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9 August 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Medicine v magic: the homeopathy scam
Why substituting homeopathic remedies for conventional vaccines puts children's lives at risk.

by Howard Fienberg

According to an article in the UK Sunday Times in July 2001, 'thousands of parents are turning to homeopathic vaccines rather than conventional ones to protect children against killer diseases' (1). These parents are taking a grave risk with an alternative treatment derided by medical experts as nonsensical.

Unlike some other 'alternative' medicines, homeopathy is not inherently dangerous. However, when used in the place of proven medicine, as in this case, it could potentially kill.

Why can't homeopathy be a viable alternative to regular vaccines? Homeopathy is based on two laws: 'like cures like' and 'less is more'. As originally conceived by the eighteenth-century German physician Samuel Hahnemann (2), substances that cause particular symptoms in a healthy patient can cure those symptoms in an ill patient. Many of these substances were quite toxic, so he decided to dilute them. Unsurprisingly, he discovered that the greater the dilution, the lesser the side-effects.

In a medical age dominated by blood-letting and purging, treating patients with water was bound to be less harmful. So Hahnemann was deluded into his second law, 'less is more'. Less, in this case, amounted to a dilution of 10 parts water, or even a hundred parts water, to every one part of the particular substance - repeated anywhere from 30 to 200 times.

Dr Robert Park of the American Physical Society reported in his book Voodoo Science that even at the over-the-counter standard of 30 such dilutions (using 10 parts water for every one part of the substance), 'you would have to drink 7874 gallons of the solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine' (3). Hahnemann was presumably unaware that his recommended 200 dilutions (using 100 parts water per one part of the substance) 'were beyond the dilution limit of the entire visible universe'. The resulting homeopathic remedy is, in effect, ordinary water.

How can these remedies possibly work? Homeopaths believe that the water in their concoctions maintains an 'imprint' of the original material with which it was mixed, before that material is diluted away. Liquid, in effect, has a memory. But there is no evidence that this is true, and no homeopath has ever theorised a reasonable way to test it.

While a unicorn's presence can be tested with a mere glance, remedies not based on physics cannot be tested at all
Like most proponents of alternative medicine, homeopaths vaguely cite an ever-growing mound of evidence that homeopathy works. True, there have been numerous studies of homeopathy, but most of them are unpublished and unsubstantiated. Homeopaths can (and do) point to John Buenaviste's 1988 scientific article in the prestigious journal Nature, but they tend not to mention that it was roundly criticised in subsequent issues because the results could not be replicated.

Dr David Reilly, co-author of a recent study of homeopathy published in the British Medical Journal told the UK Guardian, 'If people tell you there's a unicorn at the end of your garden you can invoke plausibility and refuse to believe it. But if over 200 years people keep saying there's a unicorn in your garden then it might be at least worth a look' (4). Indeed - but while the unicorn's presence in my yard can be tested with a mere glance, remedies not based on principles of physics cannot be tested at all.

Since these remedies do not seem to be scientifically based, safety is not necessarily guaranteed. While in theory any dangerous ingredients should be diluted out of existence, homeopathic remedies are unregulated and unpredictable. Of course, in using homeopathy to vaccinate against childhood diseases, the real concern is not the danger of using an alternative remedy, but using it in place of scientifically proven medical treatment. Not only are kids reared on these fake vaccines still susceptible to deadly diseases, they could then pass those diseases on to others.

With luck, some of those children receiving the homeopathic vaccines will never come down with the measles. But the attitude of south London homeopath Christina Whitehead, who has administered homeopathic vaccines to 2000 kids, is most worrisome. She reportedly described measles as a 'wonderful disease for developing the immune system', apparently neglecting the fact that it crippled or killed hundreds of kids annually before the advent of mass scientific vaccinations.

Homeopathy simply doesn't cut it in modern public health. When provable solutions are available, we should not ignore them in favour of penny-ante magic.

Howard Fienberg is a research analyst with the non-profit non-partisan think-tank the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), in Washington, DC.

Read on:

Put alternative medicine back in its box, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Watered-down science, by Howard Fienberg

The rise and rise of CAM, by Bríd Hehir

Touching a nerve, by Sarah Glazer

Head cases, by Bríd Hehir

(1) Parents warned on 'natural' jabs, Sunday Times, 1 July 2001

(2) See Hahnemann's Organon of Medicine

(3) Voodoo Science: The road from foolishness to fraud, Robert Park, Oxford University Press, 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA). See also What's New?, a weekly column by Dr Robert Park, the American Physical Society

(4) Guardian, 22 August 2000. The study of homeopathy was published in the British Medical Journal, 19 August 2000

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