Lethal Trust

If you were to believe the Society of Homeopaths, the quacks that were handing out lethal advice to Newsnight investigators about malaria prevention, were just a few rogue and unregistered practitioners and unrepresentative of the profession.

Peter Fisher , the Director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (currently funded by the NHS) told the programme that,

I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.

It is worth reading that quote again as it is going to be important.
As we saw in my previous post, homeopaths are not very good at defining the boundaries of their profession and their so-called professional bodies turn a blind eye to outrageous and dangerous claims. The question of whether homeopaths can be trusted to self-regulate hinges on how they police the boundaries of their own profession. Is Dr Fisher right in his belief that you cannot find real homeopaths that think you can cure or prevent dangerous diseases with sugar pills? Unsurprisingly, his claim looks very weak.

UK professional organisation that supports and promotes a high standard of safe, effective homeopathic practice.

This would be a good organisation to look at if we wanted “high standards and safe practice” inside a regulated profession and definitely we would hope to find an organisation that condemned dangerous practices. It publishes a quarterly magazine called Homeopathy in Practice and is full of articles from homeopaths and their musings, philosophies and experiences. We saw the quality of the sort of pseudoscience is offers recently, in an article pleading that homeopathy was science by changing the definition of science to one that would include astrology, scientology and Greek myth.

Fortunately for us, we do not have to subscribe to get an idea of what the ARH promotes through this journal. We have access to a list of contents and even some sample articles. A quick scan through shows one article entitled, Silent and deadly: Prophylaxis and treatment of malaria by Theresa Partington. Luckily, the full text is available for us to view. The article views the recommended homeopathic prophylaxis and treatment options as given by ‘experts’. On prophylaxis it says,

All recommended [homepathic] prophylaxis for visitors. The ‘African’ homeopaths recommended Malaria Co Nosode 30 on a weekly basis for visitors, starting a week before arrival and continuing for a month afterwards, Jennie also recommends the concurrent use of China 30, following recommendations of Susan Curtis in ‘Alternatives to Immunisation’; Liz Hennel, who works in Nicaragua, uses Plasmodium falciparum nosode (available as a single nosode from Ainsworths) and China sulphuricum in areas where this type of malaria is prevalent, but otherwise Malaria officinalis and China.

The same type of advice is given for treatment. Shockingly, the article proudly reports how a homeopath is teaching people in high risk areas of Africa about the ‘benefits’ of homeopathy,

[Assie Pittendrigh] is working in the Great Lakes region of Africa, teaching homeopathy to local nurses and doctors who run charity clinics in the region. The project began at the end of January 2006 and has two purposes:

1) To introduce homeopathy for First Aid and Acute Diseases (her quick reference guide is being translated into the required language).

2) To run a professional clinical trial to test the effectiveness of malarial prophylaxis using homeopathy. The exact format of the trial will be agreed with the medical staff and this information will be made available as soon as is feasible.

In other words, according to Peter Fisher’s above criteria, Assie (Alison) Pittendrigh is killing people. The title of this article is ‘Silent and Deadly’. The denial of Peter Fisher, and the silence the Society of Homeopaths, and the ARH is indeed deadly.

Again, this failure to set boundaries for the profession is not limited to its views on malaria. Grace DaSilva-Hill MSc LCPH MARH MAAMET RGN has written, in the Winter 2006 edition, a two part essay on ‘Treating acutes with homeopathy’. Fortunately again, the first part is available to us to read. DaSilva-Hill discusses the use of homeopathy in serious acute conditions, when the ‘most common reaction amongst people is to take the patient to the hospital’.

She says after discussing a case of bacterial meningitis,

It requires a great deal of trust between patient and homeopath, for a serious acute to be treated solely with homeopathy.

Amazing. I would also add a great deal of stupidity, negligence and arrogance too. The only reason we do not see too many deaths from thinking like this is that the vast majority of parents would be at their GPs and casualty in a flash if a serious illness threatened their children. The danger is that a few hours delay while a homeopath picked their ‘ultra-potentized’ sweetie pills, could make all the difference between a favourable and tragic outcome. A parent taught by their homeopath that this is the safer and gentler route to health might be misplacing a lethal trust.

DaSilva-Hill pulls back from saying that she does treat without recourse to real medicine by saying,

I guess it’s the voice of my nursing background still lurking somewhere reminding me of professional accountability to a statutory body.

Her inference is thought, that others may not feel such a compunction. Homeopaths have no statutory body to make practitioners accountable.

The journal gives us another freebie article worth checking out: Vaccinations: what cost? By Christina Head. It is as if being in one area of alternative medicine, you are required to adopt a full credo of beliefs about the evils of real medicine and science. We find in this article the usual discredited MMR-autism story and a general distrust of all vaccinations. Head gives us sentence after sentence of the usual anti-vaccination canards, including,

I have in my practice about 500 unvaccinated children of all ages. They are much more straightforward to treat because they don’t have a ‘kinked up’ immune system. But they still have their inherited or acquired susceptibilities.

and

Treating unvaccinated children is truly creative medicine and provides a real base for good health in the future life.

