of ideas about sex being special or a sacred act or dangerous or for reproduction only. Women's sexuality in particular must be controlled.

There are class elements (the plebs are at it like rabbits and our taxes have to support them) and elements of wilful ignorance (why let the facts get in the way of a good story?) but once again it's about certain people and organisations giving themselves the authority and moral right to decide who can have sex.

Meanwhile, 4.2% of young women are getting pregnant.

Dr Petra Boynton has also covered this story in her excellent blog.

26 April 2012: There's an update on this story here. A pilot scheme found a significant drop in emergency contraception after the launch of over-the-counter pill access. The study by NHS South East London judged the scheme a success. Its report also recommended providing the service to girls from the age of 13 as a way of helping to reduce teenage pregnancies. Inevitably, the Christian Medical Fellowship wheeled out its same old objections.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Chocolate Serum That Isn't

A company called Ikove is advertising on its website an Acai Chocolate Age-Resisting Serum. The magic C word caught my attention.

According to the press release: 'ikove means 'keep alive' in Tupi-Guarani, an indigenous South American language, and the luxurious Ikove Acai Chocolate skincare range does just that!'
Resisting the temptation to apply some of the products to a small dying animal to see if they would indeed keep it alive, I looked at the description of the serum.

Açaí Chocolate Age-Resisting Serum
This 100 percent plant-derived concentrate is formulated with antioxidant açaí and cocoa, nutrition-rich rosehip oil and revitalizing Amazonian botanicals. It protects against the negative effects of aging and the environment while at the same time deeply nourishing and moisturizing your skin. Directions: Apply to the face and neck areas that require special attention.98% certified organic 100% natural 100% vegan

Just for once, I won't do my usual tirade about anti-oxidants NOT WORKING because there is, in my eyes, a far greater sin here. The ingredients are:

Ingredients:•bertholletia excelsea (brazil nut) seed oil, •rosa aff. rubiginosa (rosehip) oil, •orbignya oleifera (babaçu) seed oil, •euterpa oleracea (açaí) fruit extract, •chamolilla recutita extract, •equisetum arvense (horsetail) extract, •calendula officinalis extract, •lavandula officinalis (lavender) extract, vegetable glycerin, bisobolol oil, •citrus reticulata (manderin) oil, •citrus aurantium dulcis (sweet orange) oil, lavandula officinalis (lavender) oil.

Have you spotted yet what's missing?

Their other choco-products - moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, exfoliant and cleanser - include theobroma cacao L (cocoa) liquor or cocoa butter. But not this one.
There is no chocolate in the Acai Chocolate Age-Resisting Serum.

I rang the head office, which is a company called PhytoScience, and asked if there was any chocolate in it. A nice man called Chris told me that 'If there's no chocolate on the list of ingredients, there's no chocolate in it. Sorry to disappoint you'. He was very keen to tell me about acai, which was actually quite interesting. But not interesting enough to make me forget that there is no chocolate in it.

Did they just forget to mention it? Was the person writing up the ingredients list distracted by something shiny? Is it 'chocolate' in some sense that is unknown to me? Does the word 'chocolate' mean something else in Tupi-Guarani?

Not that I was thinking of spending £18.95 on a tiny bottle of serum but to promise chocolate when there is none is a crime against humanity.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Right For All The Wrong Reasons

Nursing Times has an article by Fiona Mantle warning of the dual dangers of consumer magazines giving advice on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and of self-diagnosis. But all is not as it seems.

Mantle looked at 15 UK consumer magazines for one month and found 150 articles on CAM. She accepts that this is a small study but 150 articles in one random month are at least an indicator of the state of play. The British public spends £1.6bn a year on CAM so why would magazines not want in? That's a lot of potential advertising revenue and no one ever lost money by giving the public what they want. Mantle says that the majority of CAM articles are by contributors 'whose key remit appears to be new product placement'.

Of these articles, '131 remedies were proposed by contributors with no medical qualifications'; 95 were on ingested herbal remedies, 25 on nutritional supplements, 10 on homeopathic remedies and 20 on essential oils.

Occasionally, she says, there are warnings to consult doctors, but not always. Even worse, of the five contributors who were medical doctors, not one of them highlighted any potential herb/drug interaction 'with two prescribing liquorice without any reference to existing cardio pathology, diabetes or hypertension'.

Mantle is particularly concerned about a self-help leg massage feature for 'heavy legs' that 'failed to offer any contraindications in relation to varicose veins, previous or suspected DVT or localised dermatological conditions'.

So far, so good.

