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Eric Mang served as a political aide in the Harris government in Ontario and the Campbell government in British Columbia. His politics have since shifted left. You can read more at www.ericmang.com.

Homeopathy preys on the desperate

| March 26, 2010

When humans are afflicted with sickness and misery, when they are searching for a cure, sometimes reason is shoved aside in desperation.

There was a recent story in the mainstream media about a naturopath who went to Jacmel, Haiti to dispense homeopathic "remedies". Ailing Haitians who had lined up thinking they would have access to medicine, left after learning that what was being offered had no medical value.

The naturopath seems to have had good intentions: his "remedies" were supposedly designed to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder. But I see this as taking advantage of vulnerable people with a concoction that fails every on every scientific front.

In the United Kingdom, homeopathy is thought to have some air of legitimacy because it is provided and funded under the National Health Service (NHS). Attempting to get a handle on how much the NHS spends on homeopathy has been elusive, but estimates indicate about £4 million per year (according to the Society of Homeopaths) not including operational costs or a one-time capital cost of £20 million updating the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital.

Indeed, a recent report by British House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology stated that: "When the NHS funds homeopathy, it endorses it." But finding the evidence for homeopathy profoundly weak, the Committee recommended that: "The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS."

I'm not here to savage homeopathy, ridicule its users, and then offer no substantive comment.

I certainly understand what it's like to be struck by an illness, mental or physical, and want to find a cure. But just because something gives one hope doesn't mean it works.

Further, faulty reasoning can easily come into play. There's the problem of post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") thinking. For example, taking an unproven "remedy" for an ailment and healing after five days. That could very well have been your body healing itself and not the unproven "remedy". That would be the same as consuming "blessed" water during a full moon and then finding my chest cold has cleared up. Most of us would say that my body healed itself and that neither the moon nor the "blessed" water had any bearing on my chest cold.

So it goes with homeopathy.

In short, homeopathy is water. The idea is that the effect of substance that has been diluted out is retained somehow and that this non-existent but "remembered" molecule of substance "treats" the patient.

Proposed in 1796, a time when illnesses were thought to be the result of an imbalance of the bodily humours - phlegm, blood and yellow and black bile - and a time where bloodletting and leaching were common, homeopathy was devised to be a less harmful way of treating patients. A laudable goal, but we have made significant scientific advances in the past 200 years. Homeopathy defies the basic premises of physics and chemistry.

The central belief of homeopathy is that like cures like; so an insomniac might be "cured" with a remembered molecule of coffee.

But how present is the original molecule in the preparation? Products are sold using a dilution range of 6X to 30X where X represents the Roman numeral 10. So, 6X equals one part in 10 to the power of 6, or one in a million. Some products use "C", the Roman numeral for 100. If one were to ingest a preparation of 30C, that would equal 1 followed by 60 zeros, or the number of atoms in our galaxy. At this point, you are consuming nothing more than water.

You shouldn't be surprised that not one person has overdosed on a homeopathic remedy.

So that leaves the potential for a placebo effect.

But if homeopathy is no better than a sugar pill, that it merely fools the body into thinking a curative medication has been consumed, then this defeats the notion that homeopathy is an effective medicine. Further, if a placebo, then homeopathy shouldn't work on infants, yet its defenders vouch for homeopathy's efficacy in treating babies.

The only way to ensure that homeopathy actually works is to subject it to a double-blind placebo-controlled randomized trial.

Results would then of course have to be repeatable in different labs, with different patients, by different researchers.

But homeopaths are reticent to do this. Some aren't willing to subject homeopathic substances to this rigorous, gold-standard trial because homeopathic supporters see this experimental design as flawed. Or that the "cure" is too individualized; but one can design a DBCR trial and maintain individualized treatment.

Homeopathy's champions don't adequately explain the flaws, but I think this gives them cover to keep making money off people desperately seeking treatment. Not only does homeopathy fail scientific testing, if it preys on the vulnerable, it is unethical.

Most of us who recognize the anthropogenic cause of climate change do so because the science supports this assertion. We condemn the deniers because we become suspicious of their motives even when they are faced with a preponderance of evidence. We stand on the strength of our science.

An open mind is a skeptical mind. It's a mind that desires evidence, but it's also a mind that welcomes change when delivered proof. If homeopathy can pass double-blind placebo-controlled randomized trials, I will change my tune.

Until then, homeopathy is a sham, it preys on the desperate, and despite all the good intentions of its practitioners, they should mull over the ethics of their actions.



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