The World Health Organization buys into woo

October 23, 2023 • 12:40 pm

Or, if you want a rhyme, “WHO goes woo.”  This article comes from Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.  I was surprised to learn that the WHO, a highly respected organization run by the United Nations, has, on the sly, bought into a lot of woo, including homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine, and naturopathy, as well as other dubious remedies. Apparently the motivation for this is that WHO, whose goal is to ensure that everyone in the world has medical care, realized that this is not possible if by “medical care” you mean “modern science-based medicine.” Many people just can’t get it, or perhaps don’t trust it.  Thus WHO buys into woo so that people without access to that care can use the local nostrums. Presto: they get medical help!

Click to read:

You can see the document from 2013, “Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023“, laying out how “traditional and complementary medicine” (“T&CM”) are to be used.  Here’s the rationale from the pamphlet. Look at the quackery that WHO wants to promulgate! (Bolding is mine.)

It is increasingly recognised that safe and effective T&CM could contribute to the health of our populations. One of the most significant questions raised about T&CM in recent years is how it might contribute to universal health coverage by improving service delivery in the health system, particularly PHC: patient accessibility to health services, and greater awareness of health promotion and disease prevention are key issues here. Insurance coverage of T&CM products, practices and practitioners varies widely from full inclusion within insurance plans to total exclusion, with consumers having to pay for all T&CM out of pocket. Simultaneously, there is emerging evidence that T&CM, when included in UHC plans, may reduce pressure on the system and diminish costs. This shows why it is important for Member States to consider how to integrate T&CM into their health systems and UHC plans more comprehensively/

Many countries have their own traditional or indigenous forms of healing which are firmly rooted in their culture and history. Some forms of TM such as Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and Unani medicine are popular nationally, as well as being used worldwide. At the same time, some forms of CM such as anthroposophic medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy and osteopathy are also in extensive use. Health systems around the world are experiencing increased levels of chronic illness and escalating health care costs. Patients and health care providers alike are demanding that health care services be revitalized, with a stronger emphasis on individualized, person-centred care (9). This includes expanding access to T&CM products, practices and practitioners. Over 100 million Europeans are currently T&CM users, with one fifth regularly using T&CM and the same number preferring health care which includes T&CM (10). There are many more T&CM users in Africa, Asia, Australia and North America (11).

From Jarry’s article:

What the WHO sees in T&CM—interventions that include Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and naturopathy—is an easy way to fulfill a goal. Training enough medical doctors and building enough hospitals to cover the globe seems like an impossible task. Instead, let’s acknowledge the presence of healers of various stripes, with little attention given to the kind of care they provide.

The WHO wants the integration of these prescientific healing practices into national health systems as a way to contribute to universal health coverage, and the arguments it musters for this integration are sloppy and predictable. T&CM is affordable, we are told. This is debatable, as practices like chiropractic and acupuncture commonly depend on regular “maintenance” treatments for life, and affordability is of course no gauge of effectiveness. T&CM is popular, the WHO argues, which is a faulty argument. Bloodletting was widespread for centuries, not because it worked well but because there was little else to do. The WHO also carves out a niche for T&CM in addressing chronic health issues and providing individualized, holistic care, which is a copy-and-paste job from reams of marketing material aimed at glorifying so-called alternative medicine.

The WHO’s poorly argued strategy to convince Member States to integrate prescientific practices into their healthcare system has led them down a worrisome road paved with good intentions. After all, how do you distinguish a traditional healer using “best practices” (whatever that means) from a charlatan? The WHO’s answer has been to release benchmarks for training in the various T&CM interventions it supports.

More from Jarry:

The WHO’s Traditional Medicine Strategy is peppered with allusions to testing these interventions for their effectiveness. Indeed, the number one difficulty their Member States note regarding the regulation of T&CM is the lack of research data. These healing practices must be supported by evidence, the WHO agrees, but what kind of evidence? “While there is much to be learned from controlled clinical trials,” they note, “other evaluation methods are also valuable,” including “patterns of use.” This is a worrying way to promote popularity as an indication of validity.

