As I write this, two married Australian homeopaths are spending their first nights in gaol as they begin prison sentences for six and four years respectively for the manslaughter of their baby daughter, Gloria.
This is a tragic, not least for the convicted parents. A nine month old baby died unnecessarily in the most horrific way because of her parent’s belief in the superiority and power of homeopathic sugar pills. Gloria suffered from severe eczema where the sores became severely infected. She constantly cried in pain and her skin became broken and oozing with fluid. She became malnourished and died.
This case has very important implications for those who are seeking better ways to regulate the so-called ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (CAM) sector here in the UK. Understanding the nature of this tragedy will highlight the shortcomings of the approaches being taken by the government.
The parents of baby Gloria Thomas have been branded “cruel”, “arrogant” and “irresponsible”. The couple wept in the dock and it is easy to understand why. It is not just the loss of their daughter, or their impending incarceration, but almost undoubtedly their complete failure to understand what has happened to them.
This gulf may be difficult to grasp by those who do not understand the nature of homeopathy and see it just as a natural and safe complementary medicine. It is nothing of the sort. Whilst its pills are completely safe (they are just sugar pills), the homeopathic belief system is quite dangerous. Homeopathy does not define itself as complementary. It is not designed to assist treatments by real medicine. Homeopathy defines itself as ‘a compete system of medicine’ in its own right and, importantly, it defines itself in conflicting opposition to what homeopaths call ‘allopathy’ – or mainstream medicine. Homeopathy is strictly alternative.
The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was keen to discover the universal laws of health and to create general and complete principles of healing. Homeopathy is the result. Indeed, Hahnemann saw chronic disease as actually being caused by other forms of non-homeopathic treatment and that deviations from the strict homeopathic doctrines as being disastrous for health. The Society of Homeopaths describe homeopathy on the front page of their site as a “complete system of medicine”. It describes how homeopathy can treat “all a patients symptoms”. This is a system that is not presented as a complement to other therapies, but a full system in its own right.
These belief systems persist for many interesting reasons. In two hundred years, the homeopathic principles have not been underpinned with an evidence base of any reliable sort. Worse, the principles have been shown to be in direct contradiction with well established principles of physics and chemistry. Homeopathy is magical in its nature, not scientific. The beliefs persist not because of their veracity but because they are taught within a cult-like atmosphere. The homeopath, Michael Bridger writes that,
The unwritten rule is not to be critical or try to define. No one has to publicly burn the books; you simply deify the inane and render critical thought unfashionable. Politically, this is a sophisticated form of authoritarianism; medically and clinically, it is the seeds of psychosis.
Recently, another homeopath has commented on Gimpy’s blog about the cult like nature of homeopathy. She describes it as a ‘pyramid scheme’, and like all successful pyramid schemes you need to ‘sell the dream.’ In her words, “We alone care about health – everyone else (Big Pharma, allopaths, EU, WHO, in conscious conspiracy, only wish to destroy health.” and, importantly for the case of Gloria, “You can be a part of saving the world’s health – but you have to be brave enough to tackle any case”.
I have recently received in the post some lecture notes from a UK homeopathy school accredited by the Society of Homeopaths. The notes describe a case of someone with a notifiable disease who was treated homeopathically without alerting the authorities, on the basis that the homeopath’s conscience dictated that he should not. To legally notify an allopath would be to alert the enemy, no doubt. When treating cancer homeopathically, the students are told to ‘trust and wait’. I will be writing more about this soon. Being trained to avoid medicine and trust only in homeopathy is mainstream thought in homeopathy, not exceptional.
The other cult-like aspect of homeopathy is its insistence in believing in a spiritual force that is being manipulated by the pills. According to Hahnemann, it is the ‘Vital Force’ that needs help with the pills. This is a vitalistic belief system with no place in modern science. As such, homeopathy is a spiritual belief which requires adherents to accept this quasi-religious world view.
