I have recently criticised the Society of Homeopaths for producing a cherry picked review of the evidence for homeopathy when they tried to counter the World Health Organisation’s statement condemning the use of homeopathy for dangerous diseases like malaria, HIV, TB and childhood diarrhoea. These are big killers around the world and few western homeopaths are seeding dangerous ideas to local communities, especially in Africa, that homeopathic sugar pills can cure these killers.
I was therefore shocked to see that the Faculty of Homeopathy are making similar claims and therefore I must extend my criticism to them. In the past, senior figures within the Faculty have been very critical of the use of homeopathy for such uses. Dr Peter Fisher, Director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, has said about the use of homeopathy to prevent malaria by lay homeopaths:
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.
Members of the Faculty of Homeopathy are fully trained and registered doctors in the UK. They are obligated to follow best practice based on sound evidence. The best evidence is that homeopathy is exactly what it looks like – an inert pre-scientific treatment, based on pseudoscientific magical ideas, and unsupported by the totality of science and evidence. If doctors who are members of the Faculty of Homeopathy wish to use homeopathic sugar pills as placebos then one might argue that this is fair enough (although this is not without its ethical dilemmas). In my opinion, to step outside the boundaries of a placebo based therapy for homeopathy is simple quackery.
It is therefore something of a shock to see the Faculty issue a statement that reads: “Homeopathy has place in serious disease”.
Responding to comments made by directors of World Health Organization disease departments concerning homeopathy for serious disease, the Faculty of Homeopathy wishes to point out that in actuality there is some positive evidence in clinical trials for the use of homeopathy in childhood diarrhoea and for seasonal flu1, and that homeopathy can offer patients useful complementary care to help alleviate symptoms. It is inappropriate and ill-informed therefore to state that homeopathy should not be used or is dangerous when used appropriately in childhood diarrhoea or in flu.
This is a staggering statement for a number of reasons. Firstly, the WHO statement covers a number of dangerous diseases including malaria, HIV and TB. The Faculty are silent on these diseases. Instead, the Faculty appear to divert attention away to childhood diarrhoea and the flu. These conditions are still big killers with millions of children at risk an dying from diarrhoea around the world. Why do the Faculty not condemn the lay homeopaths who are in Africa now with their magic sugar pills trying to treat people with these fatal diseases? To remain silent on the issue is a moral failing of the highest order.
The statement goes on:
Dr Sara Eames, [pictured] President of the Faculty of Homeopathy states: "Our practitioners would never deprive patients of effective conventional medicine for serious disease. However, millions die each year as those affected have no access to these drugs. It therefore seems reasonable to consider what beneficial role homeopathy could play. What is needed is further research and investment into homeopathy.
No Sara. Further research is not required. Homeopathy is simple nonsense. Clinical research will not make magic sugar pills into medicine. Clinical research has failed to come up with a convincing evidence base in 200 years. There is no reason to believe more research will be fruitful. By delaying making condemning statements in the vain hope that more research will pull a rabbit out of a hat is to inflict more quackery on people in developing countries that need unambiguous condemnation of the homeopaths’ practices.
Sara Eames needs to answer a few questions: Even if the selective trials you quote do represent a positive effect for homeopathy, under what conditions would an individualised approach to the homeopathic treatment of childhood diarrhoea be preferable to the standard ‘allopathic’ treatment of oral rehydration solutions that cost pennies and save countless lives? What set of conditions would prevent children in the developing world to not have access to these ‘drugs’ but instead can afford a comfortable individualised consultation with a homeopath, taking into account their dreams, feelings, hopes and fears as you cranky homeopaths tend to do? And then, do you really trust these three small and underpowered trials from the same author to provide a sufficient evidence base to make your recommendation?
And as for flu. You quote two flu trials from the ‘80s. Since then there has been a Cochrane review that showed at best there was an effect of reducing flu symptoms by a few hours. It is not clinically significant and almost certainly an artefact. The Cochrane review concludes “Though promising, the data were not strong enough to make a general recommendation to use Oscillococcinum for first-line treatment of influenza and influenza-like syndromes. […] Current evidence does not support a preventative effect of Oscillococcinum-like homeopathic medicines in influenza and influenza-like syndromes.” It is not part of their overview for the treatment of flu.
The Faculty of Homeopathy had a clear choice here. It could have come out and presented the reasonable, conservative and insightful face of homeopathy by supporting the WHO and condemning homeopaths who treat dangerous diseases with these placebos. It did not do that. Is there anyone within the homeopathic community who is prepared to publicly condemn the excesses of the trade?
What is most shocking here is how trained doctors appear to be prepared to deflect criticism away from the worst excesses of the medically untrained lay homeopathy trade, as represented by the Society of Homeopaths. Lay homeopathy is characterised by a deep aversion to real medical treatments (which they call allopathy). It is fundamental to their beliefs that chronic illnesses are actually caused by the use of allopathic medicine. That is why they are almost universally against public health measures like immunisation and many believe that the anti-retrovirals that can save the lives of people with HIV are actually harmful. The Faculty should be making its position very clear in condemning the use of homeopathic sugar pills for the treatment of serious illnesses, just as the World Health Organisation has done. Instead it appears to appease the practitioners of this dangerous quackery with statements based on a selective and half baked review of the evidence. That is pretty shambolic and, as a lives are at stake, a very bad joke.
The Faculty has a statutory duty regarding the education of doctors, vets and dentists regarding homeopathy. Its aims are stated as being:
1 To provide high quality information to the public about the benefits of homeopathy
2 To educate doctors and other statutorily registered health professionals in homeopathy
3 To encourage more research into the effectiveness of homeopathy
4 To promote wider access to homeopathy for everyone
This press release looks merely likely a piece of promotion for homeopathy at the expense of providing ‘high quality information’ and ‘education’. Can we trust the Faculty to do its job?