“Patterns of use”? That means that the effectiveness of treatments can be judged by how widely they’re used?? Like bloodletting used to be, and ayurvedic medicine and chiropractic is now? I don’t even have to tell you how bogus that means of assessment is (see p. 27 of the pamphlet for verification). But according to Jarry, “Orac” (David Gorski), who runs the site Science-Based Medicine, has already been bashing WHO for this.

Dr. David Gorski, an oncologist and science blogger, has covered the WHO’s embrace of quackery many times in the past, pointing out how interesting it is that the people arguing for medical integration make no mention of European humoral therapy and our need to integrate it into common practice. While anthroposophy’s four classical elements and acupuncture’s rivers of qi are seen as conducive to good healthcare, the debunked idea that phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile determine our health has been ignored by the WHO. They are all antiquated notions, but the ones we buried are not being resurrected by the WHO. Strange.

Read the document for yourself to see the abnegation of WHO’s mission. You don’t get people well by using these species of quackery.

54 thoughts on “The World Health Organization buys into woo

  1. Oh, my emotional discomfort! I’ve been following this argument for years via the Science-Based Medicine site (related content, Respectful Insolence et al.) mentioned above. Others here probably have been doing the same. Ah well, it’s all predetermined and darn near predictable, too. Gorski is a hero, and the situation remains…

    1. Gorski and Science Based Medicine are doing good work here, but it’s important to remember that he and his colleague Steven Novella removed Harriet Hall’s book review of Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage” because it went against their woke views on transitioning children. He’s only against certain kinds of woo.

  2. Therapeutic phlebotomy, in other words bloodletting, is still a treatment in use for some relatively uncommon conditions, including hemochromatosis. It should not be just added to the list of things that are now known to be useless medical treatments.

    1. Did you fail to get my point that bloodletting was used WIDELY in the old days, and that was no indication of its efficacy. Yes, it might be used for some rare conditions, but that wasn’t what I was talking about; I was talking about using ubiquity as an indication of efficacy.

      I don’t think they let blood in the 18th century only in cases of hemochromatosis.

    2. I’m not going after you here ;

      I think discernment important for understanding how modern practices differ in kind from those of antiquity.

      Especially with regard to the evidence and background conditions for practices which might appear very similar.

      One might know why I am highlighting particulars here, from past discussion in general, e.g. with discernment.

  3. Jarry : “holistic”

    I think we all know this word. What I didn’t know is that Mao Zedong – possibly Lenin – elaborated a bit on the idea of a need to understand the whole – because it is always in motion.

    This is the dialectic. All disparate entities are different merely in degree, but the same in kind.

    I’ll see if I can find a reference.

  4. … the WHO, a highly respected organization run by the United Nations, …

    The problem is that UN organisations depend on political appointees from a range of countries. They may not be sympathetic to or know anything about actual medicine or health.

    Compare, for example, with the constitutent countries of the UN “human rights council”.

  5. This is happening in the US. An in-law who lives in Connecticut has her acupuncture treatments covered by health insurance. California requires insurance to cover chiropractic care and acupuncture. In the US we don’t have enough physicians graduating from medical school, and those that do don’t want to be general practitioners.The situation must be much worse in many parts of the world. Quacks step into the void, lobbying to have their services covered by insurance. I am disgusted and worried about this trend towards anti-science solutions to important humanitarian problems.

    One statement stood out to me: “Health systems around the world are experiencing increased levels of chronic illness…” A dire observation. Why are humans becoming more mentally and physically ill?

  6. Does this mean that the WHO will also support the poaching of Rhinos and others for their horns to be ground up and used in Chinese medicine?

    1. Without rhino horn, how would a TCM person treat someone with Wenbing?

      Also known as “triple energizer pattern” with ICD-11 code SG7Z

  7. A benefit of the doubt argument could be made that by “endorsing” some quack medicine, drs endear themselves to patients and earn trust. Enough trust, perhaps that the patient will take serious medicine when necessary, while the drs look the other way for the less serious things. “Of course you can bury yourself in sand to make your eczema go away. But in the meantime take this malaria vaccine.”

