This article was originally presented on National Radio’s Sunday Supplement

Be wary of “the health professional you see most often”. In some cases be afraid, be very afraid.

Why? Well in some cases, the advice you get from your friendly pharmacist could be deadly.

I try to ignore the herbs of dubious quality, the effusive claims for magnetic bracelets, the offers to feel my feet to see what ails me – all those things which seem a core part of pharmacy stock and trade. I do wonder about the business and medical ethics. After all, what’s worse – a pharmacist who apparently can’t distinguish between tested, regulated medicines and the hope and hokum variety; or the pharmacist who does know and doesn’t care because such stuff sells?

But the whole sorry state of that industry took a chilling turn recently with the report of an Auckland pharmacy selling a homeopathic meningococcal vaccine.

Many homeopaths would argue that the 300-year-old practice of diluting substances into infinitesimal amounts is akin to taking a vaccine. “Like cures like” as they say. What they don’t say is that the massive dilutions they use would require you to drink almost 8,000 gallons of homeopathic solution to get just one molecule of any medicinal substance involved.

You can pay a hefty price for this diluted water, but you can pay a much bigger price if you use it in place of stuff that actually works.

The Council of the Faculty of Homeopathy, the registered organisation for UK doctors qualified in homeopathy, recommends immunisation with conventional vaccines. As GPs, they know you ignore real vaccination at your peril. It’s a pertinent warning here when we’re considering a large-scale vaccination programme against meningitis.

Small wonder that the head of our Health Ministry’s meningococcal vaccine strategy was concerned about the sale of homeopathic vaccines, warning in a Herald article that it could give people a false sense of security.

However, I think the real false sense of security comes from the hopeful notion that we have some legislative protection from purveyors of such patently misleading products. There’s no protection under the Medicines Act it seems, for the Health Ministry’s compliance team leader Peter Pratt noted in the same Herald item that such preparations are permissible so long as they were “sufficiently diluted”.

Yet it’s the dilution that make this approach to vaccination so dubious in the first place, and not just to the skeptical. Alternative practitioner and homeopath Dr Dominik Marsiello states unequivocally that “there is no such thing as a homeopathic vaccine”. He goes on to acknowledge that “homeopathic remedies are too dilute to stimulate an immune response and confer immunity. There is no basis, historically or scientifically, for such a practice.”

Yet we have bottles of water labelled “meningococcal vaccine” and “hepatitis B vaccine” in our pharmacies, sold by health professionals, as a protection against these terrible diseases. Some apologists have said that “vaccine” in this case actually means “immune booster”. But “vaccine” has a specific meaning – it’s something which confers immunity through the production of antibodies. This is an easily testable claim, but apparently not one our Ministry of Health considers worth bothering about.

I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, last time concerns were raised about a comparable product, our Commerce Commission – the organisation charged with protecting us from fraudulent claims – passed the buck to the Ministry of Health, saying it was a health issue. The health ministry, in turn, washed its hands of the business saying that “water is not a medicine”, thus it had nothing to do with them.

Contrast this with the activities of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, their state Health Care Complaints Commissions, their Fair Trading Ministers, and the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration. They are taking an increasing interest in those areas where bogus medicines, fraudulent claims and consumer rights intersect. The TGA took a very dim view of having a fake vaccine on the Australian market, banning it and warning consumers. And the New South Wales Fair Trading Minister referred to the earlier incident where people were paying a 400,000 percent mark-up on a small bottle of water as “a New Age spin on an old-fashioned rip-off”.

Strong words, but ones which need to be said, and said loudly. I know of one New Zealand baby dead of meningitis because homeopathic treatment was chosen over real medicine. I don’t want to see any more. I just wish our Health Ministry felt the same.

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