Hurrah, it’s Homeopathy Awareness Week (henceforth known as HAW, which in my neck of the woods is a friendly/aggressive* way of saying “excuse me, may I have your attention for a second?). I thought this was the perfect opportunity to break my blogging silence and raise some awareness of homeopathy.
The first thing to be aware of during HAW is the history of homeopathy. Its founder was a man named Samuel Hahnemann, whose name even suggests he is having a laugh. Hahnemann was a German physician who received his medical degree in 1779, but for fifteen years he struggled to make a living from medicine and was uncomfortable with the standard procedures of the time. Then one day he made a discovery which changed his life and made him a millionaire. While playing around with quinine (an anti-malarial drug), he noted that it actually produced mild symptoms of the disease it was designed to cure (i.e. in a healthy patient quinine causes fever, but not to the extent that malaria does). From this, Hahnemann deduced that illnesses could be cured by giving a patient medicine which, if given to a healthy person, would produce similar symptoms of that same illness but to a lesser degree. Basically, if you were feeling sick, Hahnemann would prescribe you medicine that would make you feel sick. OBVIOUSLY. Thus arises the saying “like cures like” (the term homoeopathy comes from the Greek words homois meaning similar and pathos meaning disease).
We shouldn’t be too hard on Hahnemann. After all, this was the late 18th century, conventional medicine wasn’t exactly the safe and evidence-based option it is today, and all Hahnemann wanted to do was develop therapies that were patient-focussed and less invasive than the routine medical practices of the day, like bloodletting. Additionally, Hahnemann mistakenly believed that the success of vaccines showed support for his “like cures like” theory (the use of the cowpox vaccination to prevent smallpox is an example). However the main feature of homeopathy that caused controversy in the medical community at the time was the dilution principle. Hahnemann believed that the active ingredient in the homeopathic medicine should be diluted as much as possible, so that it only produces the slightest symptoms. This somewhat complicated dilution process is explained below by LiveScience:
A typical homeopathic dilution is 30X, where the X represents 10. So, one part toxin (such as the aforementioned poison ivy) is mixed with 10 parts water or alcohol. The mix is shaken; one part of this mix is added to 10 parts of water or alcohol again; and the whole process is repeated 30 times.
The final dilution is one molecule of medicine in 10 to the 30th power (1030) of molecules of solution — or 1 in a million trillion trillion. At this dilution level you’d need to drink 8,000 gallons of water to get one molecule of the medicine — physically possible but implausible.
The fact that homeopathy cannot possibly work was unbeknown to Hahnemann, who developed the treatments before we understood the number of molecules present in any given amount of a substance.
However, today we do know about dilution and molecules and we do understand that at the levels of dilution homeopathic medicine work with, it is physically impossible for the treatment to have a causal effect on an illness. So why are there still homeopathic practitioners today? Well, here we become aware of the phenomenon which explains it all. Homeopaths explain that homeopathy does work, because water memory. Yes, you heard, water memory. This is the idea that water has the ability to remember of shape of the medicine it once contained. Bear with me while I explain why this argument is far from water-tight (lolz).
- Water memory is not a thing as far as physics is concerned.
- According to this theory, ALL THE WATER has a memory. Therefore the water from your taps and your toilet has the potential to be a magical homeopathic potion too.
BUT the evidence says it works?!
During HAW, you should be aware of the fact that you can make statistics say anything. You really can. And supporters of homeopathy will insist that the evidence for the treatment’s effectiveness is supported by evidence. This is not true. In all scientific research, you will find an inverse correlation between the quality of the study and the spread of results. The studies that are cited as being strongly in favour of homeopathy are often low-quality studies (owing from many things to their methodology, the number of participants, lack of a control group, and experimenter/publisher/funding body bias). Additionally, homeopath supporters rely on case studies (THIS ONE PERSON SAID HOMEOPATHY WORKED FOR HER!!!) and the research is often carried out by biased homeopathic practitioners (OMG LOOK THIS STUDY I CARRIED OUT SAYS MY WORK IS REALLY GOOD!!)
The take-home message is this: When studied properly and scientifically, homeopathy does not work.
Taking homeopathic treatments may make people feel better, but that is not because of the homeopathic treatment, it is likely due to a fascinating phenomenon called the placebo effect. The placebo effect is related to the perceptions and expectations of the patient. If you’re unwell and are given a sugar pill which you believe to be medicine, you will report feeling better. Moreover, if you are given a saline injection which you believe to be medicine, you will feel even better, and more quickly. If you believe that homeopathy will help you, then it will. But this is a good thing. So what’s the harm?
So What’s the Harm?
It’s easy to see homeopathy as a harmless alternative medicine, but it is not. It’s unlikely that the treatments themselves will cause harm, since as we have discussed already, they are basically water. But there are indirect consequences, such as the case of the woman who died an unnecessary painful death from bowel cancer after following the advice of her homeopath husband. Alarmingly, there are organisations who are trying to convince people not to vaccinate their children but to put our entire population in danger of epidemics by promoting homeopathic alternatives. Heck, you can even get homeopathic first aid kits (for the bargain price of $79.99)
As one article has noted, homeopathy don’t kill people – homeopaths do. People who make their money through homeopathy are convincing patients to ignore conventional, evidence-based, life-saving medicine in favour of water and sugar pills. And that is harmful.
HAW: Key Points
1. Be aware that homeopathy does not and cannot work.
2. Be aware that homeopathy is not harmless.
3. Be aware that promoting homeopathy as an alternative treatment to evidence-based medicine is dangerous.
I hope I have helped to raise awareness of homeopathy this week.
*In Glasgow, this is really not as oxymoronic as it seems.