    1. Doctors may well use their judgement on what issues to press the most in any given appointment. That is not permission to lie. Physicians should not lie to their patients. That is no way to build trust. It is patronizing and paternalistic for the doctor to decide which health issues they will treat with medicine and which issues they will pretend that woo is acceptable.

        1. But doctors (MDs I mean) don’t prescribe quack medicine to build trust. You don’t even seem to be saying that they do. You are only saying that it might be permissible if they did. But they don’t. So there is nothing to disagree on.

          Now, perhaps you mean that patients ask their doctors what they think of acupuncture, or chiropractic, or astrology, or high colonics, or laetrile, or high-dose Vitamin C. If the treatments are truly harmless — not all in that list are — the doctor doesn’t achieve anything by condemning them. The patients are going to take them anyway. The doctor ought not to write prescriptions for quack remedies just so the patient can get the cost reimbursed from insurance. (That’s actually the best reason not to endorse this stuff.)

          My experience is that most people who ask our opinion about quack remedies are testing us. They know we won’t endorse them as helpful — of course we won’t because we are all in the pockets of Big Pharma. They only want to suss out the playing field to see how overbearing and paternalistic we are. There is some benefit of friendly non-committal tolerance in that if a patient later gets weird baffling symptoms, he may be more likely to “confess” to taking quack remedies that are the actual cause of the obscure illness. This is especially important if he is also taking mainstream therapeutics that can interact unpredictably with the active ingredients in quack medicines. Harvard Med School published a study 20-odd years ago that found that one-third of patients being treated at Dana-Farber for cancer were also taking alternative treatments. You just have to roll with it.

          It depends on what you mean by “endorse.”

          1. Glad to hear from and MD. This makes me think of an article written by a pediatrician. He wrote that he believes he has made inroads with many of his patients who are anti-* by continuing to explain the truth to them, without criticizing/ getting angry/ otherwise showing disgust at their views. That is wise communication. That’s different than a doc pretending to accept treatments that are not part of medical science. For a physician to tell their patients to their face that they are falling for nonsense may be true, but alienating.

  8. This is rather dated news, albeit, I appreciate its resurrection. The organization I work with ( has an ongoing campaign to mitigate/end the killing/poaching of iconic animals/body parts on behalf of TM (Traditional Medicine) and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in the Southern African region.

    The WHO has been at this (pushing TCM/TM) since Margaret Chan was Director General of WHO (her alliances with the CCP – the Chinese Communist Party – are well established She passed on her dubious ambitions to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the current Director General. The BRI (The Belt and Road Initiate) is China’s vehicle to push TCM (among other imperatives) throughout the globe. TCM is a billion dollar industry. China exported a total value of five billion U.S. dollars of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products in 2021.

    Chapter 26 of the WHO’s ICD 11 (International Classification of Diseases) included TM/TCM as an authoritative (complimentary) diagnostic mechanism. This happened formally in 2019. There were no exempted “ingredients”, namely no iconic animal/body part was exempted. The inclusion was unqualified. The effort was/is entirely unscientific and contrary/oppositional to the WHO’s mission mandate – touted to be based on science.

    From the days when Scientific American could be trusted for good journalism:
    “The World Health Organization Gives the Nod to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Bad Idea”

    Close to 100,000 pangolins are poached each year (on the high end) for TCM, that’s about 1 pangolin every 5 minutes – on the low end, ~10,000 pangolins are killed each year. Close to 500 rhinos are massacred each year for the same snake oil and ~100,000 African elephants have been killed for their tusks (for trinkets – in this case, not for medicine – with some exceptions) over the past decade. The demand comes from Asia, specifically China, despite commercial ivory having been banned in that nation since 2017.

    Sea horses, shark fin, porcupine bezoar, bear bile and the body parts of tens of other species are used in TCM.

    Insanely, the CCP administered bear bile to those suffering from COVID in 2019/2020. and

    The US contribution to the WHO needs to be revisited, Trump was right about this, and I am no fan of the Orange man. Chapter 26 of ICD 11 needs to be revoked and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus must vacate his seat. He’s a tool.

