Medical ‘Cures’ That Did More Harm Than Good

24:31 minutes

Having trouble warding off that weight gain? Have you tried taking some tapeworm eggs? Got a troublesome toothache? Consider cocaine. Swollen joints? Slather on some snake oil. Those are just a few of the quack remedies catalogued in Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen.

In the book, they survey a medicine chest’s worth of quacks through the ages, and employ modern-day scientific evidence to evaluate their efficacy. In this segment, Ira interviews Dr. Kang about these spurious “cures,” and asks whether certain medical practices today might be considered cruel and unusual punishment by future generations.

See how everyone from literal snake oil salesmen to opioid aficionados marketed and sold their wares, and read up on a brief history of those “cures,” as described in Quackery. And read an excerpt of the book here.

old poster of snake oil salesman
From “Quackery,” Workman Publishing. Credit: Public Domain

Ailment: Inflammation
Prescribed Treatment: Snake oil
Side Effects: None to note (In fact, in many cases there were no effects whatsoever)

Created by plopping snakes in a vat of boiling water and bottling the fat that rises to the top, snake oil does actually have an anti-inflammatory effect—if it actually contains a very specific snake. Chinese snake oil was made with the fat from Chinese water snakes, Enhydris chinensis, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. But when American frontiersmen began to dabble in the practice during the wave of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century, they reached for rattlesnakes, which have fewer fatty acids. In fact, one brand—Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment—was made from mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper, turpentine and contained exactly no snake. Following the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, Stanley was slapped with a $20 fine, and “snake oil salesman” became the slimy insult that it is today.


[Most of the world’s volcanic activity happens under the sea—but we know very little about it.]

From “Quackery,” Workman Publishing. Credit Public Domain

Ailment: Toothache
Prescribed Treatment: Cocaine
Side Effects: Addiction

Derived from the Erythroxylum coca plant native to South America, the modern drug cocaine was invented when a graduate student extracted the active ingredient from the leaf for a doctoral thesis. The drug was used for a time as a local anesthetic, and one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital used cocaine to numb pain in dental surgeries. Likely as a result of those experiments, the drug became a major ingredient in popular medicines, like Lloyd’s Cocaine Toothache Drops. Sold for $0.15 a pop, the “medicine” was marketed for use with children. And yes, it’s true that the original Coca-Cola recipe contained some amount of cocaine, but the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret.

ad with woman and opioid bottle and syrup
From Quackery, Workman Publishing. Credit: “Mrs. Winslow Soothing Syrup” from the Walter Havinghurst Special Collections, Miami University Libraries, Oxford, Ohio

Ailment: Crying babies
Prescribed Treatment: Opiates
Side Effects: Lack of appetite, alarmingly slow breathing, addiction, death

The botanical name for the poppy, Papaver somniferum, actually includes the Latin root for “sleep inducing.” Various opiate cures, popular at the end of the 19th century, were “putting that baby right to sleep… or killing it,” write Kang and Pedersen in Quackery. But 19th-century nannies weren’t the first to spoon-feed opium- and morphine-laced mixtures, like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, to lull babies into sleep and silence. Mentions of the “remedy” stretch all the way back to the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical document dating to 1550 BCE that describes a poppy mixture. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act put the sale of opiates like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to bed in the United States.

[Looking for some urban stardust? Check the roof.]

From “Quackery,” Workman Publishing. Credit Public Domain

Ailment: Fatigue, lack of focus, sexual dysfunction
Prescribed Treatment: Strychnine
Side Effects: Cold sweats, loss of consciousness, alarmingly rapid heartbeat, death

For nearly 200 years, everyone from medical students cramming for exams to marathon runners were popping the alkaloid strychnine, which was originally heralded as a multipurpose boost. The downside? A mere five milligrams is enough to kill you. But when an American company called All Products Unlimited realized in the 1960s that strychnine also had a reputation as an aphrodisiac, the deadly potential didn’t stop them from capitalizing on the nascent sexual revolution. The company eventually landed in court on charges of mail fraud, and for making “baseless” claims about the sexual benefit of the stimulants.

