May 06 2009

Homeopathy Kills

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Comments: 13

Those who advocate for strict scientific standards in medicine are often asked, “what’s the harm” of someone pursuing unconventional medicine? If people want to engage in a little hope, even if it’s a false hope, it might make them feel better and it won’t cause any harm.

Often the questioner assumes that the unscientific remedies are themselves harmless. This is not always a reasonable assumption. Some unscientific treatments are directly harmful, or carry a non-trivial risk. But that is not the limit to the harm that can be caused by pursuing such remedies.

For me the biggest harm of unscientific medicine is that it fosters a distruct of science-based medicine and practitioners and faith in bizarre notions of health and illness and in treatments that do not work. Someone who feels that acupuncture helpe their back pain may then rely upon it when they get cancer.

Homeopathic treatments (real ones, not products labeled homeopathic but containing real drugs) are certainly harmless. They have no side effects because they have not effects – they are just water and sugar pills. Most homeopathic dilutions are such that chances are not a single molecule of the “active” ingredient remains behind. Or, more acurately, the original assortment of molecules that can be found in all water are there, but that’s it. Homeopathy is literally nothing but pure magical thinking.

But homeopathy can still kill. Thomas Sam, a homeopath, and his wife, Manju Sam, are standing trial in an Australian court for manslaughter by gross criminal negligence. They allowed their 9 month old child to die from complications of severe eczema. According to reports, their daughter, Gloria, was healthy at birth. But at 4 months old she developed a skin rash, which became progressively worse. Sam decided to treat the eczema with homeopathic treatments – which means not to treat it at all. He sought advice from other homeopaths and naturopaths.

He also refused to follow the advice of the child’s pediatrician to take her to skin specialist to get more aggressive treatment. As a result Gloria’s eczema worsened. Her skin became thin and cracked, resulting in infections, and eventually septicemia and death. Standard medical treatments could have saved her right up until days before her death. This seems to be a case of ideology trumping common sense, evidence, and all reason.

This sad case is an extreme example, but it is not an isolated case. Similar cases occur with adults, in which case there is no legal issue of neglect. The website whatstheharm.net documents the stories of many similar cases. Because of my blogs and podcast I also receive many e-mails from family members who are standing by helplessly while a loved-one slowly dies from a treatable disease because they are enthralled by an unscientific practitioner and their claims.

Some defend unscientific practices by saying that they should be used in addition to science-based medicine rather than instead of it. I agree that this is a safer option – forgoing all science-based medicine is the most extreme and dangerous approach. But that does not mean that the “integrative” approach is safe or reasonable. In practice those who are ideologically dedicated to treatments that cannot be supported by evidence or basic science seek or prescribe such treatments first, delaying access to proven therapies.

There are also other sources of indirect harm. Expending resources of time, money, effort, and emotion on treatments that do not work reduce the resources available for treatments that do work. Also I find that unscientific therapies are often accompanied by gross misinformation about biology and medicine. They also thrive, as I stated above, on mistrust of science-based medicine.

No matter how promoters try to sugar coat it, unscientific treatments are harmful to the system and to individuals. Occasionally, as with the case of Gloria Sam, we hear of a dramatic example. But the harm from unscientific health claims are not limited to these media-friendly cases.

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13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Homeopathy Kills”

  1. DevoutCatalyston 06 May 2009 at 9:50 am

    “Honey, I succussed the kids.”

    There are minds that will accept no evidence demonstrating they are just plain mistaken. Sort of like an anorexic peering into the looking glass. Or more like Big Chiropractic running away from the harm of neck manipulation. Alt-shruggies. These are the very same folks that never hesitate to poison the well when dealing with their sworn enemy — reason.

    Sad case, this one.

  2. Mexicanon 06 May 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I have a question.

    I have worked in a Mexican/Dutch Pharmaceutical company, FDA registered and now I work in a US Mexican based medical device company, also FDA regulated and we have heard of companies shut down by the FDA because they don’t follow Good Manufacturing Practices, therefore, there are risks for patients who are our ultimate customers.

    How come the FDA has not shutdown these clowns or anti-vaccination parties? The science is there, homeopathy does not work and no vaccination have killed people, not to mention that this might bring back diseases we haven’t heard of in a lot of years. It is a lot of risk to have people out there preaching stupid things.

    Probably FDA doesn’t have to do anything with legal pursuit of charges, but there must be a Federal Agency who might do something about it. Its weird how they have advanced so much with such liberties.

    Saludos amigos,

  3. tmac57on 06 May 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I am in a support group for family members of cancer patients. One member’s wife has developed serious depression due to her cancer,and would not seek therapy. We asked if she was taking any anti-depressants,and he said no, but he had gotten her to agree to see a homeopath for it (depression). It was all I could do to not speak up against that idea, but the rules of the group prohibit offering any medical advice. I just hope that she gets some real help soon.

  4. Mexicanon 06 May 2009 at 12:45 pm

    @ tmac57. Skip the rules.

  5. SaraJon 06 May 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I saw this story in the news, and was horrified. I think the thing that gets me most is the fact that this poor baby probably died in horrible pain from something that was easily treatable. One account I read said that these people were told repeatedly, and by various sources, that their baby needed serious medical help. Why did no one call the police? I assume that Australia has some sort of Child Protective Service and I really just wonder how it was allowed to get to the tragic point that it did.

