April 10-16 is World Homeopathy Awareness Week, dedicated by homeopaths to promote an awareness and understanding of homeopathy. I think that’s an excellent idea. Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system of sugar pills. It doesn’t work. It cannot work. If it did, physics, biochemistry and pharmacology as pharmacists know it would be false. Of all alternative medicine, homeopathy is the most implausible of them all. Based on the absurd notion of “like cures like” (which is sympathetic magic, not science), proponents of homeopathy believe that any substance can be an effective remedy if it’s diluted enough: raccoon fur, the sunlight reflecting off Saturn, even pieces of the Berlin Wall are all part of the homeopathic pharmacopeia. And when I say dilute, I mean dilute. The 30C “potency” is common – it’s a ratio of 10-60. You would have to give two billion doses per second, to six billion people, for 4 billion years, to deliver a single molecule of the original material. So remedies are effectively and mathematically inert – they are pure placebo. Not surprisingly, there is no persuasive medical evidence that these products have therapeutic effects.
Homeopathy could be written off as a harmless nostrum if it caused no harm. But that’s not the case. Homeopathy can delay patients from seeking science-based treatments. Consumers buy products thinking they are effective, when they have no active ingredients. When they’re on pharmacy shelves, it’s unfair and unethical to expect patients to be able to able to distinguish real drugs from placebos. A paper from Michael Baum and Edzard Ernst, writing in the American Journal of Medicine in 2009 made this statement about homeopathy:
It is considered unethical for modern medical practitioners to sink to this kind of deception that denies the patient his or her autonomy. Secondly, by opening the door to irrational medicine alongside evidence-based medicine, we are poisoning the minds of the public. Finally, if we don’t put a brake on the increasing self-confidence of the homeopathic establishment, they will cease to limit their attention to self-limiting or nonspecific maladies.
Baum and Ernst were correct in their evaluation, as you see in this roundup of homeopathic issues from around the world:
Canada: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Boiron and Shoppers Drug Mart
A few months ago I noted that consumers are realizing that homeopathy is a placebo system, not a therapeutic treatment. And some are taking action against manufacturers. Two class action lawsuits have already been filed against homeopathy manufacturer Boiron in the United States pursuing damages for selling products with no active ingredients. Now a Canadian class action lawsuit has been filed against Boiron and Canadian pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart:
The suit has been filed by leading class-action law firm Roy, Elliott, O’Connor (REO), in partnership with Centre for Inquiry Canada. It follows an open letter sent by CFI’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) to Shoppers Drug Mart, demanding that it cease selling worthless homeopathic products such as Oscillococcinum, Boiron Inc.’s popular homeopathic flu remedy. In the new lawsuit against both Shoppers and Boiron, REO alleges that the two companies have, through their marketing of Oscillococcinum, committed no fewer than twelve separate violations of consumer protection acts.
CFI is seeking $30 million in damages from Shoppers Drug Mart and Boiron on behalf of consumers who purchased these products. The press release notes that Boiron has already agreed to spend $12 million to resolve similar complaints in the United States.
I’ve blogged before on the ethics of the provision of these products, and argued pharmacists have an ethical responsibility not to sell, promote, or encourage the sale or use of homeopathy. It’s a question that has been put to pharmacists before. The sale of these inert products in pharmacies is an embarrassment to the profession of pharmacy, and abuses the trust consumers place in pharmacists.
For more information, see the post at Skeptic North.
Australia: Legal Intimidation of Homeopathy Critic
Unable to argue the science, supporters and providers of homeopathy sometimes use legal threats to quash criticism. I’ve previously noted that Boiron threatened legal action against an Italian blogger who wrote about Oscillococcinum, claiming such posts are “defamatory”. Now in Australia, homeopath Francine Scrayen has sent a cease and desist letter to blogger Dan Buzzard regarding comments he made on his blog. Scrayen treated Penelope Dingle’s colorectal cancer with homeopathy, who suffered horribly, and died in 2005. Now a Coroner’s Report has described how Scrayen advised Dingle to discontinue all other treatments and ignore proper medical advice. Before she died, Dingle wrote a letter to Scrayen. Here’s an excerpt :
In March 2003, I had signed on with and paid a doctor, intending to follow his protocol for 6 weeks, and then have my progress assessed with another MRI. If things were not working, under his advisement, I was to consider surgery again. As you were aware, homeopathy was only one of many alternative methods I intended to use. But, you told me, “I shouldn’t be saying this to you. I’m going out on a limb. But classical homeopathy will cure you.”
You told me, however, that I must use the homeopathy alone, or you would be unable to prescribe your treatment accurately. You told me Dr Barnes’s protocol would interfere with the homeopathy, as would the intravenous Vitamin C, I was having. As would painkillers. Even our suggestions of other treatments such as massage, chiropractic, reflexology, herbalists and other protocols to run concurrently etc. were rejected by you. You also prescribed the diet I was to follow. I believed you and cancelled all my other treatments. Unlike you, the other practitioners never said they could cure me. If you had said homeopathy might give me a cure and it might not, that it was impossible to tell, do you really think I would have risked your protocol? I would not have. I would have considered homeopathy as a support therapy only, as I had originally intended.
I challenge you to read the entire letter from Dingle and not be outraged at the advice she was given. The Coroner made the following comment:
Mrs Scrayen was not a competent health professional. I accept that Mrs Scrayen had minimal understanding of relevant health issues, unfortunately that did not prevent her from treating the deceased as a patient.
Sadly in the period April and May 2003 it appears that the deceased decided to reject the mainstream treatment offered by Professor Platell and turned to homeopathic remedies offered by Mrs Scrayen. I am satisfied that Mrs Scrayen did convince the deceased that the homeopathy treatment which she was providing could provide a cure for her cancer.
Blogger Dan Buzzard was outraged, and wrote two posts (one; two) on the topic. Now Scrayen has sent a cease and desist letter to Buzzard. Buzzard isn’t backing down:
You cannot silence legitimate criticism with lawyers. If you can prove the Homeopathy works and is effective for treating cancer, as Penelope Dingle was led to believe. Then I will gladly make the necessary corrections to maintain the accuracy of my blog. But if you want to sell unproven medicines to vulnerable cancer patients then you can expect to be justifiably criticised for it; especially if the patient then dies due to your ineffective treatment.
Portugal: Homeopathic Pharmacy Sues Homeopathy Critic
Identified and translated by Dianne Sousa, it seems that blogger Luis Graves Rodrigues is being sued for defamation by a pharmacy that sells homeopathy. In his post, he contrasted the illegal sale of counterfeit products with the sale of homeopathy by pharmacies:
“…sell openly and with impunity, or better “foist” onto the public, mysterious preparations at astronomical prices, though they are little more than concoctions of water and no one has been able to demonstrate their efficacy or even their effect.” [Sousa's translation]
Rodrigues intends to defend himself in court:
“This is obviously a very clear strategy of intimidation, which seeks nothing more than the continuation of their sale of “snake oil” with impunity, while trying to silence the constitutional freedom to express an opinion that is scientifically justified – which will be clearly demonstrated at the trial”. [Sousa's translation]
For more, see Dianne’s post at Skeptic North.
Talking about Homeopathy
The best way to explain homeopathy is with humour. Once people understand the concepts and basis for homeopathy, it needs little further explanation. Here’s a scathing but hilarious take on homeopathy – a homeopathic hospital: (Email readers will need to visit the site).