You might have heard of a type of alternative medicine called "homeopathy", but if not- don't worry! All shall be explained ;D
There are few images more appalling to modern culture than that of a suffering child. Imagine then, a baby covered in suppurating sores, her skin so cracked that she is barely recognizable. Imagine her once jet-black hair turned bright white, and her incessant crying from the agonizing pain she is suffering. One would assume that this child was living in a third-world country, suffering from some incurable disease. You would acknowledge the tragedy of the situation, but accept that it's unlikely that anything could have been done to help her.
Those details are easy to assume, but are also completely untrue. The baby in question was nine-month-old Gloria Sam, daughter to Thomas and Manju Sam. The family were residents of Sydney, Australia, and had access to excellent healthcare. The child was not suffering from a tragic, incurable disease- she was suffering from a fairly common dermatological condition called eczema. In cases of severe eczema, the skin cracks all over the body, causing itching and pain, and it can be dangerous if left untreated.
Eczema proved to be more than just dangerous for little Gloria Sam. Her skin was so badly damaged that it no longer acted as a barrier against germs. She was covered in infected sores, and developed septicemia as a result of this. She was eventually admitted to hospital, but her condition was so advanced that nothing could be done to help her. She died just three days later, from an illness that had plagued her for her entire short life.
Many people would be inclined to blame her parents, asking why they did not seek help earlier. In truth, they did take Gloria to a doctor almost six months before, who in turn referred them to a dermatologist. Sadly, this is where the decisions of the parents determined the child's fate. They decided to ignore the advice of the specialized doctors, and treat her only with an increasingly popular alternative medicine called homeopathy, which contributed greatly to her tragic death. So controversial was this move, that both parents were jailed in 2009 on charges of manslaughter by gross criminal negligence.
Why, then, is homeopathy so controversial? In order to determine the answer, it is necessary to first discuss the main concepts of the practice, and the claims of the doctors who use it. Homeopathy was first devised in the late eighteenth century by a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann. He developed the treatments based on the assumption that "like cures like"- the idea that a substance which brings about a symptom in a healthy person can be used to treat the same symptoms of a disease. For example, if the patient suffers from asthma, homeopaths would concoct a cure containing animal hair.
The other main feature of the treatment is that each cure has to be diluted using an elaborate process, which originally involved hitting the container several times off a wooden "striking board". The medicines are diluted to the point that it would take swallowing a sphere with a diameter equal to the distance between the earth and the sun to ingest just one active molecule- in other words, the substances contain none of the original active ingredient. Homeopaths dismiss this, however, explaining the concept of "water memory"; quite literally, that water remembers every substance it has come into contact with. They propose that this is how the cures can still be effective when they contain only water- this way, no active molecules are required.
Homeopathy is part of the complementary and alternative medicine market, or CAM. Their treatments are available readily from chemists and specialized health shops, and are very popular, particularly due to the huge demand for natural remedies. The medicines are available for a huge range of ailments, from hay fever and asthma to malaria and cancer. Homeopaths are keen to promote the treatments, claiming that they relieve symptoms from every illness imaginable. However, scientists and conventional doctors often oppose these claims.
The main reason that scientists cite for opposing the practice and promotion of homeopathy is that there is little evidence to prove that it works at all in treating the symptoms of any disease. Homeopaths often refer to positive studies which show that there is a definite benefit to the use of homeopathy. However, they are prone to using an unscientific and biased method called "cherry picking". This means that they choose only to publish favourable studies, and within these studies they promote only the positive data. Even those who oppose homeopathy agree that there is some benefit to the use of the treatments, but that it is no more effective than placebo. This shows that any improvements in health are due to the mental effects of taking a drug which you feel will relieve your symptoms, or even just to sheer coincidence.
Positive studies are also often disregarded by the scientific community due to the methods used. These studies are not always controlled, and rarely blinded. "Blinding", when used in a scientific context, refers to the practice of literally blinding all parties involved in the experiment so they do not know what they are taking or prescribing. In a homeopathy trial, this would involve giving some of the subjects the treatment and others a placebo, with both the patients and the prescribing physicians unaware of which drug they are receiving. This prevents subjects from experiencing the placebo effect; they will not know whether to expect to get better or not. All scientifically valid studies - those which have been properly blinded and controlled- confirm the idea that homeopathy performs no better than placebo.
