Archive for February, 2011

Homeopathy, Unethical Quackery

February 5, 2011

Homeopathy was first developed in the late 1700’s by Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor critical of the medical practice in his day. He had some quite legitimate criticisms. The state of medicine was dismal, poisonous and toxic “cures”, poor hygiene, bloodletting, and other treatments based on poor or no science abounded. These Hahnemann termed “allopathic medicine“, which has come to be a pejorative term for all evidence-based practice or “modern medicine”. As an alternative Hahnemann proposed the “law of similars”, a notion that substances that cause illness at normal concentrations can cure similar symptoms when given in highly diluted concentrations. For example caffeine is often given in highly dilute form to fight insomnia. How dilute you might ask, by the homeopaths own admission not a single molecule of the original substance remains in homeopathic preparations. This is all according to “law of infinitesimals”. A typical homeopathic preparation is 30c which is not 1 part in 30 rather 1 part in 10030! This means that ten ml of the original substance was mixed with a liter of water, then a drop of that resulting solution is mixed with a fresh liter of water, a drop of that solution is mixed with a fresh liter of water and so on, 30 times. At the point that the dilution process reaches about 12c there is only a chance that a single molecule of the original substance remains. Homeopaths explain this it is not a problem because “water has a memory” and through the shaking or “succussion” of the solution at each step of the dilution process the water molecules will retain a imprint of the original substance. Funny thing is that past a 14c dilution it is unlikely that even a single molecule of the original water used for the 1c solution remains. And as others have amusingly noted “If water has a memory then homeopathy is full of crap.”

At this point the solution has been diluted well past the Avogadro Limit, you will not find a single molecule of the original substance left. So what makes people think homeopathy actually works? Three factors can explain this, the placebo effect, regression to the mean, and post hoc reasoning. Homeopathy is often used for self-limiting illness, conditions that would likely have altered their course regardless of action. When someone gets a sprained ankle, uses homeopathic arnica gel and pills and rests for a couple days they are likely going to feel better, but no more than if they had a couple beers and rested instead. To get around this issue of personal bias researchers preform large scale studies, with the most rigorous body of research pointing to homeopathy being no more effective than sugar pills, this makes sense considering all they literally are is sugar pills.

So whats the harm if they are just sugar pills? Well homeopathy proponents often go as far to generally shun much of modern medicine to the point that homeopathic and other alternative medical “cures” for things such AIDS, cancer, malaria, and other serious diseases abound. When people put faith in homeopathy they may avoid proper and necessary medical care for themselves or a loved one, sadly many children have died as a result of the pseudo-scientific beliefs of their parents. People squander limited money and time on homeopathy, and in the case of many illnesses time can be critical. Not only do individuals squander resources on homeopathy but also entire businesses and governments, whether through their own beliefs or in order to pander to their constituency or consumer base. The resources put toward homeopathy could be far better served elsewhere such as in personal savings or insurance and improving or extending health care coverage rather than doling out sugar pills.

That all being said their are some things about homeopathy of special concern to vegans. First off, most homeopathic pills and tablets are not vegan, they contain lactose as a base, there are a few brands out there that use just sucrose but they are not that widely available, locatose-free liquid preparations are also available in some places if you must.

Secondly there are many preparations that use an animal derived ingredient, obscured by latin names, as the original substance, one very popular example of this is Oscillococcinum, a remedy made using the liver and heart of a Muscovy Duck diluted to 200c. If you still chose to use homeopathy you may want to take a course in latin and be careful to check labels.

A third concern is the continued imprisonment and killing of animals in the testing of homeopathy, despite claims to the contrary homeopathic medications are often the subject of cruel experiments such as:

  • In Rome, Italy, rats had blood injected into their feet to cause inflammation, then were dosed with the homeopathic anti-inflammatory Trumeel S and bled five hours later to assess response.
  • In Baroda, India, rats were poisoned with lead at various doses, then given two homeopathic drugs to assess response.
  • In Sao Paulo, Brazil, rats were fed a diet conducive to tooth decay to evaluate the effect of homeopathic medicines on their teeth.
  • At the University of Kalyani, India, liver cancer was induced in mice to assess treatment with homeopathic drugs.
  • In Melbourne, Australia, 52 mice were used to establish a lethal dose of hydrochloride injected into the abdomen; then 158 more mice were similarly injected to assess a homeopathic treatment.
  • In Bethesda, Maryland, 142 mice were infected with the lethal bacterium Francisella tularensis and observed for how long it took them to die with or without homeopathic doses of the bacterium.
  • In Rehovot, Israel, chronic wounds were inflicted on the ears of mice using dental wire, which was left hanging to cause persistent mechanical irritation. Wound size was measured daily with and without homeopathic treatment.

Given the total lack of scientific plausibility and mountain of evidence against homeopathy it is a wonder these proposals even make it past the Animal Care and Use Committee, in fact it makes me question the integrity of those very bodies.

The last concern is the use of homeopathy in veterinary medicine. As with children, when you are making a medical decision for a canine or feline friend you are responsible for that choice being based upon the best science and most accurate information. To attempt to treat a serious medical problem in a companion animal with clearly ineffective “medicine” is not a choice one can make ethically.

All I have left to say is in my book homeopathy isn’t vegan, it’s 100% bull crap!

Further resources:  Skeptvet – The Science of Homeopathy


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