advertisement for tape worms as weight loss treatment
From “Quackery,” Workman Publishing. Credit: Public Domain

Ailment: Difficulty losing weight
Prescribed Treatment: Tapeworms
Side Effects: Brain inflammation, seizures, dementia, a 30-foot-long tapeworm growing inside your body  

The tapeworm craze wormed its way into the public in the 1800s. The gist was this: Eat as much as you want, then wash it all down with some tapeworm eggs. Voila! The parasite eats away all the food you’ve just eaten. In reality, an actual tapeworm infection could result in brain inflammation, seizures, and a 30-foot-long tapeworm that lives for decades growing inside one’s body. Perhaps it was for the best that mail-order eggs were often dead on arrival (or just never showed up, period).

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Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What do dead rabbits, crocodile dung, shark cartilage, and grapes– and throw in cyanide there– what do they all have in common?

Believe it or not, those are all cancer cures people have tried over the years. And no, they don’t work, unless termination of life is considered a cure. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Quack cancer cures are just the beginning of the silly things humans have tried through the millennia to cure what ails them. There were red hot irons to the forehead. Try it for your headache. You got a wart? You can cure it by touching it with a dead person’s finger. Or why not bathe in human blood like Egyptian pharaohs did to treat parasitic infections?

These fascinating stories, the history of the lengths people will go to for a cure, they’re all detailed in the book Quackery– a Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Dr. Lydia Kang is the co-author of Quackery, along with Nate Pedersen. She’s also assistant professor of general internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, and she joins us from KVNO today. Welcome to Science Friday.

LYDIA KANG: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Just want to let our listeners know that we have an excerpt of the book and some classic quack medical advertisements for things like snake oil and cocaine toothache drops. If you want to see them, go to our website, sciencefriday.com/snakeoil. Sciencefriday.com/snakeoil.

Doctor, you open the book with a chapter on mercury, something I understand you’ve been fascinated with since you were a kid, those little mercury vials. You push them around on the table, the drop. Didn’t we all do that?

LYDIA KANG: I think everybody has done that. People of a certain age do remember when we used to have a broken thermometer on hand, and we played around with those little bits of quicksilver and thought it was OK.

IRA FLATOW: But it turns out it’s not OK.

LYDIA KANG: It turns out it’s not OK. For the most part, it’s not OK. Luckily, for most of us who played with pure elemental mercury in that way, it probably wasn’t too harmful for us. But the way that they used to take it in history wasn’t the same.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that.

LYDIA KANG: So for a long, long time, mercury was eaten and used in a variety of ways to treat lots of things. Syphilis was one of the classic diseases that it was used to treat. And most people often took it in the form of mercury salts, so mercurous chloride or mercuric chloride were two of the different salts that were used.

But it had a really horrible effect on the body, which is that it caused mercury toxicity. People would have terrible diarrhea and get these awful sores in their mouths and their stomachs. And sometimes, it made them mad as a hatter.

IRA FLATOW: That’s where it came from, right?


IRA FLATOW: That phrase.

LYDIA KANG: Absolutely. Mercury was used in the felting industry, when they were making these big top hats for a long period of time. And a lot of the people who are involved in the creation of these beaver felts got quite sick from poisoning.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Our number, 844-724-8255, if you’d like to talk with Lydia Kang about poisonings of mercury or other sort of quackery that goes on. Maybe you still do some quackery.

Speaking of which, I was horrified by the ancient Greek treatment for headaches, which seems like it would make things much worse. Searing your forehead with a red hot iron to produce boils and blisters, that’s a good thing?

LYDIA KANG: Yeah, you know, this is one of the chapters in the book that I think a lot of people were sort of shocked at. Because I feel like, in the movies, you’ve seen people getting bloodletting done or maybe having leeches put on. But cautery, which is taking a red hot iron or gold or something like that and burning it against the skin, was a treatment that was used for lots of different things.

