Despite the NHS stating that “homeopathy performs no better than placebos”, support for the practice still prevails. The reason why may be that two small, but important, subgroups in the UK support it: the Royal family and some members of the political establishment.
Not only is homeopathy unsafe and ineffective, but with the support of the Royals such as the Queen and the secret lobbying of Prince Charles in favour of funding it on the NHS, it also has the potential to cause a ridiculous constitutional crisis. And by gaining more influence within political circles, the chances of it being included on the NHS are higher than ever.
The Queen has had a homeopath by royal appointment for quite some time. Her royal dispenser, Peter Fisher of the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, hasn’t exactly shied away from lobbying the government to provide homeopathy on the NHS – despite much of his own profession being opposed to the idea and calling for it to be banned.
His attempts may have also extended as far as causing Edzard Ernst, the UK’s preeminent scholar of evidence-based approaches to alternative medicine, to lose his job.
The second group that seems to favour homeopathy, more than the general public, is a subset of our own elected government. David Tredinnick, a Conservative MP for Bosworth and a member of the Commons health select committee, was known affectionately in the House as “the honourable member for Holland & Barret”, due to his support for alternative medicines.
The current health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is also quite fond of homeopathy. In 2014 he asked the chief medical officer (CMO) to commission expert reviews of three homeopathic remedies. Clearly he hadn’t noticed that the CMO’s publicly expressed belief was that homeopathy is “rubbish”.
Even when we cross the floor of the House, the outlook doesn’t improve. Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, has stated his support for homeopathy on Twitter. He says he believes they work because both drugs and “homeo-meds” come from organic matter.
Corbyn has also signed various parliamentary motions in favour of homeopathy, such as advocating NHS homeopathy hospitals.
A lack of scientific grounding
It should not be a shock to learn that homeopathy has no basis in scientific fact – should anyone doubt this I invite them to peruse Edzard Ernst’s systematic review of the practice.
Homeopaths have gone to incredible lengths to avoid having their air guitar of medicine tested in any rigorous fashion. Instead, they have created their own self-justifying means of establishing that it works. They call this “homeopathic proving”.
A “proving” typically involves a dozen people, who will take a homeopathic remedy and record their thoughts, feelings and even dreams. These diaries are then used to “discover” what the remedy can supposedly cure.
Homeopathy gone wrong
Proponents of homeopathy will often try to market their remedies with the dual claim that they are both effective and safe. There are many who will shrug their shoulders at those who condemn the practice - “it doesn’t do any harm”, they say, “so why bother?”
Sadly, there are many cases where homeopathy, or at least people’s belief in its supposed healing powers, has caused very real and serious harm. Websites such as Whats the harm? list all kinds of cases where homeopaths have misdiagnosed, mistreated and in some cases even poisoned their patients.
The tragic case of Russell Jenkins is a prime example of homeopathy gone wrong. Shunning conventional medical advice in favour of homeopathy, Jenkins died from gangrene caused by a minor injury sustained after standing on a plug.
There are also a depressing number of cases involving the completely unnecessary harm, and even death, of children. Isabella Denley, an epileptic toddler from Australia, died after her parents ditched the anti-convulsant medication she had been prescribed in favour of homeopathic remedies. Her parents believed they were doing the best for their child.
Also in Australia, a Sydney couple were found guilty of manslaughter after their nine-month-old baby died from ill health caused by eczema, after they used homeopathy rather than traditional remedies.
In Rome an Italian couple were investigated for the manslaughter of their sick three-year-old son, who died after being treated at home with exclusively homeopathic medicine.
Aside from the bogus treatments offered, the frequent undermining of genuine medical advice that some homeopaths engage in is dangerous, particularly when it comes to vaccination.
In the past, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has criticised homeopaths for offering (what they erroneously claim) are “safe alternatives” to vaccinations for diseases such as typhoid, polio and malaria.
Ernst and fellow researcher Katja Schmidt conducted a covert study to expose the scale of this problem. They found that out of 77 homeopathic practitioners who responded, only two had advised a child should be immunised. The others were content to adopt an anti-vaccination stance and advise parents to choose homeopathic remedies instead. Such advice has had severe implications for public health in the past.
In short, the idea that homeopathy is “safe” is as tenuous a claim as the delusion that it is effective. Far from being harmless, a belief in the magical powers of water’s memory can seriously damage your health.
Top image Credit: Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, CC BY-ND