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.