Now, as you know, vaccinations have saved countless lives. But on their own do not guarantee immunity from childhood killers. A particular vaccination may only be 80% effective, say. Real protection comes when the vast majority of the infectable community are vaccinated. The infection can then not get a foothold in the population and spread. If the level of vaccination drops below a threshold, then the disease can spread, even to vaccinated children. Thus, Christina Head’s advice not only endangers the children of parents who believe this rubbish, but all children too. Peter Fisher also supposedly believes that the homeopathic community supports vaccination. Is he in touch with his community?

It is easy to be lured into believing the homeopaths’ platitudes that their practice is without side-effects and is harmless. What does not appear to be recognized, as Ben Goldacre pointed out in the Guardian last weekend, is that the effluent and discarded waste of alternative medicine is bullshit. And bullshit can be very dangerous, especially medical bullshit. Complementary medicine undoubtedly has beneficial roles in health care, but not if it is in the business of dishing out pseudoscientific nonsense, lies about real medicine and doctors, and over inflated claims about its own efficacy. Quackery kills.

Wisdom is often described as a second-order type of knowledge. Wisdom is not what you know, but what you know about what you know. How do I know what I know? Can my knowledge be trusted? How could I be wrong? What do I know that is sound and what do I know that is speculative? Competence at a skill is not just about performance, but about having a self-critical awareness of your own performance. Where are my failings? How can I improve? Am I deluding myself about my performance?

The homeopathic community shows itself to be devoid of any sort of critical appraisal of its limits, responsibilities and capabilities. It lacks group wisdom and acts incompetently. Its beliefs endanger its clients. It exports its delusions with a missionary zeal to countries in desperate need of real health care and in doing so, places them in even greater danger. Its embracing of the usual alternative medicine canards, such as the unnecessary antagonism towards vaccination, puts its clients and all of society at risk.

Peter Fisher, of the the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, is currently lobbying hard to keep public funding for homeopathy and specialised homeopathic hospitals. Fewer referrals are being made to these hospitals as it becomes more apparent how little value they add in a world of evidence-based medicine and strict cash limits. Let’s hope this lack of trust in homeopathy as a good use of NHS resources turns out to be lethal. The need for good complementary care within the NHS is not well served by homeopaths.

13 comments for “Lethal Trust

  1. coracle
    July 2, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    Nice article, that’s some scary stuff in there.

  2. Andrew Clegg
    July 4, 2007 at 8:41 am

    Have you written to Peter Fisher with these counter-examples to his claims? I’d be interested to hear a response.

    Andrew.

  3. Michelle
    February 12, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    because mainstream medicine is an exact science? a real science? try telling that to the thousands who died worldwide because of Vioxx, or the hundreds due to Mediator in France etc… it’s a long list of damage done by what you consider real medicine that would fill pages ! you should be turning your quackometer around!

    • February 13, 2014 at 11:36 am

      The only reason we know there were deaths from Vioxx was from some very good and detailed research by mainstream medicine giving sound medical evidence. The crime with Vioxx was that the pharma company withheld the data that allowed mainstream medicine to uncover the problem.

      In contrast, the best medical evidence shows homeopathy is inert and a nonsense. Do homeopaths heed this evidence and change their practice? No. Of course not.

      • Michelle
        February 13, 2014 at 4:08 pm

        So we needed good and detailed research to find out that Vioxx was harmful(detail withheld as you rightly put it by pharma industry)? I should think doctors records showing their patients were dying from it would have been proof enough! It can’t have been that hard collating all that evidence. You make it sound like conducting such an enquiry is an incredible feat! That same research which was previously done by the makers of Vioxx themselves who then shelved the results, because too compromising? When people start dropping dead in large numbers, you can’t really ignore it anymore!(more than 40.000 worldwide in this case) When you put chemicals into people’s bodies, when you hide behind pseudoscience and pretend to conduct impartial research when actually you only publish what suits you, when you convince doctors that your poisons are good for their patients, and shame on them a lot don’t question you, because you are perceived as the scientific authority(some wonderful doctors do thankfully!), when you make billions from this business with disease, you don’t point the finger at alternative medicine! In your comment you seem to dissociate mainstream medicine from the pharmaceutical industry, as if one had very little to do with the other. You can’t criticize pharma without dragging mainstream medicine into it as they have become best buddies in the last 50 years. But there’s hope ,as some medics are questioning the status quo, because they can see its effects on their patients- and some of them are even………………..homeopaths!! I’ve never heard of homeopathy killing 40 thousand people –have you? Do you think a lot of very good and detailed research would be required to uncover such a fact if it were true??I don’t condemn healthy skepticism about anything, but this homeopathy bashing just for the sake of it is uncalled for.

