Sunday, 5 July 2009


Last week it was climate change, this week alternative medicines threatening developing countries. Is it me, or is benchtwentyone developing a sentimental side?

I sincerely hope not. None the less I think it's important people know a little bit about homeopathy and how dangerous it can be if approached from a naive standpoint. Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine which claims to be able to treat various illness by presenting the patient with highly dilute 'preparations'. Sometimes the disease-causing item itself is used in the preparation, sometimes not. The important criterion for homeopathic preparations is that the substance used in them causes the symptoms the patient presents - whether it is the real cause or not is irrelevant. For example to treat a runny nose (caused by a virus, say) a homeopath might employ onion essence, as this induces the same symptoms.

And what do I mean by highly dilute? Well, for a patient suffering from hayfever, the homeopathic practitioner might take
a grain of pollen and dilute it in 100 ml of water. He would then take a drop of this and dilute it again with a further 100 ml of water. If he repeats this action 30 times he ends up with what homeopaths call a 30C preparation, which would be administered to the patient. The general idea is that by presenting the sufferer with an extremely small amount of a substance which causes their symptoms, they will some how become acclimatised to it.

You might be thinking this seems a little rubbish. Would onion extract really cure me of my cold? Well, benchtwentyone (and many others around the globe) is here to point out that these astute individuals are 100% right. Once you have carried out dilution to that extent, you end up with essentially a jar of water. In point of fact, the chance of there being even a single molecule of the active ingredient in a 30C preparation is less than the chance of winning the lottery five weeks in a row [1].

When charged with this fact, homeopaths sometimes respond by stating that water has a 'memory' which somehow transfers an impression of the active ingredient (what little there is of it) to the body.
I don't want to skirt the issue on benchtwentyone, so let's be frank - this is utterly unsubstantiated nonsense. Water doesn't have a memory, and once a substance is taken out of it there is no impression left on the water molecules. No serious scientist has ever presented a shred of evidence that anything like this is possible

So homeopathy is scientifically on very dodgy ground. If we are rating this treatment by how sure we are that it works based on pharmacological trials and scientific proof it scores a rather fat zero. In a recent report by premier medical journal
The Lancet, researchers found that there is absolutely no evidence that homeopathy works at all on a biological basis [2].

It seems clear that in cases where homeopathy appears to do some good in patients (and believe it or not there are some patients who claim it does) it is merely a placebo effect. That is, the patient believes that they have been given a cure or treatment and thus something in their mentality makes them feel better even though there is no physiological change.

I was disturbed to learn this week then, that Homeopathy, while at least not life-threatening in developed countries, is now being advertised in the developing world as an alternative therapy for conditions such as HIV/AIDS, TB and diarrhoea. Homeopathic clinics offer pricey treatments for vunerable people - and are making fairly big sums of money off the back of it. This is serious stuff, as people are being given false hope in the face of life-threatening conditions. What is more there are perfectly safe and - importantly - scientifically proven treatments which can treat and help control the spread of these conditions.

A group of scientists from the VoYS (Voice of young science) wrote to the World Health Organisation last week calling for them to issue a strong statement to condemn homeopathy as the fraudulent and dangerous thing it really is. You can read the letter, which was reported on in the guardian, here. Hopefully this will signify the begining of the end for homeopathy clinics in the developing world.


[1] Sense about Homeopathy, a briefing document from Sense about science, published online here.

[2] A. Shang et al., The Lancet, 2005, 366, 726 - 732.

1 comment:

Jon said...

There may be something more to homeopathy than just the placebo effect. It may or may not be the case in developing countries, but in this country you'll find that homeopathy "consultations" last a lot longer (typically they last up to an hour, I believe) than regular GP appointments. It would not be unreasonable to attribute some of the positive 'results' to this more hands-on approach, which GPs are sadly unable to adopt given the time constraints they have. A problem shared is a problem halved and all that. Someone taking an apparent genuine interest in your problems and taking the time to reassure and sympathise will undoubtedly cause a slight improvement in general happiness as well as probably improve the placebo effect.