Some articles I’ve come across recently about homeopathy that have caught my eye. One was about claims that homeopathy could prevent measles (homeoprophylaxis); another was about the Canadian government funding an aid mission to Honduras involving a delegation of homeopaths claiming to cure Chagas disease and other infectious diseases.
Not just a herbal product
There is plenty of pseudoscience in the world, and homeopathy is a prime example. It may be promoted as a natural remedy, but I suspect most people aren’t aware of how quacky it is.
On the surface, it sounds like a natural, plant-based treatment, like the herbal products filling the shelves at any pharmacy. Except it’s a whole lot weirder when you take a closer look at the ideas underpinning it. I first heard about this when I was in pharmacy school back in the day, and I remember at the time thinking it had to be a joke.
The fundamentals of homeopathy
Homeopathy is based on the idea that like cures like, so substances that produce certain symptoms in a healthy person would relieve those same symptoms in a sick person. The founder of homeopathy, Samual Hahnemann, proposed that diseases are caused by “miasms”, and treating the symptoms rather than the underlying miasm would only make the condition worse. He also proposed that a negative state of mind would attract these miasms. Hello law of attraction!
Homeopathic remedies are created by repeatedly diluting the substance with water or alcohol, with the idea that the more it is diluted the more potent it is and the stronger the therapeutic effect it has. That’s right, the more diluted, the greater the potency. Except that it’s diluted so much that there are likely no longer any molecules of the original substance to be found in the remedy. How does that work?
Shake shake shake
That’s where the memory of water comes in as a proposed explanation. Say what? With each dilution, the preparation is vigorously shaken (referred to as succussion). This supposedly causes the water molecules to retain a memory of the substance.
Hahnemann used a C-scale is used to denote the number of dilutions. He recommended 30C dilutions for most purposes, which works out to 1 part substance in 1060 parts of the solution. In case you’re interested, that’s one molecule of the original substance to a novemdecillion molecules of diluent, or:
Certain homeopathic products have ended up being made at a dilution level that actually did result in molecules of the original substance being present, including poisonous substances like arsenic, causing serious adverse effects. Oops!
The homeopathic measles prevention remedy mentioned in the CBC story uses nosodes. These come from products of a diseased human or animal, including pus, blood, feces, and other tissue. According to the CBC, Health Canada has a lengthy list of nosodes that are authorized for use in Canada. If I was interested in water with poop-memory then my toilet would do the job just fine.
The role of government
When it comes to all things health-related, it should be the government’s job to protect people from their own unawareness (or stupidity). “Remedies” that fly in the face of the fundamental principles of science do not belong in health care, particularly in government-funded foreign aid.
I’m not against natural products in general. But pseudoscience sticks in my craw, and homeopathy is one of the wackier examples. Anyone suggesting that this snake oil can be used to prevent serious infectious diseases could use some good head-shaking, perhaps with some poop-memory-water. I believe governments need to be more proactive in regulating homeopathic products so that their labels clearly indicate their pseudoscientific basis. If nothing else, products that have been shaken with pus, blood, and feces need labels to let people know what they’re signing up for. Personally, I’m going to pass.
Note: Since I wrote this post the Canadian government has announced it’s cutting off funding to the quacky contingent. It’s nice to see when governments decide to do the sensible thing.
The Science Corner has info on media & research literacy, fake news, public health, and debunking pseudoscience.