How a pharmacy turned the cofounder of Wikipedia against homeopathy

Jimmy Wales, the cofounder of Wikipedia, was given some bad advice by a pharmacy:

Last week I was in a pharmacy (chemist) in London just around the corner from my apartment there.  I had a sore throat and cough and wanted to buy some soothing cough drops.  I did, buying a brand that contains benzocaine.  These work.

The clerk tried to sell me something else, Oscillococcinum.  He said that this is a French homeopathic remedy, which told me all that I need to know: homeopathy is a proven fraud.  But he went on to give some “scientific” details – if I took Oscillococcinum it would disrupt the DNA of the virus before it could make me ill.

Well, that kind of lie is what makes me ill.

I hope it wasn’t a pharmacist, because if they gave that kind of advice, they should lose their licence to practice. Wales continues:

Oscillococcinum is a complete hoax product.  The method of production is to take an extract of duck liver and heart and dilute it in a 1:100 ratio with water, and to do that dilution over and over, 200 times.  Wikipedia, in the article I linked up above, eloquently explains what this means: “Mathematically, in order to have a reasonable chance to obtain one molecule of the original extract, the patient would have to consume an amount of the remedy roughly 10^321 times the number of atoms in the observable universe.”

When people are told that Oscillococcinum can disrupt the DNA of the flu, they may very well choose not to have a flu vaccine.

What I want to know is this: why is this legal?  Or, if it is not legal, then what can be done about it?  I’m quite sure that the clerk himself had no direct financial interest in defrauding me, and likely didn’t even know he was doing it.

He’s absolutely right.  There is no convincing evidence that Oscilliococcinum is anything more than a placebo. The final product is simple lactose and sucrose. Wales finishes with an appeal and is inviting comments:

Who should I talk to about this in order to encourage the creation of a campaign to stop this?  This is not my primary area of interest and so I am not the right person to lead it myself.  But I would like to help.

Do pharmacies care that they’re selling sugar pills and calling them medicine?  Judging by this sign I spotted at a local pharmacy, I don’t think so.

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More Reading

Placebos as Medicine: The Ethics of Homeopathy

Dilutions of Grandeur: It’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week

The consequences of legitimizing nonsense

Do pharmacy regulators “get” homeopathy?

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5 thoughts on “How a pharmacy turned the cofounder of Wikipedia against homeopathy

  1. Telling someone who trusts you that you’re giving them medicine, when you know you’re not, because you want their money, isn’t just lying–it’s like an example you’d make up if you had to illustrate for a child why lying is wrong.
    -Randall Munroe

  2. Oscillococcinum is not licensed or registered by the MHRA (the medicines regulator in the UK), so it is an unlicensed medicine and should not have been on sale. A Pharmacist should be aware of this or at least know enough to ask questions and find out.

    The biggest problem is that these products are available on amazon and ebay. After complaints to the MHRA by us, they are working with amazon and ebay to get these products removed and have had some limited success, but there is a long way to go yet.

  3. Some of us pharmacists do care! I suspect that the majority of pharmacists who do sell such products do so out of ignorance- many of my pharmacist friends who i’ve talked to about it just think that its the same as herbals, and haven’t really thought about it before. I have been trying to think of ways to raise awareness, any ideas welcome. I thought about an alternative homeopathy awareness week to run just before the real one, focusing on how ludicrous the extreme dilutions are.

    healthydoseofskepticism.blogspot.co.uk

  4. Denise D. says:

    I used to be indifferent to homeopathy, figuring it was a harmless diversion for those worried well who are determined to take something for trivial complaints most people would ignore (ie, “I have to clear my throat sometimes”). And nothing works for colds anyway, so folks may as well take something that’s completely innocuous. But as homeopathy continues to take an increasing market share, I think as pharmacists we need to stop being sheep and start enforcing scientific plausibility in our workplaces.

    Some pharmacists have said, if you work for a big corporation, you can’t control what goes on the shelves. But if the pharmacists at Shoppers Drug Mart got organized and said to management, what about the liability if, say, someone treats a child’s ear infection with Kali sulphuricum by Boiron, and the child develops meningitis?

    We’re not very good at activism, but maybe it’s time to start.

  5. Ron S. says:

    In the U.S. where DSHEA has all but legalized a return to snake oil hucksterism, the problem gets… diluted. And this adds a new wrinkle to the problem. Because many “homeopathic” remedies are combined with natural nonsense. So, the public perception of homeopathy as another herbal or natural cure is reinforced. And worse, sometimes real medicine is combined with unproven “natural” nonsense. The shelves of pharmacies are becoming a seamless transition from evidence-based remedies to absolute homeopathic garbage with every combination in between. The impression one gets is that they are all recommended, with only the power of advertising appeal and packaging to distinguish between them.

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