In this light we can see that the parents of Gloria were doing what they were trained to do by the cult of homeopathy. If they had been trained well and had bought into the whole Hahnamanian philosophy then to take their seriously ill baby to an ‘allopath’ would have put it in danger. The only method to treat Gloria was with sugar pills. Homeopaths are taught that symptoms inevitably get worse when treated homeopathically. An ‘aggrevation’ is the remedy working the illness out of the body. No doubt as Gloria deteriorated, their training would have told them that this was a ‘good thing’ and that they should ‘trust and wait’. Her death must have been quite unexpected.
The parents of Gloria Thomas are not an exception. They are not an extreme. They have been good homeopaths and have merely been unlucky and had the misfortune to have the courage to stick with their beliefs. We can see on homeopathic discussion boards that tensions exist about resorting to real medicine when things look bad and that the choice of sticking with homeopathy is a question of “staying strong”. I have written before about the prominent UK homeopath Grace Da Silva-Hill MSc LCPH MARH MAAMET RGN who says about the fatal childhood illness of bacterial meningitis that “It requires a great deal of trust between patient and homeopath, for a serious acute to be treated solely with homeopathy.” Grace also is a supporter of homeopathic treatments for malaria in West Africa.
The implication in all of this is that even with very serious illnesses the homeopath has to stay true and believe in their cult and not betray their beliefs by accessing the outside world and their allopathic ways. Their education is full of denouncements of mainstream medical practice. It is a fundamental part of the creed that vaccinations are harmful and that chemotherapy is a killer. Medical drugs are a collection of side effects and not effective in their own right. Conspiracy theories abound about how ‘Big Pharma’ is out to destroy homeopathy. Harald Walach, Research Professor in Psychology at the University of Northampton has written that homeopaths should “Be proud, not afraid, fight back and don’t duck.” in light of the conspiracy theory that ‘Big Pharma’ is attacking them for homeopathic ‘successes’. Robert Davidson, a founder of one of the London homeopathy schools, describes how Pharmaceutical companies are trying to eliminate things like vitamins “to ensure sickness, so that everyone has to take drugs with no other choices available”. He says they are “evil, so totally evil”. Cults need their evil opponents to survive.
How many Gloria Thomas’s are there out there? It is difficult to know. We hope Gloria is at the extreme end of cases. But how many cancer patients needlessly delay treatment? How many chronic illnesses remain untreated due to such beliefs? Part of the problem is that homeopaths themselves do not collate the sort of records that would help us answer these types of questions. Sites such as What’s the Harm gathers news stories but these must be the tip of the iceberg. In Africa, where missionary homeopaths use homeopathic pills prophylactically to prevent malaria or even treat HIV we can have little idea how much harm is being done. The homeopathic belief is absolute. The current regulatory bodies such as the Society of Homeopaths refuse to discipline their members or even criticise them for taking part in such activities. Understanding homeopathy as a cult makes it easy to see why.
So how can we protect other Glorias? The homeopaths themselves will do nothing. There will be no response to this tragedy from the Society of Homeopaths, the medical Faculty of Homeopaths or even Prince Charles’ Foundation for Integrated Health. When criticism of homeopathy strikes, these organisation most often engage in bluster and obfuscation – or simply ignore the problem.
But, the government recognises that harm can be done by alternative medicine and that some sort of framework needs to be in place to protect the vulnerable. There could be no more vulnerable victim than Gloria, and indeed future infants like her deserve protection. And it is not just homeopaths we need worry about. Chiropractors display similar cult-like attitudes, and indeed much of alternative medicine appears to use similar anti-medical rhetoric to define itself and lock its members into cultish denial. You need only look at at sites such as What Doctors Don’t Tell You to understand the mentality of people attracted to such beliefs.
Unfortunately, UK government, like many other governments, appears to believe that regulating such practices is best done in a way similar to medical practitioners: registration and accreditation of training.
