July 27, 2005
Echinacea does little against colds-study
By Gene Emery
BOSTON (Reuters) - Echinacea, the herbal remedy widely
believed to prevent or ease the misery of the common cold,
turns out to be no more effective than a placebo, according to
a new study by the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
The finding, published in Thursday's New England Journal of
Medicine, is the latest to show no benefit from the herb, which
is widely billed as an immune system booster and promoted by
advocates of "natural" remedies as a proven treatment.
Whether the conclusions will influence sales of echinacea
is a matter of debate.
In a commentary in the Journal, Wallace Sampson, editor of
the scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, said a study
disproving the effectiveness of such remedies "rarely leads the
supplement industry to reduce production or the public to
decrease use. In fact, advocates often dismiss disproof."
The reputation of echinacea, also known as purple
coneflower, is so vaulted that the herb is recommended by the
World Health Organization as a treatment for the common cold.
The study, led by Ronald Turner of the University of
Virginia, tested echinacea on 399 volunteers to determine
whether any of three preparations had an active ingredient that
reduced the risk of infection or symptoms if an infection took
Although the researchers tested the echinacea species
originally used by Native Americans in the Midwest and endorsed
by WHO, the treatment was no more effective than a placebo.
There are many types of echinacea preparations, so it would
be difficult to test them all, Turner said. "Our study,
however, adds to the accumulating evidence that suggests that
the burden of proof should lie with those who advocate this
In his commentary, Sampson said most of the previous tests
that helped build echinacea's reputation "were of small,
inadequately controlled studies sponsored by industry."
Turner's study was funded by the National Center for
Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a government agency
that pays for research largely on the basis of the popularity
of the unconventional treatment.
"Since 1999, the (National Institutes of Health) has spent
almost $1.5 billion in grants for research into alternative
methods. NCCAM has spent almost half that amount and has found
no evidence of efficacy and little evidence of inefficacy,"
He said it's time to devote that money to tests of
treatments that have "passed through the sieve of plausibility
and that is consistent with basic sciences, other applied
sciences, and history _ all molded by wisdom and common sense."