Friday, April 3, 2015

Homeopathy - Does It Really Work?

In a widely circulated article from the Guardian newspaper, the news from Australia is that it does not.  The headline reads: “Homeopathy not effective for treating any condition, Australian report finds.”  After a thorough and extensive review of over 200 research papers on the subject, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) states:  “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”

They go on to warn that people who use homeopathic medicine as an excuse to delay or avoid professional medical help may be putting their lives at risk.

What is homeopathy?  The article describes it as the belief “that illness-causing substances can, in minute doses, treat people who are unwell,” and by diluting them in water or alcohol, “the resulting mixture retains a ‘memory’ of the original substance that triggers a healing response in the body.”  That is the theory.

Wikipedia defines it as “a system of alternative medicine created in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann based on his doctrine of like cures like, whereby a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people.”

The fact that it is not effective is certainly not news as the first paragraph of Wikipedia entry immediately goes on to say:  “Homeopathy is considered a pseudoscience. It is not effective for any condition, and no remedy has been proven to be more effective than placebo.”  References associated with this conclusion date back to 2000 and earlier.  It was known for a long time, but the fact that any government agency has come out so strongly against it is new.

The industry has a different take.  The National Center for Homeopathy tells us:  “Homeopathy is a safe, gentle, and natural system of healing that works with your body to relieve symptoms, restore itself, and improve your overall health.”  “It is extremely safe to use, even with very small children and pets, has none of the side effects of many traditional medications, is very affordable, is made from natural substances, and is FDA regulated.”

One British source sees it differently.  After an extensive explanation of the theory behind it they describe it as being rooted in superstition, ritual and sympathetic magic; and cite a comprehensive study from 2005 showing that it is ineffective.  For the theory to be true “we would have to toss out practically everything we have learned over the past two centuries about biology, pharmacology, mathematics, chemistry and physics.”

It seems many people disagree with the industry portrayal.  Many studies have shown it as ineffective, but what about the claims of safety and regulation?  The US Government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Health is not complimentary on the subject.  “We have a fair amount of research on homeopathic medicine for a variety of conditions, but less evidence on its safety, particularly for over-the-counter products.”  The FDA does regulate it as a class of drugs, but “doesn’t evaluate these products for safety or effectiveness” and “some contain ingredients or contaminants in amounts that could cause side effects, drug interactions, or other safety concerns.”

Since those potential contaminants are so diluted, sometimes to beyond the point of detection, homeopathic medicine is probably safe but ineffective.  Probably the worst that can happen is for people to rely on homeopathy to the exclusion of professional medical help, especially if they avoid vaccinations.

So what’s the big deal?  It’s just people again throwing away money on a product that has been known for years to be ineffective.  But when a company gets you to pay money for something that doesn’t work, how can that be legal?  Doesn’t the government also have a consumer protection division to protect us from our own foolishness, like credit card scams, payday loans and fraudulent vacation schemes?  Out of curiosity I asked, “Where does the government’s Consumer Protection Agency stand on all of this?” 

Their website lists under the heading “Current Scams That You Should Be Aware Of” the following categories:  Benefits and Grants, Business, Cars, Citizenship and Immigration, Computers and Internet, Family, Home, and Community, Health and Nutrition, International Relations, Jobs and Education, Money, and Travel and Recreation.  A closer look at the Health and Nutrition link shows no mention of homeopathy (but there are a large number of other very interesting topics where Americans have been sold worthless or dangerous products).  Until there are enough complaints on this topic, I guess we are on our own.

The government can’t (or won’t) protect us from sellers of every product or service that takes our money and give us only promises in return.  Again critical thinking and just a little research can eliminate a lot of wasted time and money and possibly keep us safer.

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