Sinai Hall could easily fit 100 people but on this mild spring day, there are fewer than 20. They sit scattered around the front of the room, craning their necks to make sure they can see what’s going on at the front.
Australian naturopath Barbara O’Neill has been here for a week, running talks on how to get healthy, how to lose weight, how to beat cancer …
At first the visiting star of the alternative health movement sits in a corner away from the demonstrations, letting her Cook Islands protege Cheryl Marsters and her friend demonstrate how to use an onion to cure a child’s flu.
A primary-aged girl is brought up the front as the subject of the demonstration. She looks dubious, and gazes up warily as O’Neill gets to her feet and takes the microphone.
O’Neill paces further across the room, demonstrating her theories, describing the procedures, arguing the positive effects of the whole treatment.
One of the participants raises a hand. Why use gladwrap around the child’s foot when the plastic might affect the child – why not use a sock or a leaf?
O'Neill mulls it over. Yes, good idea, she says.
It’s easy to see how eager the workshop participants are to learn to cure the simple flu, cough or arthritis pain. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, scientists and doctors have been seeking these answers for millennia.
Now, here’s a woman who seems to have all the answers.
Use onions for a cold or ear aches: heat up half an onion and put it close to your ear and put some of the juice in the ear. Use a ginger poultice to reduce gout inflammation, use other plants and herbs to control blood pressure, or to combat diabetes. Salt and water help with the kidneys.
Last month was O’Neill’s second visit to the Cook Islands, and she’s booked to return in May next year.
The numbers of people listening to her advice here have grown. Some of the natural remedies she prescribes have been tested and proven to work; for others, there’s little evidence beyond old anecdotal tales.
But some of O’Neill’s advice has now been found to be positively dangerous: most notably, her opposition to life-saving child vaccines, and her claim that she can cure cancer by wrapping sufferers in sodium bicarbonate-soaked towels.
This month, Australian health authorities banned her from practicing medicine or giving medical advice in New South Wales.
The New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission found: “Mrs O’Neill does not recognise that she is misleading vulnerable people including mothers and cancer sufferers by providing very selective information.”
“The misinformation has huge potential to have a detrimental effect on the health of individuals as Mrs O’Neill discourages mainstream treatment for cancer, antibiotics and vaccination.”
CANCER SUFFER FOLLOWED ADVICE
O’Neill’s followers are outraged. By last night, 42,000 had signed an online petition to the Complaints Commission, “to clear Barbara O’Neill’s excellent name”.
Here in the Cook Islands, Cheryl Marsters says O’Neill’s cancer treatment helped a Cook Islands man, diagnosed with stage four cancer, survive for two years and spend time with his family.
And O’Neill doesn’t charge a cent for her advice, Marsters says.
O’Neill’s procedure involves dissolving 2kg of sodium bicarbonate in 5 litres of boiling water, with a third of a cup of lemon juice. Then, once the formula is bearable for the skin, applying it to the body. A towel is used to wrap around the body.
In a YouTube video, O’Neill says cancer is a serious condition and so it’s important sufferers take serious steps. The beauty of a healthy diet combined with her bicarbonate treatment, she says, is that there are no side effects.
Marsters says: “Barbara gives a selection of natural remedies and she advocates that if you use all of these in conjunction with another you may have a chance of curing yourself.”
The man had been living in New Zealand, but visiting Rarotonga for his bicarbonate wrap treatments.
A week ago, Marsters says, the man died.
O’Neill is a popular health educator, with the ability to make complex health principles simple. That’s according to the website of her own business, Misty Mountain Health Retreat.
The site says she has now retired. Certainly, the Complaints Commission is trying to ensure that’s the case, with its ban on her practising. But it seems that in the Cook Islands, she still finds sympathetic disciples.
She describes herself as a qualified naturopath and nutritionist who has worked in health retreats in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales.
She gives lectures internationally, has authored books on health and nutrition, and appears in YouTube videos.
For followers like Marsters, she is offering well-rounded, common sense natural medical advice, tried and tested by generations of our ancestors.
If you have a common cold, why not followed O’Neill’s advice to have a steam bath to clear your sinuses?
“These are the kind of things she’s recommending,” Marsters argues.
“With cancer, you got to do dietary changes, you need more oxygen in your cells, so she advocates exercise. You have to alkaline your blood so she recommends doing baking soda wrap.
“So you’ve got to do all these things in conjunction, but at the same time you’ve got to have faith in Jesus as your healer – so it has many steps, she doesn’t advocate just one step.
“If you are not at death’s door and it’s not an emergency situation, or a doctor to intervene with, then why wouldn’t you want to try an alternative? That’s my suggestion.”
O’Neill is all about helping people to have good health and live a sensible lifestyle with sensible choices, she says.
They’re not opposed to medication – they just treat it as a last resort.
Others are far more worried about O’Neill’s growing following in the Cook Islands.
A HISTORY OF CANCER ADVICE
Gloria Merle Walker was one of more than 60 New Zealand and Australian cancer patients buried in the Nikao Cemetery in the late 1970s, following unsuccessful cancer treatment from the infamous doctor Milan Brych
Her daughter has been a regular visitor to Rarotonga since, to restore the grave of her mother and others on the island.
Cate Walker is alarmed that O’Neill is still practicing here.
“It disturbs me greatly to hear that a ‘naturopath’ who has been permanently banned in Australia from providing any health services either voluntarily or in a paid capacity, including giving lectures, is being promoted in the Cook Islands.”
Walker says we should have learned from the tragic experience of the deaths at the hands of Brych, a self-styled cancer therapist. He had fled New Zealand in 1977 after it was discovered that he had falsified his medical qualifications.
“I would be extremely cautious seeking information from any individual who spreads misinformation or offers dangerous and unqualified cancer treatment advice.”
That’s not a caution shown by the nearly 20 people attending at Sinai Hall.
Marsters says people should use common sense. “If the pharmaceutical isn’t working, what have you got to lose by trying something else?”