The World Medical Association states that individuals have primary responsibility for using OTC products, but if they choose to self-medicate, they should be able to:
  • Recognise the symptoms they are treating

  • Determine that their condition is suitable for self-medication

  • Choose a suitable product

  • Follow the directions for use

That's quite a leap of faith to take in your own abilities and a lot of trust to place in a magazine article - not to say dangerous, stupid, gullible, desperate (add your own adjectives...). Mantle is quite right to caution against it.


There's a bit of a twist in the tale.

Amazon describes her: 'Fiona has been a nurse health visitor and teacher for over 30 years and started the first CAM introductory course for nurses in 1999. Since then she has taught in a number of universities, written exclusively on CAM in the nursing press, contributing chapters to a variety of books and has spoken at national and international conferences. She holds the Diploma in Applied Hypnosis from University College London and has qualifications in reflexology, homeopathy and is a Registered Bach Practitioner.'

Reflexology, homeopathy and Bach Flower remedies. Ah. OK.

In other articles for Nursing Times, she has described reflexology as 'a fascinating system that maps and treats human organs through pressure points on the feet, face, ears, hand and back' and homeopathy 'has a wide range of applications for both acute and chronic conditions'. She has written A-Z of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A guide for health professionals: A Practical Handbook, an article about CAM in the treatment of post natal depression (PND) and much else.

While she is cautious in her tone - aware of interactions, for example - there is no doubt for her that CAM works.

Her good advice against self-diagnosis or treatment and her objections to magazines advising readers on products begins to look more like a call for the public to see 'proper' CAM practitioners. Does she belong to the Prince Charles camp, supporting regulation to save the public from 'bogus' CAM therapists?

It would be interesting to know what she thinks about the recent cross-party inquiry into the NHS spending money on homeopathy, which concluded that it is an unethical and dubious use of public money. A spokesman for Boots said: "I have no evidence to suggest that [homeopathic remedies] are efficacious. It's about consumer choice and a large number of our customers think they work." Mantle would no doubt object to these remedies being sold over the counter to poeple who read about them in a mag - but not to them being dished out on the NHS.

She promotes the use of many kinds of CAM by the NHS. That's the NHS which is already struggling to pay for treatments that are proven to work and for enough properly trained staff. This is part of a letter she wrote to The Journal of Holistic Nursing:

This looks like a good example of out-quacking the quacks. It's a bit like a medium saying that yes, a lot of people who say they are psychic really aren't, but I am. She's not saying - don't read these magazines and don't self-treat with CAM because there is little or no evidence that most of it works any better than a placebo.

She's saying - don't trust them, trust me.

Surprisingly enough, I don't.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Super Lady Peachy Pants

Debenhams has launched Peachy Body Pants, the 'cellulite-busting pants'. For any readers who are not aware of it, cellulite is The Great Shame that every woman must fear and fight with all her might. Certain magazines are full of pictures of celeb cellulite, also known as orange peel skin, for women to either gloat over (if they have less) or feel comforted by (if they have lots).

Not only do these pants help fight The Great Shame, they also 'contain a patented weave knit system to stimulate the skin and massage the active ingredients of peaches (to moisturize), green tea (as an antioxidant) and coffee beans (to eliminate water) into the problem areas of the body'. Looking at the picture, they also appear to have a bit of a bum bra built in. Which is nice.

As if this weren't enough, the pants are made of Polyamide Meryl Skinlife, to help the process. According to research done for PeachyPink by Dr Tamura of Tokushima University in Japan, in collaboration with the Technology Research Institute, if you wear the pants eight hours a day for 21 days, you will lose between one and three inches. That's just enough time to look lovely for Christmas if you buy them now.

I asked Debenhams if I could see this research but they didn't have it. So they must be writing their press release from a version of the findings sent them by PeachyPink. I'd like to know what the placebo group wore, for starters. Pants with no green tea in? And how they randomized the test so the subjects didn't know if they were wearing the real pants or the placebo. Or maybe they wore no pants at all.

The press release explains how the pants work. The combination of ingredients 'warms the body, increasing the circulation of the blood and helping to prevent and break down fatty deposits and retained fluids. Toxins are flushed away, leaving waist, hips, stomach, rear and thighs resulting in a slimmer, toned and moisturized figure'.

Oh dear. Where to start? There is so much to say about all of these claims, but let's just look at a few of them.

Polyamide Meryl Skinlife (whose acronym is the not very attractive PMS) 'accumulates and transfers moisture to the surface of the filaments [which] allows it to easily absorb and transport perspiration.' It's also 'the first bacteriostatic microfibre' according to a specialist textile website.

So PMS pants help prevent a nasty sweaty crotch full of tiny living things, which is a blessing if you're going to be wearing them eight hours a day for 21 days. You really don't want festive thrush.