        • Andy Lewis
          February 13, 2014 at 5:04 pm

          Michelle – let me try to show where you are misunderstanding the issue. Vioxx was a very popular drug. It was popular because it actually worked – it reduced pain for people with arthritis so that they could actually get back some life and minimized common side effects. To that extent it did good. Unfortunately, it had other side effects in that it increased the chances that some people would have heart attacks.

          I understand some 80 million people took Vioxx while it was on the market – and accepting your figures 0.05% of them had a fatal heart attack.In America, 150,000 people die from heart attacks every year. Any typical doctor will see plenty of heart attacks in her patients over the year; many of them would also have been taking Vioxx. Spotting the small excess caused by Vioxx would not be possible. It takes careful data collection and analysis to spot the excess heart attacks over what you would see anyway. The crime with Vioxx was that data was there but was not released to the scientific community to study to see if there were these deaths hidden in the data.

          Let me ask you this: how do you know homeopathy does not cause a small increase in heart attack? Any homeopath would not see this small increase – it could only be spotted by the careful collection of data about people who have taken homeopathy over several years. The risk might be small, but because millions take homeopathy, the number of increased deaths could be large. How do you know homeopaths are not killing some of their clients?

          You do not. Because homeopaths do not care about data. Or evidence. Only their belief in their sugar pills.

          • Michelle
            February 13, 2014 at 5:52 pm

            I think perhaps you need to make up your mind about homeopathy: either it’s just sugar pills -as you say -with placebo effect and therefore cannot cure but by the same token cannot harm ! So what’s all the fuss about??
            Or it’s a highly dangerous medicine that must be stopped , but then you can’t call it just inert sugar pills. It can’t be both!
            Unless of course you believe that the tiny amount of sugar in the minute pills , nowhere comparable to the amount of sugar consumed everyday by the average American or Brit, is wreaking havoc in those unsuspecting victims of homeopathy. But then…. sugar would be to blame really and not homeopathy per se!
            As for your comment re Vioxx having done the job as far as arthritic pain is concerned it reminded me of a quote often referred to in medical circles: the operation was a great success, but….the patient died ! Yes perhaps Vioxx killed the pain but also the patient in some cases. Maybe 40 thousand deaths isn’t that much compared to millions who took the drug, but if we add up the numbers from the Thalidomide days until now I wonder how many would consider those numbers an acceptable risk!

          • Andy Lewis
            February 13, 2014 at 6:21 pm

            Michelle,

            I am quite convinced that homeopathic remedies do not direclty cause heart attacks. They are inert sugar pills. There is nothing in them.

            However, homeopaths believe that the remedies can have quite profound effects on people. It is only their belief that these remedies do not carry small but real risks. If you actually believe homeopathy can have specific effects, there is a moral imperative to ensure that there are also not increased risks of some sort or other. My question was to expose that homeopaths have absolutely no idea about this and have probably never even thought of such issues. Such is there systematic incompetence.

            So, to repeat my questions. How do you know there is not a Homeopathic Vioxx-like scandal lurking in the work of homeopaths? How?

          • Michelle
            February 13, 2014 at 7:41 pm

            About 250 years of history, they’re still using the same remedies, and nothing suggesting it kills has ever surfaced in all that time! So if something like a vioxx scandal has been lurking there, it is sure taking a long time to surface!!Perhaps we could wait another 250 years to find out? Compare with modern medicine’s track record in less than half that time. Homeopathy doesn’t seem to be that lethal does it?
            You’re also claiming that homeopaths don’t even care about this issue and that they are all incompetent. I wonder what you are basing that on. Do you know many homeopaths personally?

          • Andy Lewis
            February 13, 2014 at 9:36 pm

            If medical scientists had not looked for the excess heart attacks due to Vioxx it would never have been found. That no homeopaths have ever looked does not mean you could not rule out serious issues.

            The unchanging nature of homeopathy over 200 years is not something to be proud of. Which scientific paper has changed the way homeopaths practice the most in that time? None. Can you think of any other human endeavour that is so resistant to development? Perhaps only religions.

            In that time, homeopathy has failed to show any mechanism that could explain how it works, has failed to show any convincing evidence that it does work, has failed to eradicate or cure any disease. Homeopathy is not a success but a 200 year dismal failure clung on to by zealots.

            Contrast that with real medicine which has come on in leaps and bounds in 100 years. We now understand the nature of diseases, their causes and in many cases how to prevent them, alleviate their symptoms and in even cure them. Children do not die in their droves of infectious diseases or even most childhood cancers. We can replace faulty organs and know which drugs prevent rejection. We can immunise against killer diseases. We can provide drug therapies against big killers such as diabetes, HIV, malaria.

            Homeopathy can only boats its longevity.

            Medicine makes mistakes and the companies that exists to provide products and services so often act in selfish ways. But medicine and science also are self-correcting, looking for errors, uncovering problems. Homeopathy can boast none of these things. It just clings to its dogma regardless of the evidence and pretends it can treat dangerous illnesses to the detriment of those unfortunate enough to come into contact with homeopaths.

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