And interestingly, it is used in surgery today. It’s just wielded in a very different way. It’s electrocautery, and it’s very finely used. And it’s for very specific types of actions in surgery, like cutting or cauterizing blood vessel ends.

But back then, it wasn’t just used in that method. It was, if you were looking really fatigued and tired and lying in bed, somebody might burn an iron up and down your spine to invigorate you.

IRA FLATOW: Might get you out of bed.

LYDIA KANG: It definitely got you out of bed. I’m fairly sure that the fear of the iron was maybe one way that people tried to convince themselves that they were actually not as sick as they thought they were. But yeah, that was one way of doing it. And that’s called actual cautery, because you’re actually putting a burning hot piece of iron or something on you.

There was something called potential cautery, which is where they use acids or, occasionally, ground up insects, like a Spanish fly, which would cause these blisters and burn people.

IRA FLATOW: Amazing. I know that bloodletting was a cure that lasted for millennia, and you write that barbers in London used to put bowls of blood on their windowsills. And that’s actually where the barber pole gets some of its coloring from?

LYDIA KANG: Yeah. Yeah, the barber pole– which is falling out of favor. You don’t see them very much on the street anymore. But it has an ancient history, which is that for a long time, people who were these barber surgeons, they were the ones who were actually doing the bloodletting. So the doctor might prescribe removing a pint of blood, but it was the barber surgeon who actually did the work.

So they would tie a tourniquet around your upper arm, and you would squeeze onto this pole to help get that back flow of blood. And they would cut the artery– excuse me, cut the vein– sort of in the crook of your arm, and it would collect in a bowl.

So after the barber surgeon was all done, they would take that bowl, put it out on the windowsill or outside. They would take the tourniquet and any kind of bloody rags, and they’d be drying outside and flapping in the wind. So you’d see these sort of white and red striped pieces of cloth flapping in the wind with the pole and the bowl. And that is where the barber pole as it is now, with the red and white stripes and the little bowl that it sits on– you don’t see it as much anymore, now, but that’s where it all comes from.

IRA FLATOW: I’m going to allow a few seconds for our queasy listeners to get off the floor.

LYDIA KANG: You might get a little dizzy listening to this. We should have warned you ahead of time.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s go from the frying pan into the fire and talk about corpses and cannibalism. That was a fascinating chapter. Speaking of blood, the pharaohs are bathing in human blood. People snorting dried human blood, making jam out of it. Eating body– I could go on, you know?

LYDIA KANG: Oh, this is one of my favorite chapters. So right, because it was so hard to believe, and yet, it was so common. It was a thing that everybody thought that the human body had this sort of magical power in it. And if you could sort of capture that power at the time when someone died, you could impart that health onto yourself.

So there are different ways that it was done. For example, at executions in England in medieval times, there’d be a big gathering of people around the gallows. And after the executioner certified that the convict was dead, people would go up to the gallows. And they would rub their pimples and their sores against these hanging dead bodies. And sometimes, they’d even take their little babies or children that had a little sore and rub it against this dead body, because this was how you could cure these skin ailments.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, I may have a caller. I think I have a caller– I don’t have a caller on that. Someone was texting us, or writing us, and says, when I was little, people told me if I picked a piece of my wart on my hand and put it on someone’s coffin, it would go away.

LYDIA KANG: You know what? That idea of being able to draw things away from the body was thought about for a long time, as well. And I think the first time I read something like that was when I was a kid. I read Tom Sawyer.

And Tom had a cure for warts, and it was something about cutting the wart and putting the word on something, and you bury it, and it draws the wart away because of this sort of sympathetic blood. So that idea, magical as it is, was used up to pretty recently.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about something that is a little more closer to this century. That’s radium, which was hugely popular, right, when it was discovered, and then everybody wanted to get the little bit of the action with it. You had water crocks and tonics, even had a radioactive jockstrap. I couldn’t believe I was reading that.