The press release includes helpful pictures to show how the pants work.

Now for the bad news. Nothing gets rid of cellulite. There is very little scientific evidence that any product even makes a dent in it. The best way to deal with it is never ever to turn your back on anyone while naked and keep the lights off at all times. Or just ignore all the insidious propaganda that makes you feel bad about your body to sell you stuff and buy a cake.

As to the peach moisturizer - how many washes will that survive?

Green tea antioxidant. Sigh. No matter how many articles like this one and this one state that antioxidants have not been found to do anything at all, products still include them as a magic ingredient. I'm not sure how these antioxidants would be absorbed but presumably they prevent your bum from ageing.

Next up are coffee beans to eliminate water. Which is where the PMS fibres come in, I guess, although the press release doesn't say where this water will come out. Coffee beans have been shown to help reduce hypertension but I don't think the subjects in the proper scientific tests were administered the extract through their lady parts.

Then there is the detox claim. Sense about Science say that 'Detox has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning'. You have this thing called a liver that gets rid of anything your body doesn't need. Isn't nature wonderful? No, it evidently needs all the help it can get. Hoorah for the pants that promote the 'drainage of stagnant liquids', toxins and fatty deposits, packing them off to the liver and kidneys. Otherwise they might have ended up in your brain.

Oh, and they also give you a micro-massage. How thoughtful.

The pants are presumably an attempt to capture some of the market that John Lewis attracted earlier this year with their fetchingly named Scala Bio-Fir kickers embedded with bio-crystals which allegedly sold 25,000 pairs a month. Let's not even get into the bio-crystals or we'll be here until Christmas.

PeachyBody Pants cost £25 or £30 for the high-waist version and come in black or 'nude'. Oh, and they come as leggings, too. How many pairs would you need if you're going to wear them for 21 days straight?

Tip to men: despite Debenhams calling the pants 'the must-have stocking-filler this Christmas party season', don't buy them for your ladyfriend or you're likely to get asked a lot of very unfestive questions along the lines of 'so you think I'm fat?' and there won't be much joy in your Christmas stocking.

Not that many men would be tempted by them. Just how unsexy are they? If I put a lot of time and effort into seducing a lovely lady only to find that lot under her party frock, I think I might report her to Trading Standards for misleading advertising on the packaging as the cellulite reveals itself and the stagnant liquids seep out through the PMS. Just because they are black does not make them sexy, not even with high heels. And the so-called 'nude' version is inevitably going to be some sort of pinky beige colour that bears no ressemblance to any living skin.

If any woman revealed to me that she was wearing detox or antioxidant pants, my laughter would probably put paid to any further action.

The nice lady at Debenhams was very keen to send me a sample by courier and they were waiting for me when I got home. They look sort of crinkly, like a deflated black balloon and they smell funny. Not peachy, just sort of sweet like cheap air freshener. If anyone would like them, let me know.


In the interests of science, I have now tried them on. I measured waist, hips and thighs before and after. The result was that I instantly lost 0.75 inches off my thighs but my hips increased by 0.5 inches because the bum bra shoved everything up and made it stick out more. My waist increased by 0.75 inches. They looked very unsexy indeed. My flatmate laughed.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Doctor Jesus The Franchise - The Diagnosis

Following the post I wrote in November about the Healing Rooms, I have now heard back from both Halifax and East Renfrewshire Trading Standards. The Advertising Standards Authority were not interested in this one and passed me on to TS.

The results are not exactly pleasing.

Halifax TS (where the Healing Rooms English HQ is) said: ‘Having examined these websites I do not consider that they contravene the provisions of the Cancer Act 1939 nor the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.’

East Renfrewshire TS said: 'In response to your complaint I can confirm the following.

East Renfrewshire Council Trading Standards do not enforce the Cancer Act 1937.
Healing Rooms have indicated that they will make amendments to the website as follows:
Include a disclaimer re not a substitute for medical advice/treatment
Ensure testaments are directly from individuals

I trust this deals with the points raised.'

Well no, not exactly.

The man from East Renfrewshire TS rang me a couple of times to discuss the complaint. He was sympathetic but explained that the laws were a little different in Scotland and that he was only allowed to act within a narrow remit of consumer protection.

He also said that it was a rather 'subjective' matter when it came to beliefs. I tried to explain the difference between evidence and faith but he said he could imagine what would happen if he took such a complain 'to the fiscal'.

The claims the Healing Rooms are making are exactly the same as those made by the Body of Christ International Ministries as I posted not long ago and the ASA did uphold a complaint against them so I don't know what went wrong here.

I'll be back.