The Australian National Heath and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has released a paper concluding “there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective". The paper is still in draft; if homeopathy advocates are going to get it changed they have until May 26 to come up with something better than what they have been turning out for the last two centuries.
The NHMRC's primary role is funding medical research, providing most of the grants for Australian medical scientists. However, it also sometimes conducts inquiries into issues such as the effectiveness of certain treatments or the health implications of particular practices. These do not do primary research, but summarise and examine existing studies to a standard seldom achieved elsewhere.
The NHMRC initiated the study to answer the question “Is homeopathy an effective treatment for health conditions, compared with no homeopathy, or compared to other treatments?”
In response to outrage from homeopaths, the NHMRC established the Homeopathy Working Committee to provide guidance on the best methods for conducting the study. In addition to figures such as Professor Frederick Mendelsohn, one of Australia’s leading neuroscientists, the committee included two specialists in Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, Professor Peter Brooks and Dr Evelin Tiralongo, whose history clearly refutes any notion that they are biased against ideas outside the medical mainstream.
The review looked at 68 conditions for which homeopathic products are marketed, ranging from asthma and flu to cholera and heroin addiction. Strangely it did not include traumatic injuries resulting from being struck by large moving vehicles.
“No good-quality, well-designed studies with enough participants for a meaningful result reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than a substance with no effect on the health condition (placebo), or that homeopathy caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment,” the report's summary states.
However, showing true scientific caution the report distinguishes between conditions where research is extensive and high quality, and therefore they can definitively rule out homeopathy's effectiveness, and those where the evidence is more sparse. In the latter case it merely concludes there is no evidence homeopathy works better than placebos.
The report has been welcomed by the Australian Medical Association and the group Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM), which campaigns against the use of unsubstantiated products. So far homeopathy lobby groups do not appear to have responded, but no doubt will produce something similar to the allegations of bias and bullying they trotted out when the study was commissioned.
Advocates of homeopathy claim that it “treats the whole person”. Homeopathy practitioners often have much better bedside manner than conventionally trained doctors, but the treatment always seems to come down to the use of incredibly dilute products, many of which would be harmful in higher concentrations, mixed in with very expensive water or sugar.
Unlike the 2010 UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee evaluation, the NHMRC review achieved its conclusions without considering the mode of action by which homeopathy is claimed operates – one that is in contradiction to both logic and testable theories of chemical behavior.
The study excluded questions of whether homeopathic products might be unsafe as a result of impurities, such as those that lead to the recent withdrawal of numerous Terra-Medica products.
One area that was not investigated was the use of homeopathy for protection, including homeopathic “vaccines”. FSM co-founder Professor John Dwyer of the University of New South Wales told The Guardian that these particularly concern him. “In my point of view as an immunologist, the most serious issue was the spreading of the concept that homeopathic vaccinations were harmless and just as good as orthodox vaccinations. People who believe that are not protecting themselves and their children,”
While it can sometimes seem that reports such as this fail to have an impact on use of bogus treatments, since the House of Commons report one of the four homeopathic hospitals in the UK has closed and expenditure on homeopathic products is thought to be in decline.