Homeopathy in urgent need of remedy

2009-06-06 00:00

DURING an era that has seen many abandon formal religion, seemingly as many have become the adherents of exotic mystical fads. Fads like reiki, chakra balancing, feng shui, astral travel, homeopathy and the like.

Spirituality is, of course, a matter of individual choice and people must be free to believe whatever they wish. But when it comes to health — where fringe beliefs and science intersect — society’s interests must outweigh personal eccentricities.

Magical thinking, witch doctory and quackery cannot be tolerated when it threatens the health of large numbers. This is what happened in South Africa during the Aids-denialist era and it led to an estimated 365 000 avoidable deaths.

It will be interesting then to see the response to this week’s appeal by Sense About Science, calling on the World Health Organisation to issue a clear directive that homeopathy cannot prevent or treat HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza and infant diarrhoea.

The open letter from concerned young doctors, makes the point that homeopathy “puts lives at risk, undermines conventional medicine and spreads misinformation … Those of us working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed. When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.”

What a flutter this will cause in the heaving breasts of those middle-class matrons who form the most articulate – and misguided – adherents of Rescue Remedy and the various other useless tinctures and potions they use to dose their families’ ailments, both real and imaginary.

That is, until they get seriously ill, of course. No homeo-mom I have yet encountered has been willing to back homeopathy over antibiotics when it comes to a life-threatening pneumonia, for example, or indeed in treatment of any of the Big Five diseases singled out by Sense About Science.

As a medical researcher I know acerbically puts it: “Homeopathy is most suitable for the neurotic middle classes who have imaginary or self-limiting illnesses, and the great thing is that it has no side effects because it has no effects at all. So no harm can be caused to people who are not sick, other than pecuniary.”

In the face of populist ignornance and the lobbying of the homeopathy industry, governments unfortunately have long since given up the contest against pseudosciences like homeopathy. Through the accreditation of university courses in the subject and by allowing the sale of homeopathic potions without their efficacy having to be proven in clinical trials, a veneer of respectability is accorded to what is just another superstition.

The as-yet unrefuted scientific truth is that homeopathy only has a placebo effect. That is, it makes one feel better because one expects it to — and over 150 rigorous clinical trials of homeopathy — as distinct from natural remedies, have proved it.

Homeopathic remedies, in essence, are in no way differrent from the magical cures peddled by the animal-skin bedecked sangoma and homeopathy’s supporters are equally as disinterested as is the sangoma in scientific validation of their efficacy.

It all comes down to belief and, as a middle-class aherent of homeopathy, being able to access real medicine when there is a real threat.

The medical researcher again: “These are otherwise intelligent people who understand that Harry Potter is not a real wizard, yet they believe that a diluted potion — so diluted that the actual ingredient of the potion is unlikely to be present in it — can work as a medicine.”

These are also the very same people who would have excoriated Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for peddling beetroot as a cure for HIV/Aids and Jacob Zuma for taking a shower to prevent the same infection.

Take two placebos and call me in the morning.

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