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In Support of Homeopathy Awareness Week

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.

 

History

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).

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

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.

 

Homeopathy Today

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).

  1. Water memory is not a thing as far as physics is concerned.
  2. 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)

homeopathy first aid kit

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.

 

Refs

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1676328/

http://www.livescience.com/31977-homeopathy.html

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-swiss-report-on-homeopat

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Bad (Kinder) Eggs

In the olden days (i.e. the ’90s) I used to love Kinder Eggs. For me, these chocolatey ovules of joy represented the ultimate confectionery treat – I was only ever allowed one very rarely because they were significantly more expensive than your average chocolate bar, but with significantly less chocolate, a factor which really bothered my dad who has always been a huge advocate of value for money. Another reason I wasn’t allowed Kinder Eggs frequently was because they resulted in my house being cluttered up with all kids of crap, but crap I treasured very dearly, like these turtles:

kinder

Let’s face it, to a child, what’s the only thing better than chocolate? Chocolate in the shape of an egg. What’s even better than a chocolate egg? A chocolate egg CONTAINING A TOY!!!

However, now I don’t like Kinder Eggs anymore. Because THIS

kinder eggs

Kinder-pink-and-blue

Source

I know I am usually against gendered products aimed at children, but maybe Kinder have a point here. I mean, I remember being a little girl and being so confused and pissed off when I opened my shell to find a toy that was either a vehicle or – even worse – had to be constructed – ew! In such cases I would cry, throw it to my dad and return to brushing Barbie’s hair, hoping that my next egg would contain something pretty, pink and sparkly to reinforce my princess identity. [Note: Sarcasm intended]

Look, these sorts of products are not harmless. They reinforce and push gender stereotypes onto children and this is damaging. Few things anger me more than overhearing a parent say to their child “you don’t want that, that’s for boys/girls!” What if the kid is attracted to that item? What’s wrong with letting them play with or eat exactly the same things as their opposite-sex counterparts? Boys especially are often mocked or teased by their own families for showing an interest in “female” products – what does that do to their self-esteem, and also to their attitude towards females? I hear boys being bullied for being “girl-like” all the time, reinforcing a view that being a female is a Bad Thing, or at the very least a Not As Good As A Boy Thing. This is dangerous. We should not reinforce this. Especially with f*cking confectionery.

I am a disappointed egg.

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Amanda Todd

Last week, a 15 year old girl killed herself because she was being bullied.

The story of Amanda Todd has been widely reported over the last few days and so I do not intend to re-tell it (you can get the background details here and here).

I know that the first rule of news sites is never to read the comments at the bottom of a story  if you do not want your day to be ruined and wish to retain even an ounce of faith in humanity. The second rule is that if you do venture to the comments section, do so with an emotional rage-shield and be prepared for outrageous claims and anonymous trollage. But some of the comments made about the Amanda Todd case have left me feeling very angry because these are not a case of trolls stirring up and making noise – these are the views that many people hold. Let me give you a few examples.

This commenter seems to soundly justify what he/she believes. The comment begins apologetically – “i (sic) don’t mean to sound rude, but…” then the good ole slut-shaming, victim-blaming comes into play. It was all her fault, really. She got her tits out – that’s just asking for trouble. What about the guy who started it all off? Oh the guy? “yes, the guy was wrong for sending the pictures, but…” OH THAT BUT AGAIN! But… ultimately it was her fault for being a slut in the first place. Amanda was 15 years old when she killed herself. She must have been aged 12-14 when her pubescent breasts were bared on webcam. But still we’re blaming her young nativity over a male (I do not know how old he was) who took it upon himself to screenshot those images and spread them around the internet? Yep actually, that seems about right. My favourite part is the last sentence – “it’s sad to see that she took her own life, though. rest in peace.” So yeah it’s all very sad that she was so depressed by all of this that she decided at the age of 15 to hang herself, but at the end of the day, basically, she deserved it..  They may as well have signed off with  “soz lol”.

Thanks for your insights there commenter, and thanks especially for making introversion a negative trait synonymous with self-obsession. Also very useful tip there for anyone who may be in a similar position to Amanda – guys, just get off the internet and socialise with Real People, even if your crippling anxiety debilitates you to the point that it prevents you from leaving the house for fear of being ignored, ridiculed, and beaten up by Real People in places that are supposed to be considered safe, such as school.

I don’t think we really see cases like this as being real anymore. In a phenomenon which has perhaps been exaggerated with the addition of the heartbreaking video that was made a month before her death, it’s almost as if Amanda Todd is not quite a real person – she is a person who exists on The Internet. We are all saturated with news stories which become more and more shocking and more and more constant and graphic that it feels like the more we see or hear about, the less in touch with reality these cases become. We have our own fairly mundane lives, and then we have The Things That Happen On TV/Internet. The things that happen on TV used to be dramas, soaps – things that were easily distinguishable from reality – or the news, which for an hour of the day told us about important things that happened in the Real World that day. But now the line between fiction and reality is blurry – the news is on 24 hours a day and under pressure to make more things into news stories as well as now having access to news from literally all over the world. More and more TV is not  quite fiction or reality or somewhere in-between – are the contestants of X Factor/Take Me Out/The Only Way Is Essex Real Life People, or People On TV? It’s hard to tell. And this worries me, because it leads to people talking about a 15 year old girl who has completed suicide because she was so depressed after being bullied as if she were not real, but rather someone In The Media who is open to public debate and opinion.

There are many things about this story that concern me, ranging from social media use, to child protection, to sex education, to slut-shaming, victim-blaming, public attitudes and the way we perceive events in the modern world. But mostly I am deeply saddened that a 15 year old girl felt that she had to take her own life because she could not live with being constantly tormented, and that the things that led to her tragic death are still going on even after she is gone.

Blaming a child – and she was a child – for her own harassment because she naively showed her breasts to someone she thought she could trust is sickening, but not an uncommon sentiment. How can we change this?

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