Sometimes it's as though we're still living in the Dark Ages. The other day it was John Banks, the former mayor of Auckland, deputy Education Minister and leader of the libertarian Act Party declaring his belief in the Biblical creation legend, the universe being created in six days, around 3000 years ago, Adam and Eve, the parent stock of all humankind and all that. Now comes reports of a family just north of Wellington putting their faith in a quack to cure a mother of cancer, with sadly predictable results.

This particular charlatan practised iridology, the scientifically debunked notion that by looking into the iris of the eye - the coloured part - an expert can diagnose illnesses.

In Mr Banks' case his attachment to antiquated theories will cause no lasting harm to him and those around him - unless it influences his decisions in relation to the Government's Charter School programme, which he is leading. However, the iridologist's dabblings in medical treatment ended with the death of her patient, following months of at times excruciating suffering.

The Health and Disability Commissioner's report makes harrowing reading.

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The patient, who was fearful of mainstream medicine, went to her iridologist in February 2008 about a lesion on her head. The practitioner had been "treating" her for sinus and middle ear problems since 2001.

By April 2008, the patient was renting a house in Te Horo to be near the iridologist and getting twice-daily treatments, which seemed to involve applications of kumarahou ointment and agonising removal of rotting flesh with the aid of colloidal silver washes.

In June 2009, with the wound doubled in size and the scalp eaten through, the family finally took her to hospital where a doctor is reported as saying "you can see the brain just pulsating underneath".

Deputy Health and Disability Commissioner Tania Thomas has referred the case to the Human Rights Tribunal which could award damages against the practitioner for failing in her duty to do no harm under the code of consumer rights, which became law in 1996. What is unconscionable, is that damages or not, the iridologist will be free to peddle her wares, free from the regulatory regimes that govern more mainstream medical practitioners.

Why, when parliamentarians and police and customs agents spend tens of thousands of hours and dollars sniffing out the last suspicious party pill and criminalising the purveyors, do they leave the pushers of dubious medical treatments untouched?

In 1999, after the uproar following the death of young cancer sufferer Liam Williams-Holloway, I'd hoped for a crackdown on quackery. Liam was in Dunedin Hospital for radiotherapy to his jaw when his parents pulled him out and took him to a Rotorua alternative medicine centre for treatment with a Rife "quantum booster" machine. Invented by American Royal Rife in the 1930s, these so-called miracle cure-all machines were supposed to kill cancer and bacteria and viruses and every other disease with radio waves.

In the United States, authorities have rejected them as unproven hogwash and prosecute those selling the machines or offering treatment.

Young Liam died in a Mexico Rife clinic. His Dunedin doctor said he had a 60-70 per cent chance of being cured with conventional medicine.

Depressingly, these machines are still widely available in New Zealand. From the Rife Centre Albany, you can buy the "Ultimate Rife Machine 2012" online with "one million healing frequencies (HZ)" for $421, or buy software to turn your home computer into a healing machine.

"Alison" in Franklin offers "home appointments" and includes an "A-Z of disease," on her homepage which interestingly, doesn't get past candidiasis. Which is far enough to include boils, body odour and breast cancer.

Alison doesn't explain the link between her Rife machine and the A-Z of disease. I guess, believers already know. The Albany site links to the Rife home page which claims the machines have helped thousands worldwide "recover from serious diseases".

The argument for letting these quacks peddle their unproven or debunked "cures" is that it's a free society and they do no harm. But in one case, an innocent child could possibly be alive today if not for his parents' blind faith in a cheap electric toy. In the latest case, not only the victim, but also her daughter and husband, fell under the thrall of this iridologist, the family members fatefully influenced by a seeming wish to respect the victim's apparent fear of conventional medicine.

As for the "curer," she appears to have set up shop with no verifiable training, and admitted to the commissioner this case "was way out of her league".

For all we know, she is still taking patients, and under the lax regulatory system, will be free to continue doing so, regardless of any Human Rights Tribunal decision.