Vaccinate against gullibility and superstition

2009-06-13 00:00

ONE challenges the views of a true believer — whether it is in God, Allah, or the Tarot — at one’s own risk. Hell hath no fury like the faithful crossed.

Last week’s column drew howls of outrage, so let’s clarify. One is not challenging the efficacy of some natural remedies or supplements, nor that homeopathy might offer relief for insignificant afflictions: sniffles and itches; scratches and rashes.

Anecdote, however, is no substitute for evidence and homeopathy has failed totally to provide clinical proof of its benefits. Conceivably that may be, as the believers insist, because of the limitations of science and scientists, rather than those of homeopathy.

The issue remains of academic interest, while homeopathy is limited to the essentially harmless doctoring of minor or imagined ailments by the butterfly middle classes, who can and will seek proper medical care when in extremis. Under such circumstances, homeopathy is no more of a threat to public health than astrology is to space exploration.

It is when homeopathy overreaches itself to endanger large numbers of people, that it must be challenged. Last week’s call by medical experts from the Sense About Science (SAS) organisation upon the World Health Organisation to issue an unequivocal directive that homeopathy cannot prevent or treat HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza, and infant diarrhoea, is in response to a genuine threat.

Homeopathy, SAS argues, “can put lives at risk, undermines conventional medicine and spreads misinformation … When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.” And there can be no doubt that homeopathic charlatans are trying to exploit ignorance and Africa’s poor levels of medical care.

In Botswana, a project offers homeopathic treatment of HIV-related ailments at several locations. In Ethiopia, Aids sufferers are offered “homeopathic resonance healing” as an “ideal alternative” to antiretrovirals.

Homeopathic foundations in Tanzania and Ghana are treating hundreds of patients daily for malaria, claiming that conventional medicine supplies only temporary relief. A Kenyan homeopathic supplier runs 20 health centres, 25 mobile clinics and five HIV/Aids clinics, selling remedies for Aids, malaria, diarrhoea and influenza. To use homeopathy to treat such diseases is a death sentence to Third World patients. Nor should the butterfly classes be entirely blasé. Childhood immunisation is one of the most important and successful medical interventions of all time but in recent years there has been growing parental resistance, initially because of the false belief that the MMR vaccination is linked to autism, and now because of the promotion of “homeopathic vaccinations”. Homeopathy is also being peddled for cancer, with traumatic outcomes.

In conventional medicine, whatever its manifest and many failings, a drug or treatment that does not pass stringent clinical trials is abandoned. Health-care professionals must use treatments that demonstrably generate more good than harm for their patients and are struck off the role if they fail to do so.

In contrast, the only restriction in the homeopathic code regarding treatment is that the practitioner should deem it “appropriate”.

But let homeopathy speak for itself. Medorrhinum, made from gonorrhoeal pus, is, according to a homeopathic medicine website, a wonderful treatment for gonorrhoea, pelvic inflammation, painful menstruation, early heart disease, conditions of the nerves, spine, kidneys and mucous membranes, “as well as for problems of an emotional nature”.

“Psychologically, the people who require this remedy are hurried with a sense of anticipation. They feel empty inside, forsaken, deserted … Curiously, the soles of their feet are extremely sensitive …”

Need one say more? Now if only there were an immunisation against such superstition and gullibility.

• Sense About Science is at www.senseaboutscience.org.uk

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