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Liz Szabo, USA TODAY

PHILADELPHIA - The 12-year-old girl arrived at the hospital wracked with abdominal pain.

Doctors diagnosed her with acute pancreatitis, in which pancreatic enzymes begin digesting not just food, but the pancreas itself.

The most likely cause of the girl's condition: toxic side effects from more than 80 dietary supplements, which the girl's mother carried in a shopping bag, says Sarah Erush, clinical pharmacy manager at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where the girl was treated last summer.

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The girl's mother had been treating her with the supplements and other therapies for four years to treat the girl's "chronic Lyme disease," a condition that, experts say, doesn't actually exist. While some Lyme infections cause pain and other lingering symptoms, the infections don't persist for years. And, according to the Infectious Disease Society of America, the infections don't require years of antibiotics or other risky therapies given by some alternative medicine practitioners.

Doctors were able to control the girl's illness with standard therapies, Erush says, and she was discharged from the hospital after two weeks.

Although the child's story was unforgettable, Erush says, it wasn't unusual. Parents now "routinely" bring children to her hospital with a variety of alternative remedies, hoping that nurses will administer them during a child's stay.

Doctor of Pharmacology Sarah Erush, is the clinical manager of the pharmacy at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.(Photo: J. Kyle Keener for USA TODAY)

There are an ever-growing number of supplements from which to choose: More than 54,000 varieties sold in stores and the Internet, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

About 50% of Americans use alternative medicine, and 10% use it on their children, notes Paul Offit, Children's Hospital's chief of infectious disease.

The girl's story illustrates the serious but often little-known risks posed by some forms of alternative medicine, a loosely regulated industry that includes everything from herbal supplements to crystal healing and acupuncture, says Offit, author ofDo You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, (HarperCollins, $29.99), being published Tuesday

Many consumers view alternative medicine industry as more altruistic and home-spun than Big Pharma. But in his book, Offit paints a picture of an aggressive, $34 billion a year industry whose key players are adept at using lawsuits, lobbyists and legislation to protect their market.

"It's a big business," says Offit, best known for developing a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal illness that killed 2,000 people each day, mostly children in the developing world.

"This is not just Mom and Pop selling herbs at the farmer's market," says Josephine Briggs, a physician and director of the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, who shares Offit's concerns.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who has long fought for stricter regulation of supplements, says the alternative medicine industry is "as tough as any industry I've seen lobby in Washington. They have a lot of money at stake. They want to maximize their profits and they want as little regulation as possible."

There's even a Congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus, composed of legislators who look favorably on the industry.