Experts voice concerns over university’s links to Indian health ministry ‘selling snake oil’

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Western Sydney University is partnering with an Indian health ministry that has promoted the use of pseudoscientific and potentially harmful treatments to Covid-19.

Ayurveda has been used in India for centuries as a natural alternative to western medicine. But its efficacy has been widely debunked and it can be dangerous in some instances.

In November, the university announced the appointment of a joint academic chair in Ayurvedic medicine, in partnership with the Ministry of Ayush, which promotes Ayurveda and the government of India.

Among treatments the ministry has promoted during the pandemic are ingesting cow urine – believed by many Hindus to have healing properties to treat several illnesses including cancer – taking homeopathic medicines that include diluted arsenic, and putting sesame oil in the nose.

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The ministry has suggested the interventions can prevent the virus and lessen symptoms.

A New South Wales doctor from the Indian diaspora, who asked to remain anonymous, told Guardian Australia he had health and safety concerns about the partnership.

“My problem with Ayush is you have an organisation with dubious credentials selling all sorts of weird things during Covid [and] known for selling snake oil,” he said.

“The organisation has a deeply problematic record. My concern is patient safety and the impact on the health system.”

The doctor said there was also a lack of transparency about what, if any, backing the partnership had from medical professionals.

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“Are we so politically driven we are happy to look the other way in terms of patient safety? It’s a political prerogative over the health and wellbeing of citizens,” he said.

The scientific community and statutory bodies have raised broad concerns over the efficacy and safety of Ayurvedic treatments. A 2015 study of people who used Ayurvedic interventions found 40% had elevated levels of lead in their blood and some had elevated levels of mercury, while homeopathy has also been found to cause liver damage.

Australia has drastically ramped up engagement with India’s education sector in recent months, including the announcement of a historic deal to mutually recognise qualifications and the establishment of the first international campus to be opened by Deakin University, in the state of Gujarat.

Dr Gerald Roche, a senior research fellow in the department of politics, media and philosophy at La Trobe University said the Western Sydney University partnership was part of a soft power push by the Indian government – known to promote Hindu nationalism.

“It’s different from other national soft power as it’s not just promoting [a] nation but [a] specific cultural version of [a] nation … Hindu science … a cultural nationalist project that’s fundamentally intolerant,” Roche said.

The Ministry of Ayush was established with the election of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in 2014 as an independent ministry to promote “plural medicine traditions” including Ayurveda, homeopathy and naturopathy.

It receives significant budgetary and ideological support from the state, including its senior ministers.

At the Global Ayurveda festival in 2021, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, suggested Ayurveda was a “holistic human science” and conventional medicine for physical and mental health. India’s minister for alternative medicines, Shripad Naik, declared that then-Prince Charles had been cured of Covid-19 using Ayurveda and homeopathy – a claim swiftly rebuffed by the British government.

Western Sydney is the first Australian university to have joined the Ministry of Ayush’s global program to place academic chairs in foreign institutions, after signing a memorandum of understanding in 2021. Associate Prof Shrikrishna Rajagopala, from the All India Institute of Ayurveda, will commence the three-year role in June.

The vice -chancellor of Western Sydney University, Prof Barney Glover, said the chair would work within Australia’s regulatory framework to promote Ayurveda within conventional healthcare.

“The chair will … advance the scientific base of Ayurveda and promote the translation and integration of evidenced-based Ayurveda interventions into conventional healthcare,” Glover said, such as establishing research projects, academic courses, provide tutorials, workshops and seminars.

A spokesperson for Western Sydney University said its health researchers explored the “scientific basis” of integrative and complementary medicine interventions and the university was “committed to delivering high-quality, world-class research and maintains the highest standards of integrity in research governance”.

In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has issued thousands of dollars in infringement notices for the alleged importation of Ayurvedic medicines that breach the Therapeutic Goods Act and are banned from sale, supply and use.

A spokesperson for the TGA said Ayurvedic medicine could only be used in Australia if it met all legal requirements under the register of therapeutic goods.

“A medicine making high-levels claims such as treating diabetes, Covid and cancer would require a full TGA pre market evaluation with data to support the product’s safety, clinical efficacy and quality,” they said.

“Medicines that make these high-level claims are regulated as prescription only medicines in Australia and would require a doctor’s prescription before they can be accessed by the public.”

The US department of health warns Ayurveda studies are “small” or “not well designed” and there’s “little scientific evidence” of its value.

The practice has also received backlash within India. The Association of Medical Consultants, a group of doctors in Mumbai, filed a petition against two bills which would allow Ayurvedic practitioners to perform various types of surgery.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Press Council of India issued an order asking print media to stop promoting Ayush-related claims for Covid-19 to prevent the dissemination of misinformation.

The Ministry of Ayush was approached for comment.