As pseudoscience goes, homeopathy takes the cake for absurdity. It is an elaborate placebo system, based on nonsensical ideas about biology, biochemistry and medicine. A decision to use homeopathy is a decision to do nothing at all, because homeopathic “remedies” have no medicinal ingredients in them at all. They are inert. Homeopathy is based on the idea that “like cures like” (which is simply a form of magical thinking) involving successive dilutions of products in water. The dilutions are believed to increase, not decrease, the potency of the final product. And these are serious dilutions. Think of putting one drop of a substance into a container of water. Only that container is 131 light-years in diameter. That’s the “30C” dilution used by homeopaths. Homeopaths believe that the water molecules retains a “memory” of the original substance (while conveniently forgetting all the other products it has come in contact with.) The final remedy is diluted so so completely that most “remedies” don’t contain a single molecule of the the original substance you started with.
A homeopathic nosode is a homepathic “remedy” made from infectious material. Unbelievably, Health Canada approves homeopathic “nosodes” for sale in Canada, despite a lack of any evidence they can do anything. Due to lobbying by groups like Bad Science Watch, Health Canada eventually agreed to force products to label nosodes with the caution “This product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination”. While this was better that the status quo, there was the fear that homeopaths and other alternative health providers (like naturopaths) would continue to promote homeopathy to prevent or treat communicable disease. And the skeptics were right. Homeopath Sylvia Collins recently advertised a flu clinic precisely as feared:
Sylvia Collins Homeopathic Practitioner is providing this clinic as a safe and effective alternative to the conventional flu vaccinations.
When it comes to flu immunization, most of us choose the needle over the pill. While few enjoy the prick of a needle, most Canadians would rather suffer that injection with all the science of Western medicine behind it, than trust the less intrusive melting naturopathic pellet alternative.
“The homeopathic solution is made from the same three influenza viruses decided by the World Health Organization each year,” said Sylvia Collins, a homeopathic doctor who runs a flu clinic in Barrie and surrounding area each fall. “My own empirical evidence is that people aren’t getting colds as often, and if they do, it’s not as severe,” Collins said.
Her patient, Angela Hubbard, herself an occupational therapist, said she has a chronic illness that has been relieved by Collins homeopathic ministerings. Hubbard said she’s been taking the pellets-under-the-tongue method of flu vaccination from Collins clinic for at least a decade.
“Since I’ve been taking these flu remedies, I’ve never had the flu,” Hubbard said. She was trained as a therapist in the U.K. and said they studied anatomy, sociology and psychology as part of their training. She said it’s not about Western medicine versus homeopathy, but rather sourcing an alternative that was “cleaner”.
“(Vaccinations) are filtered through the liver and the kidneys, so the least I can put through my body, the better off I am,” she said.
Concerns that Health Canada approved influenza vaccination injections contain Thimerosal (mercury) and formaldehyde, leave many people – like Hubbard – searching for cleaner alternatives.
There’s so much wrong here it’s difficult to know where to start. Anecdotal claims of of evidence, like that offered by Collins, are just that – anecdotes. A review of the actual scientific evidence confirms what basic science literacy and public-school mathematics would suggest: homeopathic products are chemically indistinguishable from a placebo – and just as effective. Frustratingly, regulators in Canada and in other countries have given legitimacy to homeopathy by registering both the medication and their purveyors – giving consumers the perception that homeopathy may in fact offer some sort of medicinal value. It does not.
Collins then lists some of the usual tropes about the flu vaccine. Mary Ann Holmes is a public health nurse that’s quoted for “balance” against the homeopath. Holmes accurately refutes these concerns with facts. Thimerosal has been a preservative in vaccines for decades. It is metabolized into ethylmercury and excreted by the kidneys in the urine. It’s not methylmercury, the mercury form that can be harmful. There is no relationship between thimerosal and autism. And while there’s no reason to avoid thimerosal, many of the flu vaccines on the market in Canada don’t contain any thimerosal at all – they are single-use vials and don’t require any preservative.
Formaldehyde is another anti-vaccine zombie that refuses to die. Formaldehyde is found in fruit and vegetables. Our bodies naturally produce it as a consequence of metabolism – at much higher levels than any amount in vaccines. There is no evidence that the tiny amounts of formaldehyde in a vaccine pose any risk.
The challenge presented by homeopaths (and alternative medicine advocates in general) is they promote the idea that what they offer is a valid “alternative” to reality-based medicine. It’s called “false balance” and reflects undue attention to ideas that lack credibility. The need for false balance is usually driven by a “manufactroversy” – a manufactured controversy. In this case, the concerns that the flu vaccine is ineffective or harmful are actively promoted by those that have an alternative to sell. Create unwarranted fear, and offer an alternative. In this case, it’s sugar pills.
Do you need the vaccine at all? It remains the most effective means of protecting yourself and the community from influenza. Influenza can kill, and can be devastatingly deadly. In 1918/19 an influenza pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide (5% of the population). Much has been written at this blog and at Science-Based Medicine on the efficacy and safety of the flu vaccine. 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 real limitations with the current vaccine beyond efficacy, including the need to repeat the shot annually.
Homeopath Sylvia Collins may genuinely believe her homeopathic “remedies” are effective. Visitors to her “clinic” are being given the impression that what she’s offering is a legitimate alternative to the influenza vaccine. It is not. Choosing homeopathy over the vaccine is a decision to forsake immunization, something her customers may not realize. It’s yet another example of how homeopaths are putting public health, and individual lives, at risk.