    Anyway, I hope those two go to prison for a very long time.

  6. BriansAWildDowneron 06 May 2009 at 4:14 pm

    tmac57, telling someone to see a doctor is not giving medical advice.

  7. DevilsAdvocateon 06 May 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Kudos and all to Tmac & family (Mrs. Advocate is a survivor: L3 anaplastic astrocytoma. Thank you, Dr. Friedman, Duke University Brain Tumor Clinic).

    BTW, I believe I’d break the support group rules out in the parking lot after a session. Offering additional info isn’t the same as offering medical advice.

  8. tmac57on 06 May 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Thanks DevilsAdvocate.I will take your suggestion under advisement. Best wishes and health to you and Mrs.

  9. Andrew Bienerton 06 May 2009 at 8:22 pm

    And the fact that pharmacies here in Australia (and I’m guessing in many other parts of the world) continue to sell “homeopathic remedies” right alongside genuine medicines further blurs the line in people’s minds of what is real and what is quackery. Genuine and supposedly well respected organisations are just as complicit in peddling this rubbish to the public. The Australian Trade Practices Act has many provisions for consumer protection of misleading and deceptive conduct, yet somehow the pharmacy industry continues to avoid this. In fact, how anyone is allowed to sell homeopathy under the Trade Practices Act is beyond me.

  10. MarshallDogon 07 May 2009 at 9:38 am

    Mexican,

    The FDA does regulate homeopathic treatments, but when the regulations were written, they were amended by Senator Royal Copeland, who was a practicing homeopath. Although legally considered drugs, homeopathic remedies are given many exceptions to the regulations. Homeopaths don’t have to apply for drug patents to their new medications, nor do they have to prove the products efficacy or safety. Essentially, they can take their concoctions from creation straight to marketing. Homeopaths cannot claim that their remedies cure diseases, but can make “structure/function” claims- in other words, claiming your remedy cures cancer is illegal, but saying it “promotes a healthy lifestyle and boosts your immune system” is okay.

    You mention good manufacturing practices also. Homeopaths do have to ensure that their remedies are manufactured safely- the machines that make the pills can’t be leaking fluid onto them, or other things like that. Manufacturing is a much different matter than testing efficacy and safety of the supposed medication however. The people that made Vioxx weren’t stopped by manufacturing issues, they were essentially forced to pull the drug because of risks of heart attack and stroke, which they only knew about because they are required by law to monitor the safety of their medications. Since homeopaths have no such restrictions, their remedies can continue to be marketed even if they are dangerous.

  11. Mexicanon 07 May 2009 at 2:20 pm

    @ MarshallDog

    You’re right, not only GMPs are important, but the safety and efficacy of the drug is as well as important.

    Now I see how they can get away with it. Thank you for the clear explanation.

  12. Sabioon 08 May 2009 at 6:34 am

    I am an ex-acupuncturist and ex-homeopath. I have seen harm by both of these methods. Many people feel that “alternative”=”natural”=”safe”. And this formula, as you point out, has been proven wrong again and again. I use to work in Dermatology and have actually seen many cases of deadly eczema due to neglect. Usually it was neglect do to finances, sometimes just pure ugly selfish apathy but occasionally due to mistrust of orthodox medicine. I have also seen Chinese “natural” herbs kill.

    But that mistrust is not unfounded. And while preaching against alternative medicines, we must also get better at admitting the log in our own eye. There is another math problem out there. Many people feel “orthodox medicine”=”scientific medicine”=”safe” which is not true either.

    Yes, the self-corrective methods in present orthodox medicine have helped clean up bad meds and bad surgical practices, but orthodox practitioners face many of the same silly faulty cognitive temptations as the alternative folks but the orthodox folks have the government on their side which allows for yet another blind spot.

    All to say: Consumer Beware !

  13. maydonton 08 May 2009 at 9:43 am

    Thanks Steve for a great piece. It is interesting what you say, but from my experience, most people who buy into it will use it for “minor ailments” and switch to proper medicine when an alment is a little more serious. From my experience no evidence against this alt med ever sways them (they’ve made an emotional decision to use it and logic is irrelevant). Although I abhor the idea of wasting my money on this dilusion delusion, I do believe that it can have some benefit – not in the way it is intended, though (see my last point in the post on the link below).

    I refer to a piece I wrote last year (click on your prefered link):

    10 Reasons why homeopathy is stupid:
    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=2262302601&topic=3658

    http://pauseandconsider.blogspot.com/2008/04/10-reasons-why-homeopathy-is-stupid.html

    The last point, number 10, states:

    10. HOMEOPATHY IS HARMLESS. I think mostly this is true – taking homeopathic Echinacea for a cold or to prevent a cold may put your mind at ease and less stress could be a good thing. The action of taking “Bach’s Rescue Remedy” to get over anxiety may work as a strong placebo – which is perhaps as good as therepeutic counselling. However, if you read up on reputed members of the Society of Homeopaths and what they propose, it makes a further mockery of the “profession”. Peter Chappell of the Society of Homeopaths in the UK claims that he can transmit homeopathic remedies by phone. Others claim to use music and the internet to channel the water’s energy. Others go as far to claim that HIV can be cured too. That’s when it gets particularly dangerous. If patients are denied conventional medicine for homeopathy then homeopaths are guilty of unnecessarily putting humans’ lives at risk.

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