B.C. goes after company touting alternative to whooping cough vaccine

Steve Mertl
Daily Brew

Oregano is something most of us like on pizza and in spaghetti sauce, but oregano oil is a rock star of naturopathic medicine, credited with improving skin problems, fighting colds and sore throats.

But a Vancouver-area purveyor of health supplements is being slapped down by local health officials for an advertisement suggesting oregano oil can substitute for vaccination against potentially deadly whopping cough in children.

The Fraser Valley region, just east of Vancouver, has been dealing with an outbreak of whooping cough (properly called pertussis) this year, with more than 100 confirmed or suspected cases reported in a two-month period.

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Quebec has also reported a spike, more than 10 times the usual number of the highly contagious disease this summer, according to the Montreal Gazette.

A newspaper ad ran last week in the Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province newspapers by Enerex Botanicals Ltd. of Burnaby, B.C., touted oregano oil as "the natural way to help combat whooping cough," according to The Canadian Press.

The ad depicts the supplement next to a broken vaccine needle with the caption: "It's nice to know that vaccines aren't the only choice to combat this highly contagious bacterial disease."

The ad prompted the Fraser Health Authority to demand Enerex publish another ad retracting the claim and apologizing.

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Spokesman Dr. Paul Van Buynder said there's no evidence oregano oil can replace a whooping cough vaccine and the ad could encourage people to decide against vaccination.

"We were worried that there were going to be parents and people out in the general community that, rather than listening to our message about vaccinating and protecting children, would use oil of oregano and then be exposed to the risks of this disease," Van Buynder told CP.

Enerex now has posted a notice on its web site acknowledging the health authority's demand and promising to issue a "clarification" this week.

"Enerex takes this concern very seriously," says the notice, stressing "the health and safety of all Canadians is the number one priority ..."

Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract. According to Health Canada, it's the second most frequently reported vaccine-preventable disease in the country, with about 2,500 cases reported each year.

Although it can affect people of all ages, whooping cough is most severe in infants. Initial symptoms resemble a common cold, but develop into bad coughing spells that give the disease its name. Severe cases can lead to pneumonia, seizures and brain damage, and it kills one in 170 infants who contract the disease, CP noted.

The health authority's letter to Enerex alleges the ad violates the B.C. Public Health Act, which makes it illegal to create a health hazard by interfering with the suppression of an infectious agent, CP reported.

It demands a retraction equal in size to the original ad, and it must state that oregano oil is not effective in preventing whooping cough.

If Enerex doesn't submit a retraction by Tuesday, officials can go to court to force it to comply, said Van Buynder.

The company's claims contribute to public skepticism and fear of vaccines among those who think the injections carry potentially harmful side effects, he added.

"It's a battle between people who say, 'We don't need to vaccinate children.' " he told CP. "We respect the fact that people want to get good information, and that this is a very important public debate. What we don't respect is blatant untruths to be told about alternative products."

(CBC image)