A guest post by Akshat Rathi, Graduate Student, Chemistry Research Laboratory, Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford
In January this year, sceptics from many cities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US staged a stunt where 300 people took large overdoses of homeopathic remedies. Their aim was to demonstrate that homeopathic remedies are nothing but sugar pills and as expected, no volunteer was killed or injured. As 62% of all Indians believe in homeopathy and with that number growing, it is high time that the country begins to understand the science behind homeopathy and the dangers of blindly believing in its claims.
Let’s consider how a homeopathic remedy to treat common cold is made. Homeopaths follow the ‘like cures like’ principle, according to which one must find something that causes the symptoms of common cold like running nose and watery eyes. It is known that onion juice can. So a drop of onion juice is taken and diluted 100 times by adding 100 drops of water. It is then shaken. But that dilution is not enough because homeopaths believe in another principle: ‘the higher the dilution, the higher the potency’, thus one drop of that solution is taken and another 100 drops of water are added to it, followed by more shaking. This is repeated at least 30 times to give the final remedy. At this level of dilution, the chance of finding Barack Obama sitting in your living room is higher than the chance of finding a single molecule of onion juice in that homeopathic remedy. (See BBC documentary to know more)
There have been serious concerns about the validity of homeopathic principles in the mainstream medical community. They lack any scientific evidence and are in complete contrast to the body of knowledge that is traditional medicine. Such highly diluted solutions, which don’t contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient, also make it possible for homeopaths to claim that their remedies have no side effects. Also according to the ‘like cures like’ principle, as stated before, the same homeopathic remedy used to treat stress can simply be used to treat a brain tumour. After all, both conditions cause a headache and the homeopathic remedy for both would simply consist of a highly diluted solution of something that causes a headache.
Many patients who receive homeopathic treatment say that it works for them and it would be wrong to claim that they are lying. Positive effects of homeopathy are merely caused by something called the ‘placebo effect’. A placebo is a medication with no active ingredients in it. The best examples of the placebo effect are observed when two dummy treatments are compared with each other. If one sham treatment works better than the other then it must be simply because people are expecting it to work. For example, a study showed that four sugar pills a day are better at reducing pain than two but more invasive treatment, like a salt-water injection, is even better. In another study patients reported that a red pill was better at treating pain than a white one, even though both were inert.
Homeopathy ‘works’ because of the placebo effect. It doesn’t matter if you are a sceptic, a baby or an animal – if people around you expect the treatment to work, it is more likely to. Sometimes ignorance of important symptoms which need timely attention can give homeopathy credence. This ignorance often makes people wait to see the doctor until their illness is at its worst. At this point a homeopathic remedy is prescribed to the patient. Once the worst is over, the immune system becomes capable of combating the disease and healing begins. But unfortunately, the natural process of healing is often then attributed to homeopathy.
When a homeopathic treatment does not lead to a cure, people tend to blame either their condition or their fate, but still continue to rely blindly on homeopathy. The belief in homeopathy is also perpetuated by India’s unregulated pharmaceutical market which makes it easy to buy medicines across the counter without a physician’s prescription. As a result, people often take the wrong medication and blame the ineffectiveness on mainstream medicine. This tendency generates an undesirable bias towards homeopathy.
One might question that if homoeopathic remedies work (by placebo effect or by self-healing) then surely there is nothing “wrong” in prescribing them? Ethically speaking, it is not wrong to use homeopathic remedies to treat minor illnesses such as common cold or a headache. But it can be exceedingly dangerous, as WHO warned recently, when homeopathy claims to be able to treat serious medical conditions such as cancer, swine flu, AIDS, TB, or malaria.
Furthermore, there can be serious consequences when homeopathy becomes enshrined in mainstream medical policy. In Punjab, for instance a state-wide program is being implemented that uses homeopathic treatment to ‘cure’ pregnant mothers of the need for a C-section during child birth. Incidences like these makes one wonder how many mothers will die and if they do, whether the homeopaths will ever be held to account.
The scientific community has, for decades, systematically refuted every claim that homeopathy makes and yet millions of people in India still believe in it. Government funds it, ministers support it, more colleges are built and more homeopaths walk amongst us year on year. Some say this broad public support for homeopathy remains because the scientific community is unable to communicate this to the people or it comes from a general disdain for “western” medicine.
Akshat Rathi is a researcher in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Oxford and he blogs at The Allotrope
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Prasad, R. The Lancet, 2007, 370, 1679