This then raises the question; if it performs no better than placebo, is it ethical to market homeopathy as a medicine? Proponents of the practice argue that their painkillers have every right to be on a shelf next to Paracetamol and Codeine, and that the public should have a choice of which drug they wish to take. Most of those who oppose homeopathic treatments do concede that choice is vital, and that the public should certainly be allowed to make the decision of which medicines they use. However, their issue is that there is not enough information available for members of the public to be able to make an informed choice about their medical treatment. People already understand the effects of mainstream pain medications, but if they see a homeopathic treatment on the same shelf, then they might be inclined to go for that medicine rather than the scientifically tried and tested examples. This is often because homeopathic remedies are marketed as “natural” and “gentle to your body”, which attracts people for many reasons. They may live- and, more crucially, buy- under the assumption that what is natural is always better, which is a very common belief. They may simply prefer the idea of a side-effect free drug to one which might give you a headache or make you drowsy.
However, there is nothing alongside the claims on the packaging to show the scientific consensus on the effectiveness of homeopathy. There is no label saying “No better than placebo!” or “Ineffective!” There is certainly no cigarette inspired packaging- “Homeopathy kills!” it could say. Having seen the case of Gloria Sam and other tragic victims like her, this is not said at all in jest. Perhaps such clear packaging should be considered, so that the general public can be alerted to the dangers of branching out of conventional medicine, and into, as the British Medical Association dubbed homeopathy, the practice of “witchcraft”.
The area in which the dangers of homeopathic drugs become most apparent is in the treatment and prevention not of aches and allergies, but of serious, life-threatening diseases. For example, homeopathic medicines for the prevention of malaria are readily available, including from the UK’s leading manufacturer of homeopathy; Nelson’s pharmaceutical company. Nobody, not even the homeopaths themselves, can effectively argue that their treatment is a safe way to prevent malaria. There is no placebo effect when it comes to a life-threatening disease; chronic pain is very different to an attack from a deadly parasite. More alarming than their shameless promotion of dangerous treatments is the way that many homeopaths actively advise against taking any form of conventional medicine alongside them.
In 2006 BBC Newsnight conducted an undercover investigation to see if such claims were true of Nelsons, the aforementioned company. This was deemed important as they held the monopoly on the production of homeopathy in the UK and should therefore have been the most strictly regulated of all drug companies which produced the treatments. However, when the BBC investigator managed to talk to the Nelsons advisor she was told that there was no need to complement her homeopathic anti-malaria pills with any other medicine; simply vitamins and garlic capsules. When this information emerged, the then-president of the Society of Homeopaths in the UK could only insist that her organization did not advise against vaccines for malaria, or proper preventative medication. This clearly shows that there is a lack of continuity and regulation within the industry of homeopathy, which is the root of thousands of crucial, life-threatening mistakes.
One has to ask, why are these mistakes allowed to happen? It seems as if there is a single rule for alternative medicine in the UK which differs from that which applies to conventional medicine. Homeopaths argue that their treatments should be afforded equal rights concerning manufacture and sale, however they are unable to conform with basic regulations which science-based medicines are expected to adhere to. According to Liberal Democrat member Dr Evan Harris, “People need to consider homeopathy in the same way as they treat faith-healing and witchcraft.” If this is the case, and individual faith healers are being prosecuted when their actions result in death, then why is it that companies such as Nelsons are not held accountable when their actions contribute to the same dire outcomes on a larger scale? This is yet another example of justice not being served due to the government’s need to pander to every belief of their electorate. Few politicians will stand up against complementary and alternative medicine, as its proponents compose a significant percentage of their voters who they do not want to lose, regardless of the consequences.
Therefore, it seems to be a sad fact that, despite the stacks of evidence against its effectiveness, homeopathy will remain as popular in the United Kingdom now as it has over the past several years. This is partly due to an unwillingness to admit that we may have been wrong in our original estimations of homeopathy, and to the hope that alternative medicines offer to people when all other treatments have been exhausted. However it is mostly a product of the reluctance of figures of authority to adopt an official stance on the issue, as they disregard any moral and ethical issues they may have with these “treatments” in favour of their personal popularity or the popularity of the companies and parties they represent. One can only guess how many more babies like Gloria Sam will be forced to suffer at the hands of homeopaths before society rids itself once and for all of this dangerous parasite.
On another note, I'm hoping to post one of these more detailed essays every month or so. Hold me to it- seriously.