Under threat of class action lawsuit, maker of “homeopathic” medicine settles, and exits North America

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I’ve written more times that I want to about homeopathy, the elaborate placebo system of “remedies”. It looks like medicine, and pharmacies stock it on shelves alongside products that contain medicine. But with homeopathy the common “strengths” or “potencies” of products are usually so dilute there’s no possibility of a single molecule of the original substance remaining in the remedy. What’s further, the original substance isn’t medicine, either. They can be derived from from substances like Stonehenge (yes, that Stonehenge), shipwrecks, ascending colons, light bulbs, and even vacuum cleaner dirt. While homeopathic products are deemed “safe and effective” by Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Directorate, the awareness that homeopathic products contain no active ingredients and have no medicinal effects has become increasingly well known. In 2011, I noted that manufacturer Boiron had been served by two class action lawsuit, and that this might be the beginning of a trend.

The legal action route seems to be having an effect – which is good, given pharmacies and even regulators have refused to act. Homeopathy manufacturer Heel has decided to exit the North American market completely: Continue reading

Looking for the medicine in Target’s asthma remedy

Tuesday’s post on Target’s decision to sell homeopathy for the treatment of asthma stirred a lot of questions towards Target, given their decision to market the a product that has no proven medical benefit. There were also supporters of homeopathy in the comments, from a pharmacy student who said homeopathy works because of radiation, and another that suggested that if I don’t believe in homeopathy, I can’t believe in the warmth of the sun. To be absolutely clear, homeopathy is not only unproven, it’s disproven. There is no serious scientific debate about this fact. The best evidence demonstrates that homeopathy is exactly what we expect – an inert placebo with no therapeutic effects. Homeopathy is not “alternative medicine”, it is an alternative TO medicine, and to consumers who may not understand what “homeopathic” means,  it’s highly misleading to package and sell this on pharmacy shelves alongside products that actually contain medicine. Continue reading

Does Target sell the most irresponsible homeopathic remedy ever?

I can’t think of anything more appalling than selling water to someone and telling them it will treat their asthma. This pic via Ryan Melyon on Twitter, was taken at a Target pharmacy in Chicago:

Fake asthma remedy

I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system where the “remedies” are inert. It’s reckless endangerment of life to sell a product for treating the acute symptoms of asthma when there is no medication in the bottle, even if there is a caution on the front of the box. And it should be obvious, but placebo has no meaningful effects in the treatment of asthma.  The sale of homeopathy in pharmacies is not only misleading to consumers, it is fundamentally unethical behavior from a health professional. Target and its pharmacists have a ethical and moral responsibility to pull this product off the shelf immediately.

January 16: Here’s an update on Target’s fake asthma “remedy”. And a petition has been started asking Target to stop selling this product.

The Detox Myth: What your alternative health provider isn’t telling you

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Happy New Year to my regular readers! Today’s post revisits some old material, repackaged and updated.

New Year, New You, right? 2014 is the year you’re finally going to get serious about your health. You’re winding down from a week (or more) of celebrations and parties. You’re pretty much recovered from New Year’s Eve by now. It’s time to make some resolutions. Conveniently, there is no shortage of solutions being advertised to absolve you of your sins while overhauling your body and soul for 2014: What you need to do is “detox”. You’ll see the detox kits at your local Whole Foods (or even your local pharmacy). Books, boxes or bottles, with some combination of “detox”, “cleanse” or “flush” in the product name. Supplements, tea, homeopathy, coffee enemas, ear candles, and footbaths all promise detoxification. The advertising suggests you’ll gain a renewed body and better health – it’s only seven days and $49.95 away. Or try to cleanse yourself with food alone: Dr. Oz is hyping his Holiday Detox plan. Bon Appetit is featuring their 2014 Food Lover’s Cleanse. Or what about that old standby, the “Master Cleanse”? It’s the New Year – wouldn’t a purification from your sins of 2013 be a good idea to start the year? After all, the local naturopath sells detoxification protocols, including vitamin drips and chelation. There must be something to it, right? Continue reading

“Alternatives” to the flu vaccine are no alternative at all

Influenza Alternatives: Engystol, Oscillio, Pascoleucyn, Flu Shield, Cold-fX, Gripp-Heel, Oil of Oregano

Once again, it’s influenza season. The vaccine clinics are open, and the hysterical posts about the vaccine’s danger are appearing in social media. There’s familiarity to all of this, but also a big new change – at least in Canada, where I am. Pharmacists can now administer the vaccine. And it’s completely free to anyone in Ontario (where I am), so the barriers to obtaining the vaccine are pretty much eliminated. There’s no longer a need to drag your kids to their family doctor or line up at a public health clinic. Anyone can walk into a pharmacy, show their health card, and walk out minutes later, vaccinated. It’s another enabling change that may help improve immunization rates, as uptake rates in the population remain modest.