LYDIA KANG: Sorry, guys. Yes, that actually did exist. You know, the funny thing about radium is– and I think this reflects a lot on things that happen today, as well– that when Marie Curie helped to discover and isolate radium, it was considered this breakthrough. And people were just really entranced with it. Marie Curie called it “my beautiful radium,” and she would carry it around in her pocket, and it would glow in the dark.

And it was found that if you put radium close to a tumor, the tumor would shrink a little. So they thought, well, this is fantastic. I mean, it must be able to cure everything. So people went with it far and wide. And they put it into their water, because they thought if they drank it, it would invigorate them and make them young again. They thought that it could restore health of all sorts of different medical problems.

And I feel like I see this a lot today, where you have a new finding, and people take this sort of one bit of evidence, and they kind of go wild with it before it really has a chance to be investigated. And I feel like the human race has gotten in trouble a lot of times because of this, and radium is kind of a classic example of that.

IRA FLATOW: But radium treatments still exist today, don’t they?

LYDIA KANG: Yes, it does. Radium was used a little bit more carefully for the treatment of cancers. And it still is used in certain types of cancers, albeit instead of the way that people were just sort of throwing it into everything, they have studied it a lot better. And they do understand how it can work a little bit more specifically for a very specific thing.

So for example, radium– I think it’s 223– is used for certain stages of prostate cancer. It is not used across the board for every kind of cancer in every stage, because they know now when it can be used and what the limits are.

IRA FLATOW: One of the things– you have so many. It’s a wonderful book. And it’s so richly illustrated. And I always speak to authors about how beautiful their books are, but your book is just beautifully colored. The publishers wanted to spend some money on this book. It’s good to see that.

LYDIA KANG: We were just so excited with how well Workman did with trying to bring this book into reality. They knew that pictures would make it better. And actually, Nate and I did a lot of digging. We found a good number of the illustrations ourselves, because when we were doing the research, we were digging up all these great pictures. And we wanted them to be in the book.

IRA FLATOW: And you’ve uncovered some things. I mean, there’s so much in here. I have pages and pages of notes of what to ask. But some of the things– you’ve answered some questions. Let me go to some of the things that you’ve answered that I think most of us have wondered about.

For example– I have to be careful how I say this– blowing smoke up people’s rear ends was– a tobacco smoke enema, so to speak?


IRA FLATOW: That was a thing?

LYDIA KANG: It was a thing in the 18th century. There was thought at the time that tobacco smoke could revive victims of drowning. And so there was an actual group that was dedicated to making sure they had these kits on the side of the Thames River that contained a bellows and a little thing where you could strike up and get some tobacco smoking.

The institution that was in charge of putting these little kits on the river was called the Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning, which is probably a terrible mnemonic, so I’m not going to say what it is. But that’s what they thought. They thought someone’s almost drowned. They pull your pants down, lift your skirt up, and they get that bellows and try to revive you.

So my guess is that if you’re actually still conscious, it will freak you out into actually trying to run away from the treatment. But that didn’t last very long. People kind of realized after a while this wasn’t the best way to revive people from drowning. But it was used for a while. It’s just hard to believe.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And I’m not just blowing smoke, as they say. That’s where the phrase came from.

LYDIA KANG: Exactly. I think people sort of realized that it was an effort in futility. So that’s where the term came from.

IRA FLATOW: But what was the most surprising thing that you came up with? And you talked about so many things in here.

LYDIA KANG: Well, cannibalism and corpse medicine was probably one of the things that I found most particularly disturbing to me and, I think, partially because it’s so culture bound. We use other parts of the human body in our medical treatments all the time now, and we don’t blink an eye about it.

You know, getting a kidney transplant or a liver transplant. These are wonderful gifts. Corneal transplants, blood transfusions, skin– there’s so many things that we do. And we’re all OK with it.

And yet, we will get really– we’ll start to feel a little icky at the idea of breast milk banks. So it’s interesting where we draw the line, whereas way back then, there was not much of a line drawn at all.

IRA FLATOW: But wouldn’t we think, in the few minutes we have left– I was talking about things that, maybe 100 years from now, people will be making fun of, you know?

