Don’t let a naturopath near your vagina: “black salve” for cervical dysplasia

The Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) plant, which is used to make black salve and other escharotics used by naturopaths.

January 2018 is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and naturopaths are urging patients to rely on them to treat cervical dysplasia and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Institute of Natural Medicine (INM) put out a press release and FAQ document stating that naturopaths “take the time to identify and address the genetic, environmental, and behavioral/lifestyle factors that cause cervical dysplasia.” With typical hype and bluster, this naturopathic propaganda goes on to downplay the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine, which is a safe and proven preventative measure against cervical cancer that is recommended by all major medical organizations. But even worse, the naturopathic groups say that naturopaths can treat low- and mid-grade cervical dysplasia using the quackery of escharotic therapy applied directly to the cervix.

Escharotic treatments include applications of bromelain powder, an enzyme found in pineapple, and a paste made from the plant Sanguinaria (also known as bloodroot, which is in the notoriously dangerous black salve) and zinc chloride, a skin irritant. These topical escharotics kill cells by disrupting their ability to pump ions across the cell membrane. The application of Sanguinaria is unwieldy and can result in severe and disfiguring damage, as seen in its use treating skin cancers. (Do a Google search for black salve and skin cancer for more pictures, but be warned.) It is not unreasonable to think that similar horrific outcomes could occur when Sanguinaria is applied to the cervix or if accidentally applied to the vaginal wall or dripped on the patient. One should expect severe scarring on the cervix, which can impact menstruation and fertility at the very least. Naturopaths believe that they can minimize the damage to healthy cells by limiting application times and washing away the pastes with herbal solutions. This is delusional thinking.

As part of their disinformation, the AANP and INM do not mention any side effects for escharotic therapy. But make no mistake, escharotic treatment is unproven, dangerous, and very stupid. Instead, the AANP and INM deceptively emphasize standard-of-care treatments for cervical dysplasia provided by gynecologists, such as cryotherapy and loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), as being associated with significant side effects, such as infertility, prolonged bleeding, and infection. These naturopathic organizations do not mention that these treatments have a high success rate of curing the disease and have been widely studied. A LEEP procedure is done in one office visit, usually covered by health insurance, while cervical escharotic treatments by a naturopath require multiple applications per week for at least six weeks. This treatment frequency with such caustic substances greatly increases the risk of harm, and patients must pay hefty out-of-pocket prices.

In naturopathic school at Bastyr, I was taught that escharotics are a reasonable option for treating cervical dysplasia. A full description of the escharotic protocol can be found on this naturopathic clinic website. (UPDATE 28-Jan-2018: the webpage has been removed, but it is archived here.) This is the same protocol that is detailed in a 2010 document provided by Bastyr University’s teaching clinic to its students and residents for the treatment of cervical dysplasia.

I was diagnosed with cervical dysplasia while in naturopathic school at Bastyr. I initially followed naturopathic recommendations. I started taking “immune-boosting” herbs to fight off the HPV virus, and I used herbal vaginal suppositories. After a few months, the dysplasia had significantly worsened. Much to the surprise of my classmates, I stopped naturopathic treatments and instead pursued real medical treatment. The reasons were simple. Escharotics seemed outright barbaric. I didn’t want to deal with the bleeding and pain, only to risk further progression of the dysplasia and possible development of cancer. I made the right call. My one and only LEEP procedure was curative.

Naturopaths are discouraging women from pursuing standard-of-care treatments for cervical dysplasia through fear mongering. They are promoting outright quackery that appears to be natural and wholesome but can delay effective treatment and cause great harm that is expensive and not backed by science. This is further evidence that the naturopathic profession is morally bankrupt.