Mexico's 'Alternative' Clinics in Spotlight

Coretta Scott King's death at a cancer clinic in Mexico has put the country's "alternative" treatment centers in the spotlight. Dozens of such clinics, run by both Americans and Mexicans, treat terminally ill people with medicines not approved by the Federal Drug Administration — or even proven to work at all. Critics say these clinics exploit vulnerable patients, while others argue they offer hope — and sometimes, a cure. Amy Isackson of member station KPBS reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up: Mexican farm workers receive pension money after a 40-year fight. But first, scrutiny over Mexico's alternative health clinics. Civil rights leader Coretta Scott King died during her stay at one of these clinics. They are big business in Mexico, drawing people from all over the world. It's a last resort for many patients, and some say it's their only alternative to inadequate health care systems at home. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Amy Isackson has this story.

AMY ISACKSON reporting:

Tara Vickers from Ontario, Canada, sits in the lobby at the International Motor Inn in San Ysidro, California, just across the border from Tijuana.

Ms. TARA VICKERS: I didn't really expect to ever be here.

ISACKSON: Vickers says, three months ago, doctors told her dad he had liver cancer, and was going to die.

Ms. VICKERS: It was a complete death sentence. There was absolutely no hope. They told him to go home and prepare his affairs, and to do it really quickly.

ISACKSON: Five days later, they found a clinic in Tijuana and got on a plane. Now her dad is resting in the motel room between treatments. His doctor is a few miles away in Mexico.

Ms. VICKERS: Now he has, not only is he feeling better, and he's able to be up and around, but he's also got hope. But even if this doesn't cure him completely, at least it'll give him quality time for the next couple years.

ISACKSON: About 30 guests at the Motor Inn are waiting for complimentary shuttle buses to the Tijuana clinics. Some border motels also offer special rates for medical stays. Guest's ailments run the gamut: cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, rotted teeth, and trick knees. And so do the treatments they get, almost all of which are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and have not been validated by any scientific studies. In some cases, shark cartilage is used to starve malignant tumors. Microwaves are used to zap them. Apricot seed extract injections are popular, and so are shots of living sheep embryo cells.

Ms. NORA RIGBY: I'm not really clear on what that does, but I know it hurts when they give them to you.

ISACKSON: Three years ago, Nora Rigby from Idaho Falls began treatment for an inoperable brain tumor behind her right eye. She says the regimen, blood cleansing, a strict diet, the live sheep cell shots, and God have made the tumor disappear. Her claim could not be verified.

Ms. RIGBY: They were so kind and loving and so caring. Doctor Calzada(ph) is just love. He's just about love.

ISACKSON: Across the border in Tijuana is the office for homeopathic doctor, Jose Calzada. It's in a brand new building. The sign outside advertises general medicine and homeopathic therapy. An ad online says they sell the live sheep cell shots for a hundred dollars. But Calzada's love that patient Nora Rigby extolled was not extended to this reporter. The receptionist said Calzada was too busy to talk.

Unidentified Woman: He is not going to be able to see you either today or tomorrow.

ISACKSON: Many clinics in this border town are hostile toward any scrutiny.

Dr. ALFREDO GRUEL (Former Health Regulator, Baja, California): They just hide. The sit up in hiding, and they never disclose their presence.

ISACKSON: Dr. Alfredo Gruel is the former health regulator for the state of Baja, California. He estimates 35 to 50 alternative clinics operate in and around Tijuana. He says many of the treatments they offer are also illegal in Mexico. But he says the way the clinics operate is as creative as their so-called cures.

Dr. GRUEL: If the government does close them, nothing will keep them from opening next door. They get a new company name, and they set up another clinic, supposedly again as a regular clinic, and they keep on doing what they were doing.

ISACKSON: Back in San Diego, Dr. William Stanton is Director of Scripps Cancer Center. He says the Mexican treatments he's heard about offer no benefit, and can actually be deadly.

Dr. WILLIAM STANTON (Director, Scripps Cancer Center): I think whenever you employ a therapy that is not subjected to the rigors of scientific validation, and you give that to a patient with the promise that there may be some benefit, and one doesn't know that there is, that's a false hope.

ISACKSON: But for some patients, any hope may be important. Tara Vickers, at the International Motor Inn, talking about her dad.

Ms. VICKERS: I do believe in the medical treatment that he's getting, but I also believe that the hope keeps him going, even when he's not feeling well. You know, a little bit of hope goes a long way.

ISACKSON: Hope is what drew Coretta Scott King to the Hospital Santa Monica, 16 miles south of Tijuana. Her death of ovarian cancer was not attributed to the clinic. Nevertheless, Mexican officials swooped in two days later and shut it down. The hospital's founder has been convicted in the past of practicing medicine without a license. Mexican authorities ordered all 20 of his American patients at the clinic to leave. For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

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BRAND: And there's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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