Undercover in Mexico

May 24, 2010

Mexico continues to serve as a base for outrageous medical quackery, many of the victims of which are Americans desperate for a miracle cure.

In a special investigative report (which aired April 18, 2010), CBS’ 60 Minutes noted that the snake oil of yore was useless as well as dangerous, adding:

"But today, quack medicine has never been bigger. In the 21st century, snake oil has been replaced by bogus therapies using stem cells. Stem cells may offer cures one day, but medical charlatans on the Internet are making outrageous claims that they can reverse the incurable, from autism to multiple sclerosis to every kind of cancer."

For its report, 60 Minutes used undercover techniques to expose bogus medical claimants like "doctor" Lawrence Stowe (who has only a PhD in chemical engineering). Investigative reporter Scott Pelley recruited some of Stowe’s patients with ALS ("Lou Gehrig’s disease") and multiple sclerosis. One ALS sufferer had already made a down payment of $47,000. Pelley and crew, using hidden cameras, followed him and another patient to Mexico for improvised stem-cell procedures by Stowe’s associate, Dr. Frank Morales. The approach was completely discredited by a leading stem-cell expert, professor Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology. He says stem-cell breakthroughs are at least years away and that Stowe’s claims are scientifically baseless.
(See https://www.cbsnews.com/…   accessed April 23, 2010.)

For their part, Mexican officials insist that such stem-cell treatment for ALS remains unauthorized. Authorities at the hospital where Morales was operating told CBS they were unaware that he was using stem cells for his therapy and would not have permitted it.

Be that as it may, various treatments — from the questionable to the completely bogus and scientifically discredited — are available in Mexico, as I learned by going undercover there in the fall of 2003. Adopting the persona of a retired terminally ill prostate-cancer patient, accompanied by a friend (fellow investigator Vaughn Rees), I visited a modern, respectable-looking hospital in Tijuana where I was offered options ranging from "prayer therapy" to Laetrile, the notorious treatment that lured fatally ill actor Steve McQueen to Mexico in 1980. (See my "Mythical Mexico," Skeptical Inquirer , July/August 2004, 11-15.).

As I found, not only are bogus treatments available in Mexico but Americans are being directed there by facilitators. One group, with a Modesto, California, postal box, provides bus tours of cancer-treatment facilities in Tijuana, including those offering Laetrile. Now 60 Minutes has exposed yet another level of quackery, aimed at those whose desperation may make them easy prey. Bravo, 60 Minutes !