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'Alternative Medicine' Increasingly Gaining Acceptance

Treatments such as acupuncture and homeopathy have a centuries-old tradition in many parts of the world. But such "traditional medicine" is still viewed with some skepticism by practitioners of "modern medicine" in many industrialized countries. But such traditional, or "alternative", medicine is increasingly gaining followers in the West.

During their August vacations, the French often go to the mountains, or the countryside, or take exotic vacations overseas. But these days, many are also flocking to the seaside, some to sun on Riviera beaches, but others to benefit from a popular spa treatment called thalassotherapy.

Thalassotherapy stems from the Greek words thalassa, which means sea, and therapeia, which means healing.

The idea of treating illnesses with seawater is an old one. Health practitioners in ancient Rome prescribed seawater bath treatments for a variety of ailments. The first bathing spa opened in the French seaside city of Dieppe in 1778.

But only recently have ordinary French begun to arrive in droves to these seaside spas, which once were exclusive haunts of the fabulously rich, for treatments said to boost the immune system.

There are no foolproof statistics, but the thalassotherapy industry estimates the number of French visiting these centers is growing by five percent a year. The spas are also becoming a hit in other parts of Europe. The popularity translates into good business for French thalassotherapy spas like Thalacap.

Pierre Landes is the director of Thalacap, which has four seaside spas in France. For a week or so, customers are pampered by doctors and other health specialists.

The treatment is not cheap. A week at Thalacap, for example, costs roughly $1,100 to $1,5000.

Mr. Landes says visitors feel recharged by the therapy, which he says builds up people's immune systems to help them ward off colds and other ailments.

Thalassotherapy is only one of several popular "alternative" treatments. Chiropractic, herbal medicines, and acupuncture are also in demand in France. So is homeopathy, a treatment that uses minute doses of medicines that produce the symptoms of the disease being treated.

According to the World Health Organization, the use of traditional and other non-conventional medicines is rapidly spreading in industrialized countries, and, in France, has doubled during the past decade.

Francois Gassin, is secretary general of the National Union of French Homeopathic Doctors, which claims roughly a thousand members. He says French are increasingly turning to homeopathy and "alternative" treatments because the public prefers non-toxic treatments that are also effective.

Moreover, he says, overworked, conventional doctors generally spend little time with their patients. By contrast, homeopathy and other non-conventional practices require the practitioner to be attuned to a patient's problems and needs.

There is no single, widely accepted definition of "alternative" medicine. Some countries, for example, consider chiropractic or osteopathy, therapies based on manipulating body structures like the spinal column, as mainstream medicine. Others do not.

In France, Dr. Gassin says, osteopathy was only legally recognized a few years ago. The majority of French osteopaths have no medical degrees. By contrast, only conventional French doctors are legally allowed to practice homeopathy in France.

Dr. Gassin, for example, is a trained pediatrician. But in countries like Britain and Germany, homeopaths do not necessarily need medical training.

Acceptance of alternative medicine in Europe is similarly mixed. Dr. Gassin says France, Germany, and Britain are among the most advanced in using alternative treatments. Scandinavian countries, he says, are perhaps the least advanced.

But even in France, the country's National Order of Doctors only formally recognized homeopathy in 1997. And experts like Suzanne Qestenberg say more conservative doctors remain skeptical about alternative treatments.

Ms. Qestenberg is a freelance medical reporter, who writes for a number of leading French health publications. She says some French doctors argue there is no proof that homeopathy and other "alternative" treatments work. She says they believe such treatments have a "placebo effect", sometimes they work, but not because they have curative powers.

The World Health Organization also warns about possible risks of herbal remedies, and other alternative or traditional medicines. In a report last year, WHO said that incorrect use of alternative therapies has caused deaths in wealthy countries.

Dr. Gassin does not dispute these warnings. But he says acceptance of alternative treatments is growing. In France, for example, many non-conventional medicines are now covered by health insurance.

Dr. Gassin says several scientific studies are underway, notably in Britain, on the effectiveness of various "alternative" therapies.

This story is part of VOA's world health series.