On last week's Futureproof, Jonathan discussed a recent Australian research that reports homeopathy doesn't have any scientific basis.
The meta analysis looked at 225 studies and 1800 papers and of that researchers surprised unequivocally that no "health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective."
Take a listen to the segment below:
Following the programme, a listener (and practicing homeopath) got in touch to express their dismay at how the profession was often "dismissed and vilified" - and Jonathan offered up his response.
Letter from a listener:
I was listening to your show yesterday morning when the presenters started talking about homeopathy. I normally switch off when I hear such patronising, biased and uninformed slating of a medicine system which help millions of people around the world, but I was so angry I had to keep listening.
I have used homeopathy alongside conventional medicine for over 30 years. My children have in fact not had to even visit a GP for over six years as all their ailments seem to be cured by homeopathy - unless of course placebo is that effective! I was so impressed by it I finally decided to study to be a homeopathy myself 5 years ago.
What I would like to point out to your presenters is that never, in all their dismissal of homeopathy, do they seem to take into consideration the homeopaths who practice this particular brand of 'heresy' (heresy according to their own particular view of the world that is). If it is nonsense as they claim, then we are all either stupid, deluded or charlatans who take people's money for something which we know does nothing. I may be many things but I am neither stupid, deluded nor a charlatan as anyone who knows me will verify. Neither are those thousands of doctors and vets who have changed from using conventional medicine to homeopathy. No homeopath or user of homeopathy comes to it from 'belief'. We come to it from trying it, sometimes from curiosity, but often in desperation when other things haven't worked. Then when we see it works we try it again. Then it works again and we try it more often, and it keeps working. Not every time, any more than antibiotics, or any other medicine works every time. But enough, more than enough to make us trust it.
It is hard to choose a profession which is constantly dismissed and vilified. Thousands of us think it's worth it because it can help people get better. And we only know this because we have seen it with our own eyes.
I am under no illusions that this will make any difference to those who for some reason want to 'put the nail in the coffin' of homeopathy as one caller said. I find this level of arrogance and vitriol quite astounding. If you don't want to try homeopathy when you are ill that is your choice, but don't try to prevent others from having a choice as to how they manage their health.
As a matter of good journalistic practice it might be an idea to check out your contention regarding the treatment of cholera that 'no treatment', as you regard the homeopathic treatment, would have resulted in so many recoveries. I very much doubt it, but then I'm only a homeopath. What would I know?
Firstly, thanks so much for listening to the programme. We pride ourselves on accuracy on the station and if there was a factual mistake made, please do let us know, citing high quality independent evidence, and we will of course correct it.
As a broadcaster, it is sometimes difficult to make a call on how to report subjects that are controversial.
As a general rule, journalists will rarely have the breadth of experience or the skills of a qualified scientist or dedicated medical professional.
For that reason, we rely on expert testimony and the evidence presented to us. In this case, the expert testimony and evidence was provided by the NHMRC in Australia via a story in the Guardian:
Homeopathy is not effective for treating any health condition, Australia’s top body for medical research has concluded, after undertaking an extensive review of existing studies.
In it, a meta analysis of 225 homeopathic studies were inspected in detail and not one high quality study was found to support the evidence that homeopathy works above placebo.
While some studies reported homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was poor and suffered serious flaws in their design, and did not have enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy worked any better than a sugar pill, the report found.
In making its findings the NHMRC also analysed 57 systematic reviews, a high-quality type of study that assesses all existing, quality research on a particular topic and synthesises it to make a number of strong, overall findings.
This is in line with the position of the National Health Service in the UK where treatments are no longer offered due to a (from the NHS website):
2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy, which said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos, and that the principles on which homeopathy is based are "scientifically implausible". This is also the view of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies.
Even beyond the fact that homeopathy fails to stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny (again, according to the expert testimony), the mechanism of the practice goes against everything we have come to understand about biology and physics. From Science-Based Medicine website:
There is no scientific knowledge about biology or chemistry to support the notion that a small dose of a drug or substance will necessarily cause the symptoms it treats at higher doses.
