It has recently emerged that the government of Canada is providing 350,000 Canadian dollars ($263,000) of foreign aid to homeopathic organization Terre Sans Frontières to provide “treatment” against a tropical illness known as Chagas disease in Honduras. Equal contributions have been given to similar projects in Bolivia and Tanzania.
Homeopathy is a belief system that's not based on scientific evidence. The practice relies on two premises: they believe that water has memory (rejecting the idea that water is made of molecules) and that the more diluted a substance is, the more potent it becomes. Finally, they believe that “likes cure likes” – that is, if a substance creates a similar effect as an illness, then it can cure you of said illness.
"There was no reliable evidence from research in humans that homeopathy was effective for treating the range of health conditions considered: no good-quality, well-designed studies with enough participants for a meaningful result reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than placebo, or caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment," the 2015 comprehensive assessment of evidence by the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council states.
The subsidy given by the Canadian government was for a five-year period ending in 2020. Dr Zain Chagla from McMaster University thinks it is time for the government to review this fund.
"I really do believe this is a wake-up call," Dr Chagla, who has training in tropical medicine, told CBC news. "There is no evidence that what they're using is anything more than diluted water. It's a placebo, and we're talking about a disease that can again kill and cause a significant amount of scarring down the line."
Chagas disease, also known as American trypanosomiasis, is a condition caused by an insect-transmitted parasite that affects 6 to 7 million people worldwide, mostly in Latin America. It is potentially life-threatening, but it is perfectly curable if treatment is initiated quickly. Even treatment during the chronic phase can prevent or curb disease progression. If the parasite is left untreated, the condition can lead to heart problems in 30 percent of patients, while up to 10 percent develop digestive, neurological, or mixed changes.
The parasite was previously present only in wild animals, but due to domestication, it has spread to cattle and then people. Given it is still so common in wild animals, it cannot be eradicated. The only option as of now is to reduce transmission as much as possible and to provide early treatment. Given these facts, there is no scientific evidence to support the Canadian government's decision to provide financial support to a treatment that does not work.
The World Health Organization has been rallying against the use of homeopathy for a long time – a decade ago, they warned against the use of it for serious conditions. This warning fell on deaf ears as many governments continue to subsidize the unfounded practice. And if you think homeopathy is some underdog that “big pharma” is trying to squash, you might be interested to know that the industry is expected to be worth $17 billion dollars by 2024. That’s roughly the current GDP of Qatar.