On January 30, a concerted global mass overdose will take place, but no-one will die because the “medication” of choice will be homeopathic. Homeopathic medicine consists of water or water dripped onto sugar tablets; the UK-based 1023 campaign aims to highlight that fact and protest against pharmacies touting such a product as medicinal.

To mark the occasion, the NZ Skeptics have released a new Skeptics Guide to Homeopathy, available as a flyer off their website (http://skeptics.org.nz). It outlines the development of homeopathy from a relatively harmless attempt to help people some 200 years ago through to the multi-million industry of today. Throughout that time, homeopathic practice has held to the idea that diluting substances many, many, many times makes for a more potent treatment, reinforcing that with the idea that water somehow “remembers” the health-giving extracts it once had in it.

“We do have members looking to take part in the overdose, but many have said that they can´t in all good conscience bring themselves to buy the stuff in the first place,” says NZ Skeptics Chair-entity Vicki Hyde.

When Billy Joel’s daughter attempted to commit suicide last month, she chose to take an overdose of homeopathic medication, and thus suffered no ill effects. Hyde points out that while that case was fortunate, there are many cases where people have been harmed by the use of homeopathic products in the place of real medicine.

“We´ve got a Coronor´s Court record of the death of a baby from meningitis; it had been treated with homeopathic ear drops and the mother was very reluctant for any hospital admission. And the website whatstheharm.net lists many cases from around the world where people have died or had horrible outcomes as a result of a mistaken reliance on homeopathy.”

Hyde has seen concerns raised about the increasing numbers of New Zealand pharmacies — “the health professionals you see most often” — selling homeopathic preparations and even homeopathic first aid kits, alongside other alternative health offerings.

“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 though. 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 the claims are not founded and doesn’t care because such stuff sells?”

Such dubious practices became a particular concern when an Auckland pharmacy began selling homeopathic “meningococcal vaccine” and “hepatitis B vaccine”. Even some in the homeopathic trade protested against that misleading labelling.

Over the past 30 years, a large number of studies have compared homeopathic treatments with placebos (materials known to have no effect on the condition being treated). These have shown consistently that there are no benefits to homeopathy beyond the psychological value of the placebo effect where people feel better because they think they are getting treatment. Additionally, many of the conditions allegedly treated by homeopathy are ones which spontaneously improve.

Hyde is concerned that homeopaths rarely explain their odd beliefs to their clientele. Most people, she contends, would think twice about a product that claimed greater strength through dilution to the point where no active substance was present any more.

“After all, you´d be dubious if someone said they´d make you a stiff gin and tonic and then proceeded to add a Pacific Ocean of tonic to a drop of gin – that´s the sort of dilution homeopaths use. Selling these preparations allows for a huge mark-up, and any responses are credited to the preparation, rather than the placebo effect. It´s a win-win for the industry, particularly with very little regulatory oversight or consumer come-back.”

Hyde notes that society has fought long and hard for a patient´s right to informed consent, for ethical standards for health practitioners and for evidence-based medicine that does not rely on deception or luck to work effectively.

“We should demand those standards be met by the alternative health industry and then they could truly claim to be producing medicines.”

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