Jeremy hunt, believer in homeopathy and the integrity of Rupert Murdoch, is the new health secretary. This has worried a lot of people.
Back in 2007, Hunt signed a parliamentary Early Day Motion which supported the spending of NHS money on homeopathic “medicines “. The idea that the NHS could ever possibly phase out any clinically tested drugs for overpriced sugar pills took an alarming shuffle towards reality.
Arguably, the concept of the Health Secretary supporting homeopathy is just as ridiculous as the Environmental Secretary Owen Paterson being a climate change “sceptic”. Oh wait…
Tory cabinet reshuffling aside, homeopathy is one of the largest fields of alternative medicine. It is also the subject of ridicule amongst scientists, and angry defensive statements from its supporters.
Homeopathic remedies involve dissolving a substance (anything from snake venom to charcoal) in ethanol, then diluting this into water many, many times before tapping the contained solution against a hard object, such as a Bible or a leather covered paddle. The hypothesis is that the water molecules “remember” the initial potent substance; so the pill is apparently effective no matter how dilute it becomes. This flies in the face of all known laws of chemistry and physics.
The limited effect that homeopathic pills have is based around the placebo effect. In a case of mind over matter, the brain tells itself that the injection (though in fact saline) was a painkiller so that some of the pain felt is ignored.
Homeopathic remedies have never been shown to be effective in any large, placebo-controlled randomised clinical trial (a test all medicines must go through). One placebo is as good as another.
There is an anomaly though, one brought up in by many supporters of homeopathy whenever their particular beliefs are challenged. Known as the Belfast Study and published in 2004 in Inflammation Research, a group at Queen’s University looked into the reaction of basophiles (human white blood cells involved in inflammation) to ultra-dilute concentrations of histamine.
A dilution at 10^-38M (such as that used in homeopathy) in all likelihood will not contain a single molecule of histamine. And yet the claim was made that the cells reacted as if histamine was present. The placebo effect could not be at play here, individual cells are not sentient beings with an unquestioning faith in a particular treatment.
The anomalous paper makes for interesting reading and makes a good case for “weirdest scientific phenomenon outside of physics” but is certainly not any reason for people to get over-excited and start putting their health in the hands of a little bottle of over-priced sugar pills.
In fact, many further studies and attempts to recreate the workings of the initial Belfast study have found no such behaviour. The most notable of these follow up investigations involving BBC Horizon and James Randi, the famous skeptic. Until they do, it’s just a curious anomaly worthy of some further study.
Furthermore, until a homeopathic treatment can be shown in a full, unbiased clinical trial to be as effective as any current medical treatment, the idea that the NHS should fund such a therapy is utterly ridiculous.