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German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), the founding father of homeopathy. Image/Getty

How homeopathy can harm

The experts weigh in on homeopathy.

Medical science has consistently found homeopathy wanting as a medicine. In 2015, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council reviewed a total of 225 studies and concluded there were no health conditions for which there was reliable evidence that homeopathy was effective. “No good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants for a meaningful result reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than placebo, or caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment.”

The report concluded: “Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.”

In 2017, the UK’s Specialist Pharmacy Service updated the Australian review, searching for systematic reviews published since the 2015 report. Its conclusions were, essentially, that no new trials changed the conclusion of the 2015 review.

There is an excellent website, whatstheharm.net, that lists individual cases where there have been significant side effects (including death) of ineffective products and procedures used for medical issues. In 2009, Dr David Shaw published a discussion of five “unethical effects” of homeopathy in the British Medical Journal (Journal of Medical Ethics).

Harm resulting from a homeopathic consultation can include:

Being encouraged to avoid vaccination. There have been successful ASA (Advertising Standards Authority UK) complaints against homeopathic “vaccinations” that are not actually vaccinations.

Deciding to delay effective medical treatments and diagnosis.  This could explain why studies from Norway, Japan and Korea, among others, have reported higher mortality rates and lower quality of life for cancer patients who pursue complementary and alternative medicine.

Engendering of false hope for currently incurable or intractable conditions such as autism and late-stage cancer, and migraine. Real hope involves realistic planning, and this can be neglected if someone has false hope.

Problems caused by less diluted versions of highly toxic substances. One example is arsenic bromide, which is sold at a dilution of only 1 in 10 (Journal of Clinical Toxicology 2003). Scientific American also reported in 2017 that hundreds of babies in the US suffered serious medical events after taking a homeopathic product, Hyland’s Teething Tablets. There are plenty more examples online.

Money (both public and private) being diverted from treatments that have been proven to be effective. Patients being deceived, according to Shaw. If they are not deceived, he suggests, the placebo effect (the only benefit) is lost. Any proven medicine will have already taken the placebo effect into account.

A weakening of confidence in medicine and science in general, which according to Shaw happens when homeopathy has official recognition and support.

Read more:  Why is public money going into homeopathy courses?

The ups and downs of homeopathy around the world

Homeopathy is in decline in:

Germany

Homeopathy originated in Germany around 1796, at a time when many doctors were truly harming their patients. Bloodletting, for example, was prevalent, and has probably killed millions of people over several millennia. The head of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV), which represents 150,000 doctors and psychotherapists in Germany, said recently that health insurance companies should no longer fund homeopathic services. There are some 7000 homeopathic “doctors” registered in Germany today.

Dr Edzard Ernst is a German-born doctor who began his medical career in a homeopathic hospital where he was “taken by homeopathy”. Later, he investigated its efficacy and became a campaigner againist it, opposing public funding of the practice. Natalie Grams is another German doctor and former homeopath who intended to write a book defending the practice – and then found herself convinced by the evidence opposing it. She documented her experience in her book Homeopathy Reconsidered.

Switzerland

In June 2005, the Swiss Government, after a five-year trial, withdrew insurance coverage for homeopathy and four other alternative treatments, stating that they did not meet efficacy and cost-effectiveness criteria. However, following the result of a referendum in 2009, the five therapies were reinstated for a further trial period.

Britain

Homeopathy has been in steady decline in the UK. In 2017, the NHS decided to stop funding homeopathic medicine. A legal challenge was brought by the British Homeopathic Association. It failed. Several homeopathy hospitals have been closed.

France

The French have been able to claim the cost of homeopathy through social security. From 2021, they will no longer be reimbursed. The French Haute Autorité de Santé (HAS) considered the evidence and said: “These [homeopathic] drugs have not demonstrated scientifically sufficient effectiveness to justify a refund.”

Homeopathy is doing okay in:

India

According to the Homeopathy Research Institute (HRI) website, 100 million Indians depend solely on homeopathy for their healthcare, with “over 200,000 registered homeopathic doctors currently, with approximately 12,000 more being added every year.” The homeobook.com website claims there are 195 undergraduate colleges for homeopathy in India and 43 for post-graduate education. In 2018, the Times of India reported a planned reform of the government’s Central Council of Homeopathy to better “regulate and standardise homeopathy education and treatment in the country”.

Mexico

Homeopathy is integrated into the country’s public healthcare system.

Austria

Public insurance requires scientific proof of effectiveness in order to reimburse medical treatments, but exceptions are made for homeopathy.

Spain

University degrees in homeopathy are still possible, but the government announced plans in November 2018 to “protect” the public against what they describe as “pseudo therapies”, including homeopathy and acupuncture.

USA

In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission recommended the Food and Drug Administration consider greater regulation of homeopathic products. However, it remains a $3 billion industry in the US, where manufacturers have enough financial clout to hire lawyers and lobby politicians.

New Zealand

Homeopaths seem to be thriving here, thanks to state support for colleges such as the one examined in this article.

This article is part of the feature, Why is public money going into homeopathy courses?, first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more feature stories.