The folly of this is to believe that in doing this you are regulating health care professionals. You are not. You are trying to protect the public from health-threatening cultish beliefs. This is not medicine – it is pseudo-medicine with deluded practitioners. We do not protect people from Scientologists by formally recognising their leaders and giving their ‘Bishops’ seats in the House of Lords. And neither should we protect people from homeopaths by giving them protected title and a stamp of official approval from the Health Professions Council.
The government has pumped lots of money into a new organisation called the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (Ofquack) that claims its primary goal is to “protect the public by means of regulating practitioners on a voluntary register for complementary and natural healthcare practitioners”. It does this by ensuring their members have “undertaken a programme of education and training which meets, as a minimum, the National Occupational Standards for that profession/discipline”. It appears to think that by ensuring that an alternative therapist has been through training then people are protected. Gloria’s legacy should be to show us that this is not the case. Training is the problem, not the solution.
The National Occupational Standards scheme has tried to draw up standards for homeopathic education. These standards are to ensure that practitioners have the right “knowledge and understanding”. But as Professor David Colquhoun says, “no attention whatsoever is paid to the little problem of whether the “knowledge and understanding” are pure gobbledygook or not.” The problem is caused by the fact that these standards were set up in consultation with the Society of Homeopaths; the very people whose members’ beliefs the next baby Gloria needs protecting from. I once complained to the Society of Homeopaths about a homeopath who set up an eczema and asthma clinic. Despite obvious breaches of their own code of ethics, and that the Advertising Standards Authority concluded that this homeopath made “untruthful, unsubstantiated and irresponsible claims”, the Society decided there was no case to answer. The Society of Homeopaths believed that their time was better spent attempting to sue me.
In France, it is illegal to practice Homeopathy without a medical license. There is no such thing as lay homeopathy there and the Society of Homeopaths would be an illegal organisation. How much this protects people though is debatable. France has an enormous over-the-counter homeopathy trade through pharmacies, with Boiron, a homeopathic sugar pill manufacturer, making hundreds of millions of Euros from their big vat of sugar pills. The French self-medicate with homeopathy and their doctors are free to dish them out, although the state is fortunately reducing the amount it reimburses people for sugar pills. At least if a doctor prescribes a sugar pill when a placebo treatment is not required, then the regulatory bodies could well step in.
In the UK, we appear to be moving in the direction of legitimising various forms of quackery through various forms of state approval and recognition through statutory regulation. It is a disastrous move. There are currently reviews taking place for the regulation of acupuncture and herbal medicine. The same problems exist there with degree courses in Chinese medicine teaching students how to weasel word around regulation when making claims to treat cancer. Regulation of this style will put people at risk. The chiropractors have already achieved protected title and statutory regulation. This may not last much longer though as the regulator buckles under the weight of hundreds of complaints about chiropractors bogusly claiming to treat children’s illnesses in the light of the Simon Singh affair.
I believe a significant part of the answer is already with us. We do not need new regulation and statutory recognition of pseudo-medical cults. We need prosecution.
We already have the laws that say you cannot make false claims when selling goods and services. The Trading Standards laws are explicit in saying you cannot make false medicinal claims. What is not happening is enforcement of these laws as Trading Standards do not appear to have the training to go after these sorts of breaches. I would think it would be far more cost effective to provide this training rather than set up useless regulatory regimes for registering quacks.
The other change that would greatly help is for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency(MHRA) to drop its ridiculous stance on believing you only have to ensure homeopathic medicines are safe. No one disputes sugar pills are intrinsically safe – there is nothing in them. The MHRA though allow homeopaths to submit pseudoscientific ‘traditional’ evidence for a pill’s effectiveness so that they can make claims on packets. The MHRA legitimises dangerous quackery with homeopathy and it undermines its authority in doing so.
In summary, protecting future children like baby Gloria will require authorities to abandon the belief that they need to regulate homeopaths like medical practitioners and instead treat them according to the more accurate picture of them being a pseudo-medical and mystical cult with dangerous and irrational beliefs.