Cheating death

Sydney Morning Herald - December 30, 2000

Cancer sufferers have died after putting their faith in a device with electrical parts worth just $15. Ben Hills reports.

The doctor said he might not see Christmas. It was the winter of 1996 and David Carpenter, a 69-year-old retired railway worker, had inoperable cancer of the prostate gland. He had been sent home to die in the village of Geurie, on the western plains of NSW, in the fibro cottage where he lived with his wife of nearly half a century, Madge, and his son, Des. As the disease inexorably advanced, he took to his bed.

Flicking through Nexus, an alternative magazine published from Mapleton, Queensland, which features articles on UFOs, miracle cures and conspiracy theories, Des saw an advertisement headlined "Rife Technology".

Underneath was this claim: "A brilliant new Walkman-style personal therapy system, offers a comprehensive range of frequencies from common colds and flu to the most serious debilitating and degenerative diseases, including arthritis and cancer."

Des rang the 1800 number in the ad and was assured that not only would the device, called a Personal Electro Therapy or PET machine, treat his father's cancer, but it could be tuned to frequencies that would cure his own chronic fatigue syndrome and his mother's arthritis. "I wouldn't normally fall for something like this, but you have to understand we were desperate," says Des. He and his mother borrowed money against their invalid pensions and sent $1,425 to a company called Electromed (Australia) Pty Ltd, which sent them a small black box decorated with flashing lights, some wiring, two nylon pads and a copy of a book, The Cancer Cure that Worked - Fifty Years of Suppression, by an American "investigative journalist", Barry Lynes.

At first it did appear to work. With daily applications of the pads to his abdomen, David's cancer went into remission, he regained his appetite, got up and threw away the pills his doctor had given him. Des even wrote Electromed a testimonial to the "miracle cure".

But then the cancer returned with a vengeance, spreading to other parts of David's body. By the following August, Madge and Des were burying him in the Dubbo cemetery. He had become another victim of a device that has been branded in America as "health fraud in its darkest form" - one of at least four people, including a child of five, who have died in Australia and New Zealand after giving up conventional therapy for treatment with Rife machines.

A Herald investigation has uncovered a cottage industry in Australia promoting these devices for treating the most lethal illnesses, including cancer, leukaemia and AIDS. Two companies are manufacturing and selling them, and at least a dozen clinics, some operated by qualified doctors, offer Rife therapy at up to $80 an hour to desperately ill patients. There are about 60 Internet sites devoted to the devices and innumerable books and magazine articles.

The most-publicised death to date was that of Liam Williams-Holloway, a child on New Zealand's South Island, who was being treated with radiotherapy at a hospital in Dunedin for cancer of the jaw. Last year, there was a public uproar when the boy was taken from the hospital by his parents and treated with a Rife machine at the Rainbow Health Clinic in Rotorua.

The boy died in a Rife clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, after his parents sold their house and embarked on a futile round-the-world search for an "alternative" cure. Liam's former doctor, Michael Sullivan, a pediatric oncologist at the Dunedin hospital, said he would have had a "60 to 70 per cent chance" of a cure with conventional therapy and said he had other patients who had been reduced to "a horrendous condition" by the "therapy".

Although unanimously condemned as worthless by mainstream scientists and banned in at least two American States, the highly profitable Rife industry is flourishing in Australia because of a lack of effective regulation, says John Dwyer, the head of medicine at Prince Henry and Prince of Wales teaching hospitals in Sydney. He blames this on "buck-passing" among no fewer than five government agencies supposedly responsible for protecting health consumers (see "Nothing to do with us, say agencies") which have failed to act against promoters of Rife machines and other "cures" he regards as quackery.

The device was invented a century ago by Albert Abrams (1864-1924), an American physician who became a millionaire and was branded by the American Medical Association "the dean of gadget quacks". His theory was that every medical condition was caused by an organism that had a specific frequency - by building a machine to generate and beam that frequency back into the body it would be destroyed, much as an opera singer can shatter a glass.

His research was refined by a Californian pathologist, Raymond Royal Rife (1888-1971), and a New Mexico chiropractor, James Bare, who drew up tables giving the frequency of 30,000 organisms they said caused every condition from dandruff to leprosy, strokes and syphilis. AIDS, for instance, is said to be cured by a frequency of 2,489 kilohertz in as little as three three-minute sessions.

Electronics Australia magazine, which has been campaigning against the gadgets, analysed one and found that it consisted of a nine-volt battery, some wiring, a switch, a timer and two short lengths of copper tubing - components worth about $15. The electrical current delivered was "almost undetectable" and unlikely even to penetrate the skin, let alone kill any organism.

After falling out of fashion, the devices have been revived in the United States over the past 20 years, promoted in conjunction with an early edition of the Lynes book. Later editions contain an appendix entitled "The Exploiters" in which Lynes says: "Sadly, in most cases, the cancer patients lost precious time - three or four months - before recognising that they had been swindled in a clever marketing scheme. People died because they had faithfully used the worthless black box instead of orthodox or alternative, non-conventional cancer therapies which actually worked."