    TM/TCM (as practiced currently in Asia/China) is a death knell to iconic species.

    Here’s another excellent (though somewhat dated) piece on TCM and animal body parts:

    1. I just want to note:

      Animals “emit” CO2 and water.

      Surely, the sustainable development goals and Absolute Zero 2050 plans would exclude endangered animals as “emissions” sources, and also as sources of “traditional medicine”.

      Surely, this relationship between emissions and traditional medicine is accidental, or an easy exception that is accounted for, somehow.

        1. The UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (etc.) target sources of “emissions” like beef cattle for reduction/elimination.

          Well, rhinoceros horn, and all those wacky “medicines” are from animals that produce “emissions” too.

          So, their theory / program needs some details worked out, so rhinos and tigers are not deemed worth getting medicine from because the animals produce “emissions” that need to be eliminated.

          1. ok, I think I understand your point, however, other than rhinos, many other animals used for TCM are not farmed – though some are. Aside, and astoundingly, even tigers are farmed for TCM (see below). It’s unclear to me how significant the emission-contributions are from farmed species (like cows) vs those not farmed.

            Overall, the link with emissions and using that angle to mitigate the poaching of iconic/threatened species and/or to dismantle TCM via the WHO is rather weak – if I’m understanding you correctly. Am I?


          2. I appreciate that – it seems I am making some sense – I haven’t thought about the wildlife dimension (or others, for that matter) for a while so this is good for me personally to read about anew, i.e. the comments – yours in particular – here are really good to find a footing, so to speak.

          3. TP, all life forms, even green plants, emit CO2, while alive and when they decay. This CO2 was taken from the atmosphere in present-day (i.e., non-geologic) time and does not interact with the fossil pool of hydrocarbons organified millions of years ago. All life is net-zero, therefore, no matter how much living and decaying biomass is on the earth. Only burning (or gaseous leakage) of the fossil pool is relevant to greenhouse gas emissions, since this is the net return of CO2 taken from the paleoatmosphere by ancient green plants.

            Animal emission of methane (from ruminants) is a short-term greenhouse gas. Eventually (over ca. 100 years) it is converted by UV light back to the CO2 whence it came, just as if the animal had breathed it out. This time scale is shorter than the burning of an old redwood tree in a forest fire.

            Even if farmed ruminant animals are a climate-change issue due to their enormous numbers, the same does not apply to the much smaller (and shrinking) number of endangered wild animals, even if they are ruminants.

          4. I follow you, but to put my point a different way, their theory has a hole in it :

            if they run a program to eliminate “emissions” AND tiger bone is valuable as “medicine” in ze Sustainable and Inclusive Fyoochuh, bye bye tiger. Bye bye rhinoceros.

    2. Rosemary.
      Thank you for answering my question, the answer is much worse than I could imagine.
      The whole UN and WHO needs to be reviewed in my opinion.

      1. You are welcome and I agree. The UN and WHO are increasingly corrupt, biased and self-serving.

        Also I forgot to mention this:

        In an astounding finding, snow leopard DNA was found in a random sample of TCM in Australia a few years ago. The snow leopard is one of the most endangered species on earth.

        “The DNA was identified by chance during a toxicology study, in which Adelaide and Murdoch university researchers were looking at substitutions used in Chinese medicines. Professor Byard said the discovery of snow leopard DNA was a shock and samples were re-tested several times to be certain.”

          1. TCM uses tiger bone (and in the absence of being able to “find” tiger bone, lion bone, panther bone etc.) in TCM. Snow leopard was -in all likelihood- substituted in place of tiger bone.

            China has tiger farms to “harvest” tiger bone for TCM. ~200 tiger farms housing 8000 tigers, that’s more tigers -in captivity- than found in the wild.

