Hard News by Russell Brown


Miracles just rate better, okay?

When TV3's 60 Minutes followed the Turner family to Mexico this year, for their son, Caleb, to undergo "experimental" stem-cell treatment for his ceberal palsy, it might have seemed that it was a hell of a story.

Indeed, it was such a good story that TV One's Close Up had already claimed it – bragging that the Turner family had been moved to pursue stem cell treatment by one of its own stories, on cord blood banking, in March 2008.

What neither programme did was let any inconvenient facts intrude on the miracle cure story.

And they are quite some facts. In the same month that TV3 ran its story, the miracle stem-cell doctor, David Steenblock, was charged with gross and repeated negligence and excessive treatment by his own governing body. He was subsequently fined, ordered to take courses in medical ethics and recordkeeping and placed on probation for five years.

Steenblock had previously been found guilty of negligence and incompetence in 1991, after a patient died, and of violating his probation and employing unlicensed therapists in 1997. In those cases, Steenblock was using hyperbaric oxygen treatment, which he also claims cures autism.

The stem–cell treatment received by Caleb Turner isn't approved in the US and is carried out by Steenblock's partner, Fernando Ramirez del Rio, in Tijuana. In 2005, Ramirez told an American newspaper, the Palm Beach Post, he "couldn't remember" the name of the company that sold him his stem cells. A senior paediatrician told the paper Ramirez' treatment was a "total sham" and expressed doubt that his injections, at $6000 a shot, even contained stem cells.

Stem cell therapy has shown real promise in some applications, but there is no published evidence, even if Steenblock and Ramirez are actually using stem cells properly, that its use in cerebral palsy cases provides any lasting benefit. And there are real risks.

Even the original Close Up programme failed to tell viewers that most doctors in the field regard individual cord-blood banking -- $5000 a pop $2750 plus $220pa from the Auckland company Cordbank – as unnecessary and even exploitative.

And still the miracle cure stem-cell stories come. Last month in The Press, with another family. And this week in the Dominion Post.

On Media7 this week, I'll be joined by Auckland University’s Neural Repair and Neurogenesis lab director, Dr Bronwyn Connor, and Adrienne Kohler, a former journalist and communications director of the Neurological Foundation. We have also invited journalists and editors from organizations who have published these stories to appear on the panel with Connor and Kohler, and respond to their concerns.

Next up will be Paul Norris, Head of the Christchurch Broadcasting School, Peter Parrusini, Head of Corporate Affairs at TVNZ, and NZ Herald Business editor Liam Dann, to talk about the financial fortunes of TVNZ and the other free-to-air broadcasters.

And then we'll finish with a report on the Radio Wammo revolution at Kiwi FM and a debate between Herald on Sunday columnist Matt McCarten and NBR's David Cohen, who have been expressing sharply different views of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gadaffi.

It should be a cracking show. If you'd like to join us for the recording, hit Reply and let me know asap. We'd need you at TVNZ before 5.30pm tomorrow and have you away by about 7pm.

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