In Australia, the first known Rife device was built about 1989 by Geoffrey Charles Baker, 47, of Terrigal, a former CSIRO researcher with no medical qualifications who says he spent $3 million over seven years developing it. Baker told the Herald he built the device with the help of the executor of Rife's estate and it "saved my life" when he suffered a prolonged illness from mercury poisoning.

Baker has been selling the devices - he would not say how many - since the early 1990s. At first he was in partnership with a now-bankrupt "herbalist, numerologist and astrologer" named Eilleen Whittaker, who claims to have cured Kim Basinger's dog Bee-Bop of leukaemia. In more recent years Baker has been a principal of Electromed, the company that sold Des Carpenter his PET machine.

Baker admitted that, with no acceptable scientific evidence, he had been advertising that PET machines could treat arthritis and "recurrent viral or bacterial infections". But he denied he ever claimed it could cure cancer.

That is not how a number of people remember it. Carpenter says Baker provided him with a machine "specifically tuned" to treat his father's cancer. Greg Ray, chief-of-staff of the The Newcastle Herald, quoted Baker in 1993 as claiming his machine would "rid Australia of cancer" - an article Baker never challenged. In a tape-recorded speech Baker gave the same year to a patients' group on the Central Coast he makes clear and repeated references to curing cancer.

Baker also claims in his advertising material that his machine has been "tested" by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Federal agency in charge of medical devices. The TGA denies this. It says the PET machine had been "listed" - but never tested for effectiveness - in 1996, but that listing was cancelled last April.

Herald: What would you say to people (like Carpenter) who would say that you are a quack who is encouraging people to give up legitimate therapy in exchange for expensive treatment by a bogus machine ?

Baker: I'm sorry, but they are entitled to their opinion and you are entitled to yours.

One of the clinics offering "Bare-Rife Therapy" is Complementary and Ecological Medicine, which operates from offices on the Pacific Highway in St Leonards.

On its Web site it says: "While we offer no 'cure' for cancer, there are treatment options available today which can increase life expectancy and life quality."

It then gives three case histories of cancer patients said to have been treated with the clinic's Rife machine: a woman of 53 suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, now pronounced "free of cancer"; a woman of 27 with a tumour of the neck and chest, who had been given only days to live but survived and returned to work; a man of 64 now apparently cured of prostate cancer.

The clinic's director, Pauline Rose, who has no medical degree, could cite no peer-reviewed, double-blind clinical trials to support these claims and said treatment with her New Zealand-manufactured Rife machine was "experimental". Her cancer patients had continued with conventional therapy, so she had no idea what caused the "cures" - "Did the power of prayer cure her? I don't know."

In the US, two States, Wisconsin and Minnesota, have taken tough action to put Rife machine operators out of business. In one case, Shelvie Rettmann, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, was fined $US100,000 ($178,800), ordered to refund money to all her patients and banned from the health care industry after two people she was treating with a Rife machine died of cancer.

Attorneys-general of the two States issued a public warning that the therapy amounted to "health quackery at its worst" and said: "The bottom line ... is that [Rife] devices have no value for diagnosing or treating anything."

In Australia, says Dwyer - who has examined one of the machines and found it medically worthless - nothing has been done to put Rife operators out of business, or to warn the public of the dangers.

"Regulatory authorities and politicians tend to put the problems associated with false advertising into the too-hard basket," he says. "Medical boards, health complaints commissions, even the Therapeutic Goods Administration, all want to pass the buck to each other when it comes to investigating and prosecuting this dangerous anti-science."

Four months after he received an official complaint, the NSW Minister for Fair Trading, John Watkins, has promised to assign a senior investigator to see whether promoters of the Rife machines should be challenged to justify the claims made for them.

But that, of course, is too late for the grieving family of David Carpenter.

Nothing to do with us, say agencies

Cheryl Freeman, a nurse from Dudley, near Newcastle, has been campaigning against Rife machines - and other bogus medical devices - for several years. "I am just sick of the run-around I have been getting ... No-one seems to be interested in protecting sick and vulnerable people," she says.

She originally wrote to the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission which is charged with protecting patients against medical malpractice.

The commission replied that it "only investigates those complaints it considers most significant in terms of the issues facing the overall health system" such as "alleged sexual misconduct". It passed her complaints to the NSW Medical Board and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

The medical board wrote to Freeman that because of recent changes to its legislation "the board no longer has the power to deal with unregistered persons who advertise cures and offer cancer treatments".

So whom could she go to? "It is not yet clear who will be responsible for prosecuting these matters in future," the board said.

The ACCC said that it had recently taken action against bogus medical devices including Giraffe World's "negative ion mat", a laser hair-removal clinic, and the Raylight "parasite zapper" that claimed to cure AIDS.

However, the commission said it would not act against Rife machine promoters and suggested Freeman contact her local consumer protection agency.

She wrote to the Department of Fair Trading in July but, four months after the complaint was referred to its "rapid response and assessments branch", Freeman had heard nothing until the Herald took up the case.

Finally, she wrote to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is responsible for regulating all medical devices sold in Australia. Make that used to be. "Electronic health devices were excluded from the TGA's control" in 1998, wrote the agency. It suggested she contact the ACCC.

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