LYDIA KANG: I think, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And one of the things that gets mentions are mammograms, for example. I mean, it’s sort of a crude thing to do, isn’t it?

LYDIA KANG: Yeah, it kind of– when you think about it. I mean, this is the best thing that we have to try to catch breast cancer early, and it’s been rigorously studied.

But there is going to come a time, and I don’t know when that time is, when we’re going to look back and say, you used to take the tissue and squash it between two plates and get these images to try to find cancer when, nowadays, all you have to do is just– we can wave a wand, or you have a blood test and you know at birth if it’s going to– I mean, there’s just so many other ways that we can’t even begin to imagine how we are going to be able to save lives and find diseases early or prevent them. And they’re going to look back right now at we’re doing, and they’re going to laugh at how crude it was.

IRA FLATOW: You talk about the king’s touch actually healing people, but you don’t talk about faith healers in there, or people laying on hands as being– it doesn’t come up. Is it sort of the same thing? Or was that outside of what you wanted to go to?

LYDIA KANG: You know, it was a little bit outside of what we wanted to go to, because there was a certain amount of religious-based medical treatment that we decided not to touch, because it’s a pretty delicate realm. What we wanted to do was focus on things that happened far enough in the past that most people could pick up the book and say, wow, that’s pretty ridiculous. Why would somebody do something like that?

So the king’s touch, which was going on from, basically, the 1200s and onward, and it kind of died out maybe in the 1800s– people can look back on that and say, well, obviously, kings don’t have divine powers. So it’s easier to look back at that with a big skeptical eye. So yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So if the kings touched some coins, then did it transfer to somebody who picked up the coins?

LYDIA KANG: Yeah, so you know, if you were part of the British peasantry and you were at one of these king’s touch ceremonies– let’s say you had this bad case of tuberculosis and you had scrofula, which is sort of this big mass of tuberculosis sort of in your neck, you might go and have the king touch it to sort of have it shrink down or maybe go away. And you received this special gold coin that would be dubbed an angel in the image of St. Michael or something like that.

And this coin had a lot of power in and of itself. People would take the coin and rub the coin on themselves to try to heal things. And so the king’s touch could be imparted to these tokens, as well.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking with Dr. Lydia Kang, co-author with Nate Pedersen of a really great book, Quackery– a Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Executed very, very well. We have an excerpt from the book on our website, sciencefriday.com/snakeoil. Sciencefriday.com/snakeoil.

We’re going to take a little break now and come back more with Dr. Kang. She’s going to stay with us. If you have any questions, our number is always here for you. 844-724-8255.

You can also tweet us @scifri. Quackery– a Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. We’ll see if we can get a little bit more into the book after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the book Quackery– a Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything with co-author Dr. Lydia Kang. Our number, if you want to talk about Quackery, is 844-724-8255.

A few tweets coming in. Tweet from Claire says, my 88-year-old grandmother broke her arm when she was little. Her mom would rub olive oil on her arm and sit her in the sun for an hour or two with the oil, hoping to keep her arm growing despite her doctors saying it wouldn’t. It did. Was this a big fad? Did you come across that?

LYDIA KANG: That one, I don’t think we came across as much. There were a lot of people who I’ve met over the course of this last year who would come up to me at book signings and things like that and tell us what their grandparents used to do or their own parents used to do. And so all these other sort of old-timey treatments are coming out through the cracks.

Some really interesting ones. And we’ve heard a couple of recurrent ones, like blowing smoke in people’s ears to cure earaches and use of mercurochrome for all their cuts and bruises. But that’s one I haven’t heard about, the olive oil in the sun trick. We’ll have to write that one down.

IRA FLATOW: That’s your next book, the follow up. Let’s go to Berkeley and Ed. Welcome to Science Friday.

ED: Hi. I’d like to mention that, for thousands of years, ancient Egyptian women practiced birth control, by the way– they really did– by using dried crocodile dung before having sex with their men. That’s true fact.