            “At least 8,000 tigers are estimated to be held across more than 200 tiger farms in East and Southeast Asia. That’s more than double the number of tigers left in the wild. Tiger farms are facilities that breed tigers for commercial sale or trade of tiger parts. Most of the captive tigers are located in China, with the remaining animals spread almost exclusively between Thailand Lao PDR; and Vietnam.”


            And yes, “this” is what the WHO endorses via Chapter 26.

          2. I really don’t see my tax dollars should go to endorsing tiger bone (in TCM) as a treatment via Chapter 26 of the ICD-11. We (the US) needs to make its contributions to the WHO conditional on the removal of Chapter 26.

  9. I deplore the prevalence of “woo” and all its relatives as well as the anti vaxxers and counterculture voodoo medicine. But acupuncture for me in the past really worked for my neck pain and headaches which were chronic. After a handful of treatments the pain disappeared. Years later my spinal condition got much worse and also
    some upper arm pain began. But I had decades of pain free life thanks to acupuncture. (It gave me no relief for lower back or leg pain however). It is obviously efficacious for certain parts of the body and not for others. If you go for a while and get no relief, stop it. If it ends the pain, it was worth it.

    1. Very glad you had relief.

      The analysis on acupuncture is variable. Its efficacy – from a scientific perspective – is questionable, though, many, like you, indicate that they have experienced relief from the procedure.

      More importantly, the use of acupuncture does not impair and decimate (as far as I know) the natural world in order to be administered; it does not ravage the body parts of iconic, endangered species/animals. I see acupuncture as “mostly” harmless.

    2. Can we know though, that it was the acupuncture & not a placebo of having treatment that promised relief, & someone with time to treat you rather than a 10 minutes slot with a doctor? I doubt that this is measurable – we can hardly put he same person through two different treatments to test! Has anyone attempted a scientific explanation of how it MIGHT work, that does not involve woo?
      Sorry, Chinese medicine… but I am suspicious, especially when it is claimed as a treatment for just about everything!

      1. Dom, see the following:

        “The claims for acupuncture have any clinical usefulness are vastly overblown with evidence ranging from weak to nonexistent to dangerous. As Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine once wrote, acupuncture is nothing more than “theatrical placebo.” On the long list of ridiculous claims for this pseudoscience is using acupuncture for hypertension treatment – and once again, real biomedical science shows it is worthless.

        And now, it’s time to examine a systematic review that debunks the false claim that acupuncture for hypertension is useful.”,-it-doesnt-work

  10. The WHO does wonderful work but also sadly does legitimize quackery the last couple of years under the current Director-General. At the “WHO Traditional Medicine Global Summit” he suggested traditional medicine should be integrated into national health systems.

    I’ve also the feeling that people who are actively promoting science based medicine are a relatively small minority.


    “That means over 80 per cent of WHO’s funding relies on “voluntary contributions,” meaning any amount of money given freely by donors, whether member states, NGOs, philanthropic organisations or other private entities.

    These voluntary contributions are typically earmarked for specific projects or diseases, meaning WHO cannot freely decide how to use them.

    “Currently, WHO has full control over only about a quarter of its budget,” said Gostin.

    “WHO therefore can’t set the global health agenda and has had to do the bidding of rich donors, not only rich nations in Europe and North America, but also rich philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation”.”

    “Examples of countries that recognise this complementary medicine are India, China, Mexico, the United States, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Great Britain.

    Homeopathy is now considered a branch of medicine and the pharmaceutical industry in its own right, especially in northern European countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland. These states, whose health systems are recognised for their quality, have made homeopathy an integral part of the care pathway.”

    1. Sorry, but homeopathy doesn’t work, and in fact theoretically can’t work because it has no active ingredients. Likewise with a lot of complementary and alternative medicine.

      As for Sweden, Norway, and Finland, they are stupid for funding homeopathy. Just because they do it doesn’t show it works. Let us see a bunch of double blind studies showing that it, or reiki, or other forms of “traditional healing”, work.

      Posts like yours are dangerous because they encourage people to use these non-efficacious forms of healing instead of seeking medicine that’s been shown to work.

  12. This post generated a lot of discussion (off line), I wanted to note a couple points:

    1. “traditional medicine” – I think – nearly always uses a supernatural, or mystical dimension.

