What kind of quackery is this?

With the recent Cabinet shuffle bringing some curious choices, takes a look at why Jeremy Hunt is wrong on homeopathy

Photo Credits: Philippa Willitts

Photo Credits: Philippa Willitts

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.

12 comments

  1. Unfortunately, homeopathy being funded on the NHS already *is* reality, and has been for a long time.

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  2. Mentioning the Belfast Study is another example of homeoquacks straw-clutching. It’s worth noting what the Study’s author, Madeleine Ennis, said about their attempts to claim her research for their cause:

    “In the in vitro studies with human basophils, although ultra-high dilutions are used, most of the effects are qualitatively similar to those obtained with pharmacological doses. To my mind, this opposes the fundamentals of homeopathy, where my understanding is that there are opposing effects caused by pharmacological doses and those caused by ultra-high dilutions.”

    Source: http://www.similima.com/pdf/basophil-model-homeopathy.pdf

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  3. Homeopathy is a non-toxic system of western medical science originated in Germany by Dr. Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (10 April 1755 Germany- 2 July 1843 France). He received his M.D. with honors in conventional medicine from University of Erlangen, Germany on 10 Aug 1779.

    By the end of year 2010, there have been 245 human studies published in 99 peer-reviewed international medical journals (81 integrative, 9 homeopathy and 9 CAM) including 11 meta-analysis, 6 systematic reviews, 1 Cochrane Review and 100 DBRPCT in evidence of homeopathy.

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  4. 11 Sep ’12 at 9:28 pm

    'Dr' Matt Ravenhall

    Nancy Malik has essentially copied and pasted this comment of hers on thousands of homeopathy related blogposts over the internet, displaying a ‘drown in lists’ style of argument.

    For an in-depth explanation of why Nancy is entirely wrong in her claim, I’d suggest the following article which runs through each of the studies she cites: http://xtaldave.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/scientific-evidence-for-homeopathy-2/

    As for ‘non-toxic’, correct, small amounts of water are non-toxic, however homeopathy isn’t harmless. See: http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html

    Furthermore, my research shows that she holds no qualification which justifies her use of the title ‘Dr.’.

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  5. 1973: Govt.of India officially recognises homeopathy and anchored in National Health Policy as a result of Homeopathic Council Act.
    1978: Govt, of India establishes Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, Govt. of India
    1995: Govt. of India created Department of Indian Systems of Medicine and Homeopathy (ISMH)
    2003: ISMH renamed as Department of AYUSH

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  6. 12 Sep ’12 at 5:17 pm

    Laurie Willberg

    Dr. Nancy Malik is entirely correct in her presentation of the relevant research, and contrary to the other poster, she holds qualifications in conventional medicine as well as Homeopathy.
    It’s not entirely surprising that those with a pathological antipathy towards Homeopathy are willing to fabricate any sort of assertion in an attempt to discredit either the Homeopathic medical system, practitioners or supporters.
    People who call themselves “skeptics” are full of ornery opinions, including retired stage magicians like James Randi who’s pretext of being on the level of actual researchers is laughable.
    For the facts about Homeopathy readers are referred to http://www.extraordinarymedicine.org

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  7. 13 Sep ’12 at 11:05 am

    'Dr' Matt Ravenhall

    @Malik: India clearly doesn’t have the fully effective Health Service that its people deserve.

    @Laurie: Evidently, you haven’t taken the time to go through that evaluation of the problems with the papers Malik cites (a mix of improper blinding, lack of proper controls and a large amount of the studies being about something else or having conclusions which contradict Malik).
    Mud-sling all you like, but I’d rather have a discussion based on facts.

    Furthermore, the number of studies Malik claims to cite is also incorrect. I think that alone demonstrates the lack of critical thinking being applied here.

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  8. Yeah but India is awful. Horribly corrupt politicians and absolutely terrible healthcare. Education there is so poor that homeopathy thrives there by scamming the ignorant. Spambots like “Dr. Nancy Malik” are borderline trolls.

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  9. Homeopathic Associations in UK

    British Homeopathic Association (1847)
    The Faculty of Homeopathy (1943)
    The homeopathic Medical Association (1985)
    National Homeopathic Service (1996)
    Alliance of Registered Homeopaths (2001)
    Homeopathy Action Trust (2002)
    Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century (2007)
    Homeopathic Research Institute (2007)
    The Friends of Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (2010)
    British Homeopathic Dental Association

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  10. @Dr. V

    1944: The efforts to get Govt.’s recognition of homeopathy at national level started with the establishment of All India Institute of Homeopathy.

    1973: The legal status of homeopathy medicine in India is on an equal footing with conventional [Bachelor of Medical and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS)], Ayurveda (recognised since 1969), Unani, and Siddha medicine. It is recognised by Central Council of Homoeopathy , Deptt. of AYUSH, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt. of India since 1973.

    ‘In the Indian subcontinent the legal position of the practitioners of homeopathy has been elevated to a professional level similar to that of a medical practitioner’.

    Ref: Jugal Kishore, “Homoeopathy: The Indian Experience,” World Health forum, 3, 1983, pp.110

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  11. @Dr. Nancy Malik,

    I’m a much better educated and more experienced doctor than yourself. Citing that there are many groups created for the purpose of conning gullible idiots doesn’t justify conning gullible idiots.

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