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Exploring the failings of homeopathic medicine

At the recent McGill conference, “Confronting Pseudo-science, A Call to Action,” James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation began his presentation by downing an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills. He then continued his presentation without so much as a yawn, despite the supposed effects of dozens of pills floating through his body. This anticlimactic demonstration raises the question: what exactly was in those sleeping pills?

As it turns out, not much. The basic theory of homeopathy was established in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. He believed that all disease was caused by an imbalance of the body’s “humours.” Homeopathy supposedly addresses this imbalance with the principle that “like cures like,” treating specific pathological symptoms with ingredients thought to cause those symptoms. The idea behind homeopathy is that extremely small doses of ingredients would be able to cure symptoms that would be caused by large doses of the same ingredient.

This minute dosage is the fundamental scientific problem with homeopathy. Homeopathic medicine operates under the premise that smaller doses have larger effects, and achieves these small doses through a process of dilution. Homeopathy has its own logarithmic nomenclature to refer to these dilutions, with a 1/10 dilution known as a 1X, and a 1/100 dilution known as a 1C, or 2X, dilution. To prepare a homeopathic remedy, one part of a specific active ingredient is dissolved in 99 parts water. One part of that resulting solution is further diluted in 99 parts water (a 2C solution), continuing this process until the desired concentration is reached. Many commercially available remedies contain concentrations of 30X, and some products even contain dilutions of up to 200C.

The problem is that at these concentrations, it is exceedingly unlikely that even a single molecule of the original active ingredient is left in the pills. Given that all matter is composed of molecules, the minimum concentration of any solution would be one molecule for a given volume. A 30X dilution would correspond to a concentration of one molecule of active ingredient in 1030 molecules of water. Just for a concentration of 30X, the necessary container of water that size would weigh about 180 tonnes. In reality, it is almost certain that most homeopathic remedies contain none of the active ingredients they are described to contain and actually consist of simple sugar pills.

The Science Committee of the British House of Commons, on a recent review of homeopathic claims, stated that, “homeopathy is nothing more than an elaborate placebo that is theoretically weak and scientifically implausible.” However, this fact has not stopped Health Canada from officially recognizing homeopathic medicine as a valid natural health care product. Health Canada supposedly has standards for natural health care products, including demonstrations of safety from clinical trials, but in the case of homeopathic regulation, the standards are different. Uniquely, the homeopathic industry is allowed to submit evidence from a 200 year-old collection of books produced by the homeopaths themselves! There isn’t even a requirement for double-blind clinical studies, which is the minimum requirement for conventional drugs before they ever make the market.

This “regulation” of homeopathy allows these products to be sold in drug stores all across Canada, in the same aisles as drugs that have proven pharmacological effects beyond a placebo. As a placebo, homeopathic medicine has similar effects to other medicines for everyday drug needs such as pain relief, headaches and nausea. This therapeutic power is simply from the psychological effects of taking a pill. For those purposes, there is little harm in homeopathic remedies – besides all that money spent on sugar pills.

Unfortunately, the curative claims made by homeopaths extend beyond symptoms that tend to go away on their own. A recent CBC investigation into homeopathic medicine found that some practitioners claimed that they could cure ailments as diverse as diabetes, hypertension, eczema, autism, and even cancer. It is here that the claims of homeopaths take a turn from harmless lies into criminal negligence. The survival rate of many types of cancer is based on how soon chemotherapy and surgery begin after the disease is detected, and the exclusive use of homeopathic medicine can only serve to delay that critical point.

In some cases, the choice to exclusively use homeopathic medicine is not even the choice of the victim. Such was the case with Gloria Thomas Sam, the infant daughter of an Australian homeopath. Gloria contracted a routine case of eczema, which is easily treatable by conventional medicine, but her parents decided to administer homeopathic medicine instead. As a result of this decision, her parents condemned her to months of constant pain, crying and scratching before she died at just nine months old. The parents were convicted of manslaughter as a result of this negligence, but her father continues to believe in homeopathic medicine.

Homeopaths have been given a free pass by the Canadian government to continue making millions of dollars by selling glorified sugar pills masquerading as legitimate drugs to unsuspecting consumers. At best, these little pills do nothing besides make your wallet lighter, but at worst they lead to preventable suffering and death. Perhaps it is about time that Canadian consumers leave this quack medicine back in the 18th century where it belongs.

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