    That is, the “snake oil” only “works” if the patient wants to believe it works.

    2. When identity is brought in to the mix, as with indigenous cultures (e.g. Mātauranga Māori, which we read a lot about here on WEIT), the bigotry of low expectations is then in play. The pseudomedicine can then be resistant to empirical hypothesis testing as an act of antiracism, an Inclusion.

    1. Yes. Agree. And our group has faced this (“you are racist”) head on when we amplified the need for “investigating” TM (specifically, TCM – the real culprit in my book) on social media.

      At some point, I would like random samples of TCM tested in a credible lab in the USA. As mentioned above, snow leopard DNA was found in a random sample of TCM in Australia. The USFWS needs to act to inspect TCM (a billion $$$ industry in China/world).

      “Chinese medicine purchased over the counter in Australia has been found to contain the DNA of endangered species.

      Laboratory testing of the capsules purchased in 2012 found they contained DNA from snow leopard – and possibly tiger. Both species are listed on the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.”

      1. Thanks, important points I’ll remember.

        Just a technical note / nitpick – I don’t MEAN anything by this :

        TM also stands for (to me, anyway) Transcendental Meditation.

        Not that I PRACTICE it, but the abbreviation is not insignificant. Maybe readers here already have TM in their heads as Transcendental Meditation, IDK.

  13. Alternate therapies try: At a time when I had no health insurance, I began to suffer from lumbar and eventually sacral facet pain in my lower back. It was diagnosed with analgesic and steroid injections into the facet joints. These worked but only for very short time periods. The short story – only artificial opiate painkillers and radio-frequency ablation (RFA) actually worked.

    The long story… I gave a few alternate therapies a try, partly or perhaps mostly for financial reasons: two acupuncturists, four sessions each, two chiropractors, four sessions each, two physical therapists, four sessions each (doing the prescribed exercises in between sessions), ultrasound therapy, about 10 sessions. None of that made any difference. I went to these alternate treatments being rather skeptical but feeling that none were likely to cause any serious damage either (but no homeopathy or TCM). I had some mild hopes since PT had successfully treated a frozen shoulder and neck pain for me in the past and acupuncture and ultrasound had been reported to have some positive results in animals who I hope are less likely to benefit from the placebo effect. When none of that worked and Obama care came along making it feasible, I had RFA. Though that treatment can sometimes be very painful as it is administered, it was very successful in eliminating the back pain for 3-4 months at a time. I had it done by two different doctors over a few years. Then I started to have sacral pain and while RFA can be used for that, my insurance did not cover it, nor were either of the doctors who had been doing my lumbar RFA qualified to perform it. I searched for insurance plans that would cover it, found just one and switched to it at the end of the year. They did the sacral RFA and another lumbar RFA. Interestingly, this insurance plan is from a company that is both the insurer and the care provider whose doctors are salaried. That was at least seven years ago. I haven’t needed either procedure done again so far. This has made me wonder if it is just chance that my nerves stopped growing back into my facet joints at that time (or perhaps the joints stabilized), were the new doctors who did those last two procedures just much better at their job (incidentally, no pain when they performed the procedures) or did the earlier doctors have a financial incentive to do just enough to last the time-span until insurance allowed for the procedure to be repeated? Yup, it’s an N=1 situation.

    A side note… I took an artificial opiate for awhile early in my treatment. Though I feel awful for the many people who have suffered from becoming opiate addicted after taking prescribed painkillers, it was a wonder drug for me. It worked. I didn’t feel any different when taking it, other than pain free and I had no desire to take it when I was not in pain. I was also given pregabilan to try and I have never been ‘higher’, or more disoriented in my life. It was scary.

  14. ‘anthroposophic medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy and osteopathy are also in extensive use.’ Yes they are and they have not shown to be better than placebo.
    Hence the ‘quackery’ epithet is deserved.

    1. I’m flabbergasted that osteopaths are recognised as serious medical practitioners in the US .
      I hope to be corrected on this notion.

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