King's Death Puts Focus on 'Alternative' Treatments

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Coretta Scott King's death at a clinic in Mexico is putting a spotlight on alternative health care south of the border. King, the widow of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King, was battling cancer and sought "alternative" treatment at the Santa Monica Health Institute, 16 miles south of San Diego in Rosarito Beach. Last week, Mexican officials closed the clinic. Scott Shafer reports from member station KQED in San Francisco.

ED GORDON, host:

Coretta Scott King's death at a clinic in Mexico is putting the spotlight on alternative health care. Mrs. King checked into the Santa Monica Health Institute, an alternative clinic south of San Diego, just a week before she died. Mexican officials closed the clinic after her death, saying it used unproven treatments and was not licensed as a health facility. Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco has this report.

SCOTT SHAFER (Reporter, KQED): The Santa Monica Health Institute in Baja, Mexico is like dozens of so-called alternative health clinics that cater to terminally ill patients. Its website describes the facility as a holistic health center that takes, quote, "a very eclectic approach to the treatment of chronic and degenerative diseases." But three days after Coretta Scott King's death here, Mexican health authorities suddenly shut the clinic down. Liza Davis of the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana says her office was alerted by Mexican officials before the clinic was inspected.

Ms. LIZA DAVIS (Public Affairs Officer, American Consulate, Tijuana): I'm sure that the Secretary of Health was looking at both licensing issues and the actual health treatment. I just don't know what their discoveries or charges might be.

SHAFER: A statement released by the Secretary of Health for the state of Baja said inspectors closed the clinic because it was operating without health permits and providing unconventional treatments. But there are dozens of clinics in Baja offering unorthodox and questionable therapies, according to San Diego physician James Grisolia, while some of these clinics offer mainstream medical care.

Dr. JAMES GRISOLIA (Physician, San Diego): The ones that are really appealing to those desperate patients are people that are doing, you know, unregulated, flaky things.

SHAFER: The founder and director of the clinic where Mrs. King died is Kurt Donsbach. In 1997, Donsbach pleaded guilty to federal charges, including unlawfully importing unapproved medicines and tax evasion. Donsbach opened the Santa Monica Health Institute, 15 miles south of San Diego, where local health regulations aren't closely monitored. He's a prolific writer of books, and hosts his own radio show, which is broadcast on the internet.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. KURT DONSBACH (Director, Santa Monica Health Institute) Good morning, ladies and gentleman. It is time for Let's Talk Health, and this is your host, Kurt Donsbach.

SHAFER: On a recent show, he responded to a caller concerned about medication she was taking for high cholesterol.

Mr. DONSBACH: Zocor is deadly, ma'am. That can cause death. They're giving the medication for on the basis or a theory that cholesterol has something to do with heart attacks; it doesn't.

SHAFER: Kurt Donsbach is well known to those who monitor non-traditional medical treatments and its practitioners. His clinic's website describes standard cancer protocols, like chemotherapy and radiation, as toxic therapies that do nothing to cure cancer. Instead they offer alternatives, including ultraviolet blood purification and something called computerized microwave hyperthermia. Dr. Steven Barrett runs a website called quackwatch.org, and he's written extensively about Donsbach.

Dr. STEPHEN BARRETT (Quackwatch.org): He has the ability to do a great deal of harm. He stands out in that respect in that he's one of a relatively small number of people who is willing to victimize people really big time.

SHAFER: Dr. Barrett says Donsbach has been repeatedly sanctioned for pushing unorthodox or illegal health products through a string of businesses in Southern California.

Dr. BARRETT: He has been promoting all sorts of inappropriate treatments. He makes all sorts of promises. He's been criminally convicted. He was convicted of practicing medicine without a license. He was more recently convicted of income tax evasion.

SHAFER: There's no indication Donsbach's facility contributed in any way to Mrs. King's death. She was suffering from end stage ovarian cancer when she arrived. Like Mrs. King, thousands of Americans seek help in Baja at places like this. Among the treatments offered at some of these facilities, zapping of cancer cells with electric currents, and blood transfusions from guinea pigs. Mexican health authorities say there are regulations to police these facilities, but San Diego physician James Grisolia says enforcement is lax.

Dr. GRISOLIA: Is it because they lack the resources? Is there some form of protection going on? Is it just a lack of political will? Nobody on this side of the border is really in a position to comment on that because we don't know their system. We only are guessing.

SHAFER: But Liza Davis of the U.S Consulate in Tijuana says, in any case, it isn't for Americans to tell Mexico how to operate its health system.

Ms. DAVIS: They have every right; this is their country; they apply their laws. We don't interfere with their ability to regulate these things. But we do want to work with them to make sure that any Americans affected might be treated correctly, and that their rights are respected.

SHAFER: Clinics like Santa Monica Health Institute in Rosarito Beach, appeal to terminally ill people and their families who are short on hope. But physician James Grisolia says, sometimes hope has a price.

Dr. GRISOLIA: And people should know that they can spend a tremendous amount of money, just hundreds of thousands of dollars in these clinics and not really get any results.

SHAFER: The children of Coretta Scott King say they were shocked to hear the clinic where their mother died was closed. They say it came highly recommended, and that she was scheduled to begin treatment the day she died.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer, in San Francisco.

GORDON: The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana keeps a list of Mexican health clinics where complaints have been lodged, and they encourage Americans to call if they have any questions.

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