Policy and Legislation Traditional Medicine

Homeopathy is ‘not effective’

OPINION: Internationally, homeopathy faces cuts in state subsidies because of question-marks about its efficacy. South Africa should follow suit, as this complementary medicine is based on an ‘€œabsurd premise’€, argues Dr. Mark Colvin

After a five-year trial, the Swiss Government recently withdrew health insurance coverage for homeopathy and four other complementary treatments because they did not meet efficacy and cost-effectiveness criteria.

A few months ago, the West Kent local authority in the UK decided to stop British National Health Insurance (NHS) funding for the Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital because there was ‘€œnot enough evidence of clinical effectiveness’€.

NHS funding for the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital has also been cut.

Over the last 10 years there have been numerous reviews on the efficacy of homeopathy in international medical journals. The general conclusion is that the benefits of homeopathic medications are no more than that of placebos. In other words, any beneficial effects are explained by the psychological impact of the practitioner-patient relationship with no added value contributed by homeopathic pills.

This finding should come as no surprise because the very premise of homeopathy is absurd. In brief, its practitioners believe that, by infinitely diluting a chemical in water or alcohol, they are able to ‘€œpotentize’€ the water such that it now has healing properties.

This ‘€œpotentizing’€ is apparently enhanced by vigourous shaking or ‘€œsuccussion’€. By their own admissions, homeopaths cannot explain how this process could possibly work but, instead, have faith in it and hope for an explanation at sometime in the future.

In western medicine, there is an understanding at a molecular level as to how most medications work. We know, for example, how insulin influences the uptake of glucose by our cell walls. We know how antibiotics attack the metabolic processes of bacteria and we know how antiretrovirals stop the replication of HIV. Why is it that over 200 years after the founding of homeopathy, homeopaths still cannot explain how any of their medications work and instead revert to vague and mysterious terms such as ‘€œsuccussion’€ and ‘€œpotentizing’€?

Adherents to western medicine are not resistant to complementary approaches to health care because, after all, many western medicines are derived from plants. But any claim to heal or alleviate symptoms must be proven by scientifically acceptable methods.

For example, the Chinese have been using an extract from the Artemisia annua plant to treat fevers for over 2000 years. Clinical trials have shown that this extract is an effective anti-malarial drug and we also know how it works against the malaria parasite at a molecular level. This drug is now an accepted form of treatment for malaria.

But the same cannot be said for homeopathy. Over 40 years ago an American, James Randi, offered US$ 100 000 (now swollen to 1 million dollars) to anybody who could show an effect using homeopathic medications under controlled conditions. His money is still safe, with not a single provable effect demonstrated to date.

Homeopathy is often used to treat conditions that typically have a cyclical nature such as many forms of arthritis, chronic dermatitis or asthma. With these diseases, any remission can be attributed to whatever treatment is being taken at the time — whether it is a homeopathic medication or the chants of a shaman. In contrast, when faced with a life threatening illness such as insulin dependent diabetes, pneumonia or TB, even the most ardent homeopath will revert to western medications.

So if the very premise of homeopathy is nonsensical and there is no evidence of efficacy beyond a placebo effect, why is homeopathy accorded recognition by health authorities?

In an era of ‘€œevidence-based medicine’€ and limited resources, why do we have government-subsidized schools of homeopathy at our health science faculties? Is it not time to drop the politically correct approach of being gentle on homeopathy and instead expose it for what it is?

Any new medication has to go through stringent evaluation before it can be sold on the market. Why not the same for homeopathic medications?

Internationally there is a growing recognition that approaches that claim to have beneficial health effects must be substantiated scientifically. Maybe we should follow suit and seriously review the contribution that homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine have, or do not have, towards improving human health.

* Colvin is Director of Maromi Health Research. He has 20 years experience in research into public health issues.

Please Note: The above article is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of Health-e. We are open to publishing contributions that will stimulate debate.

Related articles:

Homeopathy is more than medicine by Dr. Neil Gower

Homeopathy is working by Dr. Richard Steele

About the author

Dr. Mark Colvin