This year’s flu season is (as of week 47) fairly quiet. Google Flu trends suggests a fairly typical picture, nothing like what we saw in 2009/10, the year of H1N1. My city’s influenza tracker reports only a dozen cases so far this season. Many of us will get our flu shot, continue with our lives, and not think about the flu until next season’s announcements. That’s the hope, anyway. Influenza can kill, and in its more virulent forms, is devastatingly deadly. The worst case scenario (so far) is almost unimaginable today. In 1918/19 an influenza pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide (5% of the population). So among public health professionals, that worry about the next wave is always present. Much has been written at this blog and at Science-Based Medicine on the efficacy and safety of the flu vaccine. In short, the vaccine is effective for both individual and population-level protection, but only modestly so, and its effectiveness varies based on its match with circulating strains. And despite widespread use for decades, there are frustrating limitations with the current vaccine beyond efficacy, including the need to repeat the shot annually. Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the army you have—not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” The quote is relevant to influenza. The flu vaccine is not a perfect vaccine, but it does offer protection – if not directly to you, then indirectly to those at greater risk of infection. Hospitals and health facilities have been criticized for demanding health professionals either get the vaccine or wear a mask – and the arguments against vaccination are losing. But even the strongest advocates of influenza vaccine will acknowledge its limitations, which perhaps contributes to the understandable perception that there is more that could be done- beyond reasonable and effective precautions like handwashing and hygiene. Continue reading

Use of Homeopathy Kills Child

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I’ve written repeatedly that the decision to use homeopathy is a decision to do nothing at all. Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system where “remedies” contain no medicinal ingredients and are effectively and literally sugar pills. Given there is no demonstrable medical effect from using homeopathy, I’ve argued strongly that the sale of homeopathy in pharmacies is not only misleading to consumers, it is fundamentally unethical behavior from a health professional. What’s further, an ethicist has pointed out that pharmacists have an ethical responsibility to disclose the scientific facts about homeopathy.  Selling homeopathy in pharmacies contributes to the perception that what is effectively a belief system may have some scientific legitimacy. That’s why I’m an advocate for pharmacy distancing itself from anything to do with homeopathy, because it has no potential to help and a real potential to harm.

So when homeopathy is used in place of real medicine, the risks are real. From Calgary, an avoidable child death has been linked to the use of homeopathy instead of medicine:

The family of a Calgary woman facing criminal charges in connection with the death of her seven-year-old son say they’re in shock over the allegations of neglect. The boy, Ryan Alexander Lovett, died last March after suffering from a strep infection which kept him bedridden for 10 days. Police allege his mother, Tamara Lovett, 44, chose to treat the bacterial infection with homeopathic herbal remedies instead of taking him to a doctor. That decision likely killed the child, police say.

“It was a belief system in homeopathic medicine that contributed to this death,” acting Staff Sgt. Mike Cavilla said.  “It should absolutely serve as a warning to other parents. The message is simple: if your child is sick, take them to the doctor.”

The single mother, who lived in a Beltline basement suite, shunned conventional treatment to follow her belief in holistic remedies. In fact, police say there is no record of the boy ever being taken to the doctor for annual checkups or any treatment. “We have no medical record of his entire life,” said Cavilla.

A culture that grants medical legitimacy to homeopathy increases the risks of harms. Medicine has its risks and benefits, but it delivers the goods.  There isn’t a single reproducible example of homeopathy effectively treating anything, ever. How could it? The treatments are inert. Yet Health Canada licenses homeopathic “remedies” as “safe and effective”, even going so far to grant unique identification numbers to indistinguishable sugar pills. And provinces are granting new powers to alternative-to-medicine providers, like naturopaths, that include homeopathy in their services.

Regrettably, this isn’t the only case of homeopathy leading to bad medical decisions. What’s the Harm? catalogs over 400 cases. This case in Calgary reminds me of the horrific case was that of infant Gloria Thomas in Australia who died of eczema (eczema!), simply because her parents refused to use medication, and relied on homeopathy. Her father, a homeopath, and her mother, were eventually convicted of manslaughter.  Time will tell what becomes of this case in Calgary. It appears it was as avoidable as Gloria Thomas’ death:

An autopsy revealed he died as a result of a Group A Streptococcus infection.  After consulting medical experts and the Crown prosecutor’s office, police arrested the woman at home Friday. She faces charges of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life. In Canada, it is illegal for a parent or guardian to deny children food, shelter, care and medical attention necessary to sustain life and protection from harm. “If you do not provide medical attention for your sick child, you will be held accountable,” said Cavilla. “The legal requirement is that she get medical attention through traditional western medicine to deal with the illness. And in this case it was a bacterial infection that could have been easily treated with antibiotics such as penicillin.

The death of a child is tragic. When that death was preventable, it’s infuriating. This tragedy, along with the hundreds of others, illustrates the real harms of perpetuating the belief in the magical thinking that is homeopathy.

Photo via the excellent Skeptical Raptor.

Not an alternative to anything

Homeopathic vaccines

Health Canada approves homeopathic “nosodes” as “safe and effective” despite the fact that homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system of sugar pills based on prescientific ideas of disease. Homeopaths and naturopaths actively promote nosodes as alternatives to vaccines, despite the fact that homeopathic remedies are inert with zero ability to protect against infectious disease.

Due to lobbying by groups like Bad Science Watch, Health Canada has reluctantly agreed to label nosodes (which it approves for sale) with the caution “This product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination”.  Is this adequate? Some are asking why nosodes are even permitted for sale at all: Continue reading