This article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal has led me to revisit and repost an old essay I had at the old place on 6 January 2006. The article addresses Oscillococcinum, an extract of the liver and heart of the Muscovy duck that is diluted so many times that, thankfully, it contains no duck organs but only water, and is then packaged into degradable beads. This product is sold by the French company, Boiron, to prevent colds and flu and you can find this stuff sold at Whole Foods and other “health” stores. There is even a children’s product by the same name but I have no idea how one makes a different “strength” of nonexistent molecules.
As you’ll read the repost below, homeopathy requires that you suspend belief in all concepts and principles of physics, pharmacology, and medicine. While the occasional paper will report a positive effect of homeopathy, all systematic reviews of the homeopathy literature suggest that these “remedies” are no more than expensive placebos. In the Laura Johannes article, we learn that even high-ranking physicians can fall prey to credulous thinking:
“If you take it when you begin to feel ill it really makes a difference,” says Robert Schiller, chairman of family medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. He recommends the homeopathic remedy to many of his patients, but still prescribes antivirals, particularly to patients at high risk for complications from the flu.
This gives me agita.
Here’s my repost:
Today, I have a bone to pick.
In the aftermath of the 2004 US presidential election, I had to cancel my subscription to The Nation just because I got so depressed about negative news coming into every conduit of my house.
Ode is a Dutch-based mag that offers original and reprinted stories describing where people and ideas are working around the world to create positive change. From their mission statement: “We publish stories that bridge the gap between thinking and doing, between rage and hope, and the painful gap between the rich and the poor. By doing so we build peace and sustainability.”
Cool. A breath of fresh air when everyone is screaming at one another. And, largely, Ode succeeds. Until this issue, when I ran screaming from my mailbox like Steve Martin in The Jerk.
In the January 2006 issue, Kim Ridley offers an overview of homeopathy as “a healing idea whose time has come – again?” The article does wisely posit, “Is homeopathy a 200-year-old hoax, or a powerful paradigm for healing?” But the cover statement (above) that homeopathic remedies produced much higher survival rates than conventional medicine during the 1918 influenza pandemic is poorly substantiated in a related article. More disturbingly, an Indian homeopath who uses these remedies to treat cancer is quoted as saying, “The only things I don’t approve of are chemo and radiation.”
Together with surgery, I know of no two other modalities that HAVE been shown conclusively to produce long-term cancer remissions (I hate to use the word ‘cure’). Yet the article irresponsibly provides further details on how to seek this ‘healer’ who claims to have cured 80 percent of cancers over the last 10 years.
Homeopathy is a late 1700s/early 1800s practice of using extremely dilute preparations, largely of plant extracts and toxic metals, to treat diseases based upon the so-called ‘law of similars’. The philosophy that ‘like cures like’ was first espoused by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann who took high, conventional doses of plant medicines, observed the symptoms produced, and then used extremely dilute versions of the same plant to treat diseases that produced similar symptoms. For example, the vomit-inducing syrup of ipecac is offered in an extremely dilute form as a homeopathic treatment for any disorder where the patient is experiencing vomiting.
Where homeopathy is most controversial is in the claim that a remedy becomes more potent as it is diluted. Even experts quoted cannot account for how this is scientifically possible, although some invoke a sort of “quantum physics” change in the structure of water. Hmmm.
More erudite fellow bloggers have already commented more concisely on the implausibility of homeopathy. Even the British journal The Lancet, one of the most alternative medicine-friendly among high-impact conventional medical journals, published results last year of a meta-analysis demonstrating that homeopathy is no better than placebo.
But where I object further is when photographs of herbal medicines are placed within an article on homeopathy as is done throughout this issue of Ode.
Herbal medicine is NOT homeopathy.
Herbal medicine and the use of pure chemical constituents from plants still subscribe to dose-response pharmacology: that the biological response varies in direct proportion to the dose or concentration of the remedy. While some medicinal plants are used as a source for homeopathic treatments, the rationale for dosing in medicine vs. homeopathy are diametrically opposed. Lumping together herbal medicine with homeopathy gives the former practice the same air of impossibility and detracts from the demonstrated benefits and future promise of using plants as a source of novel therapeutic molecules.
Many would love to see homeopathy proven as an effective medical practice. What’s not to like: non-existent doses of a remedy that cure diseases without any side effects.
Anecdotes abound. Show me the data. Until then, I find homeopathy difficult to swallow.