Homeopathy: a reliable alternative to conventional medicine or sugary pills coated in a layer of placebo?
The money at play in the homeopathy industry (over one billion annually in Europe) mean that the arguments for (Fionnuala Halpin) and against (Carol Hunt) can get heated...
Homeopathy has become big business. In Europe alone, we spend over one billion annually on it. In the US, it's twice that amount.
Homeopathic remedies will claim to cure whatever ails you: from colds and flu to asthma and migraine. Even better, they're natural, aren't they?
Which has to be healthier than all those dodgy chemical compounds the pharmaceutical industry make so many billions from?
But homeopathy is not herbalism - it is not so-called "natural medicine".
It is instead, a "medical" remedy founded in 1796 by a German called Samuel Hahnemann (pictured above).
Hahnemann believed that the underlying causes of disease were phenomena that he termed "miasms" and that his homeopathic remedies - diluted repeated until no molecules of the original substance remained - addressed and cured them.
These "original substances" are strange to say the least. The "active ingredient" Oscillococcinum, for instance, "for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms", is prepared by "incubating small amounts of a freshly killed duck's liver and heart for 40 days".
Thankfully, the "dilutions" ensure that the homeopathy ends up being just water, a less harmful alternative to blistering and blood-letting - the other favoured medical methods of the day which more than likely explains initial enthusiasm for these pills.
Unlike much of medical intervention back then, they wouldn't kill you. And if you recovered naturally, the pills could claim the credit.
Most homeopathic pills are made entirely of sugar, but the pills are supposed to retain a "memory" of the original substance. This, as any person educated in medicine or science will tell you, is complete and utter bunkum.
But - as the billions spent on homeopathic remedies show - there are a lot of people who believe these pills work, despite the fact that time after time scientific studies - the proper kind, double-blinded with lots of empirical, verifiable evidence that have been repeatedly peer-reviewed - have proven that homeopathic pills are no better than placebos.
Not only that, but as America's National Institute of Health has pointed out, "several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics".
The most recent report comes from government-funded scientific research in New Zealand. [Not funded by so-called "big pharma"].
After reviewing 1,800 studies on the health effects of homeopathy, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) scientists say there is no reliable evidence to back its [homeopathy's] effectiveness.
"There is no good-quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy works better than a placebo," the NHMRC report said.
It also added that "homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are serious or could become serious".
And yet, intelligent, sensible people trying to do the best for themselves and their children still continue to use these little snake-oil pills. Why?
Writing about this, philosopher Stephen Law (author of Believing Bullshit) explained how phenomena such as "piling up the anecdotes" (it cured my daughter's migraine and my sister's asthma); "playing the mystery card" (science doesn't have the answer to everything, you know); and asserting that "all the evidence fits" (so many people use homeopathy and swear by it, it can't be wrong) can all combine to drag us into something akin to a psychological flytrap.
"Well, it works for me" is what I hear repeatedly from people who are sworn disciples. Well, yes, that would be the placebo effect.
"No, it's not", they say. "It's more than that. I gave some to my kids when they were sick and it cured them too."
Well, chances were they were going to improve anyway - that's called the "regression to the mean".
Some people get very upset when I try to tell them that I don't subscribe to the homeopathic belief system, that I like my medicine science-based and proven to cure whatever ailment I'm taking it for.
I've been accused of being materialistic, soulless, condescending, small-minded and in thrall to 'big pharma' amongst other, less printable things.
It never fails to astonish me how much like a strange religious belief homeopathy can be. One that is essentially a great big fraud.
This week in the British Journal of Medicine, Dr Peter Fisher, director of research at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, took on Dr Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter in a debate about homeopathy.
Fisher argued that homeopathy is "part of a family of toxicological and pharmacological phenomena" that are "characterised by secondary, reverse, or paradoxical reactions to drugs or toxins as a function of dose or time or both".
But, as Dr Ernst repeatedly emphasised "such a theory would require the very laws of nature to be invalidated, since the 'active' substance utilised in a homeopathic treatment is usually diluted to the point of nonexistence".
So far, he argues, all published studies which support homeopathy's effectiveness are weak, poorly conducted, biased studies paid for by supporters of the remedies.
While Ernst says he "doesn't wish to strip away the ability for patients to choose the treatment options that they want", he does emphasise the need for medical professionals to be honest about homeopathy's track record.
"Therefore, it seems unreasonable, even unethical, for healthcare professionals to recommend its use," he concluded.
Yet, they still do. Despite the fact that depending on a magic pill to cure an illness can prove dangerous to your health.
Some parents are encouraged not to vaccinate their children but instead use homeopathic "nosodes" and homeopathic charities attempt to treat diseases like Ebola, malaria or Aids with their sugar pills.
Many preventable deaths and serious illnesses have been caused by the use of homeopathy over real medicine. And qualified, caring, medical experts worldwide are at their wits ends trying to counter the hype and nonsense spread by many in the homeopathy business who are trying to increase the huge profits they make out of their sugar and water pills
Frankly, I'm baffled.
The argument for
So I asked my friend, Fionnuala Halpin - a writer and artist who has often used homeopathy, on herself and on her children - to try to explain to me what it is I am missing? Why does she believe that these little pills can cure illnesses - despite the fact that science has shown, incontrovertibly, this is not the case?
She told me: "When you mention in company that you use homeopathy, you get one of two reactions.
"One is 'yes I use it too, it's great' or the other is a look of contempt spreading across someone's face and they then practically spit at you in disdain.
"'You know they're just sugar pills and scientists have proved that there's nothing in them and you, my dear, (cue patronising tone) have merely benefited from the placebo effect.
"'I, on the other hand...', (they infer) being of a less pliable and suggestible mind than you would not be open to such charlatanism.
"So they would rather trust in big pharma and take expensive conventional medicines and that's fine.
"However, it does work for me and has worked for my children who were too young to be aware of the raging debate."
Warts and all
"The conventional treatment for my sons' warts only ended up burning his skin - homeopathy worked immediately and painlessly. One thing that modern science has discovered is that it's not doing any harm.
"Before you start hyperventilating again (you really should have that looked at), I have had my children immunised - I do think that although it may be a blunt instrument it has wiped out many diseases.
"And I would take antibiotics for a serious infection, no question. Modern medicine definitely has made major breakthroughs.
"It is developing and making breakthroughs all the time. It doesn't know it all however. To quote Hamlet: 'There are more things on heaven and earth than you and I can understand Horatio'.
"And that was before Newton 'discovered' gravity. When I studied science in school it was divided into three subjects, biology chemistry and physics which were so different that we had different teachers for each subject.
"Biology dealt with the body, chemistry with what stuff was made up of and physics seemed to be about energy and space.
"Physics says that energy can neither be created or destroyed only transferred from one place to another.
"It also said that nothing can exist in a vacuum (it can now so it seems). Einstein's discoveries in physics led to the technology that created the atom bomb.
"Yet, all-out scientific tests are done through chemical experiments. Perhaps, as Hamlet observed, there are many things that exist that affect us yet we haven't yet learned to measure or quantify them yet.
"So until that time I'm going to trust the evidence of my own body. The only painkiller I took before and after childbirth on my second child was arnica.
"I've seen my children respond to homeopathy after they suffered asthma attacks and they haven't been afflicted since. That's the only science I need.
"So, to all those who protest that I am a hoodwinked fool for having the temerity to believe that I've cured myself and my children by using homeopathy, guess what? I don't care what you think."