Modern homeopaths have tried to justify the law of similars by comparing it to the effectiveness of vaccines — which involve giving small doses of an infectious pathogen to prevent a later infection. However, this analogy is not apt. Vaccines involve measurable doses of attenuated or killed organisms or their proteins, and operate by a known mechanism — they trigger an immune response. There is no analogy to homeopathic treatments.
The law of infinitesimal doses also runs contrary to chemistry, pharmacology, and thermodynamics. Homeopaths today use dilutions of substances which essentially remove all traces of the substance from the final dilution. There is not likely to be even a single molecule of the original drug in the final remedy which is given to the patient. Homeopaths conclude from this fact that the substance is transferring its essence to the water into which it is diluted. The more it is diluted, the more potent is the water. They offer, however, no possible explanation for how simple water molecules can contain the essence of far more complex substances.
Modern homeopaths have also tried to rescue the notion of infinitessimals by invoking the concept of water memory. They claim that water molecules can form a structure that contains the information of the homeopathic remedy. However, such claims are fanciful to the point of invoking magic and are devoid of any evidence. Water structure is very transient and ephemeral. They last moments and could not survive repeated dilution, let alone ingestion, absorption into the body, and transport to their alleged site of action.
If the treatment of cholera to which you refer to is of the success of the Homeopathic Hospital in the 1800s, I do know the story and it was actually referenced by Dr Lara Dungan at the time. It can be explained logically and Dr Ben Goldacre (Wellcome research fellow in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine spokesperson for Sense about Science) frames the seemingly favourable statistics succinctly below.
During the 19th-century cholera epidemic, death rates at the London Homeopathic Hospital were three times lower than at the Middlesex Hospital. Homeopathic sugar pills won't do anything against cholera, of course, but the reason for homeopathy's success in this epidemic is even more interesting than the placebo effect: at the time, nobody could treat cholera.
So, while hideous medical treatments such as blood-letting were actively harmful, the homeopaths' treatments at least did nothing either way.
In other words, by merely hydrating patients, they were providing greater care than those who were trying dangerous therapies in an effort to cure the disease. Sometimes, leaving patients alone will do them more good than harm.
For all of the above reasons, I feel our coverage of the topic was both informed, accurate and unbiased. The charge of patronising may be a fair one, I suppose that's a subjective thing. If it sounded as such, I apologise.
However, would like to refer a piece on homeopathy, again, from the Science-Based Medicine website:
Given that most homeopathic remedies contain little if any actual ingredients beyond water and sometimes sugar, it is unlikely that any direct harm could come from taking them. Improper preparation of remedies made from toxic or infectious material could pose some risk, and there have been reports of toxic contamination of homeopathic products.
However, the most significant risk of homeopathy is that it often delays the use of accurate scientific diagnosis and truly effective medical treatment. Unnecessary injury, disability, and even death can result from the delusion that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any medical condition.
As a broadcaster who covers medical research and cherishes all of the advances that have been made in clinical medicine, I see it as my duty to inform the public about the evidence regarding alternative therapies such as homeopathy. It is, in my opinion, wrong and harmful to claim that homeopathy can cure diseases or conditions when the evidence is not there to support it.
These claims are made online, overseas and here in Ireland and can often refer to conditions with immense emotional sensitivity for patients and loved ones.
For example, I believe it is wrong, to claim that homeopathy can cure autism, as was the case in Cork in 2011. It is wrong to sell consultation services online to treat it.
It is wrong to suggest that homeopathy can solve fertility issues when there is no evidence to support the claim. It is wrong to suggest that it can treat Downs Syndrome. I believe it is wrong to give someone false hope when they could be seeking further medical advice and I believe it is wrong to take advantage of people for whom traditional medicine has not yielded results.