LYDIA KANG: Yes. I actually studied that in medical school. I actually did an entire paper on the history of contraception, and that’s when I first learned about Egyptians using crocodile dung as a contraceptive. I also learned about using wax cervical caps, as well as all sorts of other contraceptives, which probably had some usage that was very positive that worked and probably some that didn’t.

So it’s kind of interesting to see that women, since time out of mind, have been trying to control their fertility. So yeah, more power to them and us.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t want to get into the details of crocodile dung at the moment. So let’s go back to California, Palo Alto, to Misa. Hi, there.

MISA: Oh, hi. First, I wanted to say– I actually know Lydia from [INAUDIBLE], so I wanted to say congratulations, and I’m so excited for you. And I also have a question related to contraception, which is actually more about pregnancy and the idea of women as others and the need to keep the woman and the baby warm.

And I was talking with a lot of friends from Asian countries. We all have traditions where you have to wear things to keep the baby warm while you’re pregnant, and you have to eat warm food and not have cold food. And a friend from Cambodia said even after the baby is born, they try to keep the mother warm and have charcoal under the bed to make sure that– yeah.

And then, sometimes nowadays, babies actually die from overheating. And in these Asian countries, it seems like it wouldn’t be a problem to stay warm. So why?

IRA FLATOW: Why do that?

MISA: I just wondered where that came from.


LYDIA KANG: Yeah, that’s interesting. I haven’t heard of that one, either. Most of the work from the book, for the most part, pulls from Western culture. And so we knew looking into more Asian remedies, it was an entire volume, multiple volumes of books, unto themselves. That one, I also hadn’t heard of.

A lot of the women’s health stuff that we found out were from these old texts from the Middle Ages that were supposedly written by a woman, but we’re not actually 100% sure about that. And there was a lot of animal medicine in that. So haven’t seen as much of the warming or the cooling, but I wonder how much of it also stems from some of the cultural beliefs about heat and cold and what they mean and whether or not they’re helpful or harmful.

IRA FLATOW: You write in your book about tapeworms for weight loss, but aren’t tapeworms and tapeworm extract being legitimately investigated today for things like inflammatory bowel disease?

LYDIA KANG: Yeah, the tapeworm thing is really fascinating, because in the realm of weight loss, the idea was that if you could eat a tapeworm, then the tapeworm can eat your cake for you. And you don’t absorb it, and you don’t gain weight.

I remember reading Jane Fonda’s book when I was a kid, and she’d mentioned how she’d bought tapeworms to do this. And these ads were from the turn of the century where you could buy these tapeworms to lose weight.

So that doesn’t make sense. A tapeworm can’t really eat its weight and make you lose weight specifically for that. It can make you sick, and you might lose weight for other reasons.

That being said, parasites have been looked at more recently in inflammatory bowel disease. So it’s kind of interesting when you think about a lot of people suffering these days from inflammatory bowel disease, and you think about how clean we are these days about washing our hands and not wanting to have parasites and infections.

There has been this interesting change over time where we are becoming more clean of a civilization in the west, at least in the United States, for example. But we’re also seeing this huge rise in inflammatory bowel diseases and other diseases, such as autoimmune diseases. So is there a correlation?

And there is some evidence to suggest that having a parasite in you, if it doesn’t hurt you too much, might actually impart some changes to your gut microflora or your immune response that allows you to not have these inflammatory responses that you might see in inflammatory bowel disease. So there are several studies that are out there that are looking into this. And it’s really fascinating to me, because I think it also talks a lot about what’s going on in the gut microflora, which is a huge area of research that is just exploding right now.

IRA FLATOW: If you’re listening to Science Friday, you know the microbiome is one of our favorite topics. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. This has been a– it’s a wonderful book. I mean, I loved reading it. There’s so many little nooks and crannies in the book. It’s well illustrated. The book is Quackery– a Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen.

We have an excerpt of the book on our website and some classic quack medical advertisements for snake oil, cocaine toothache drops. Go to our website, sciencefriday.com/snakeoil. Sciencefriday.com/snakeoil. Thank you very much, Dr. Kang, for taking the time to be with us today.

LYDIA KANG: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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