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article imageOp-Ed: CBC Marketplace exposes homoeopathy

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Jan 15, 2011 in Health
After almost a century of decline, homoeopathy is becoming popular again. While many people love it, very few know what it actually is. CBC's Marketplace studied the issue. This is the result.
A few hours ago, the CBC's Marketplace had a show about homoeopathy. One cannot reasonably expect a 20 minute programme to completely explain anything and everything about homoeopathy. Nevertheless, the programme contains no blatant errors, not obvious bias and it is complete enough to give the lay person an idea about what homoeopathy is and what to expect from it.
Host Erica Johnson's introduction:
Tonight, on Marketplace: they call it a remedy for what ails you, a rising star in the world of alternative medicine. But is homoeopathy a cure or a con?
We put products to the test, uncover the treatments, and search for the truth.
The tone is set. On with the show. The programme makers meet a group of people of the Centre for Inquiry (CFI) in front of Vancouver General Hospital who are going to try to overdose on homoeopathic products. This type of experiment is not new. It is a regular element of lectures by world-renowned sceptic James Randi, and demonstrations of various groups worldwide.
The homoeopathic industry is a multimillion dollar industry in Canada, and while homoeopaths were unregulated so far, the Ontario government is preparing to grant them legitimacy, something that is highly controversial. Erica Johnson meets with an oncologist in Hamilton who says that there is no evidence at all from clinical trials that homoeopathic products have any effect whatsoever.
Mention is made of the Evidence Check 2 report by the Science Committee of the British House of Commons - Part 1, Part 2) that concluded that homoeopathy is nothing more than an elaborate placebo that is theoretically weak and scientifically implausible.
The presenter meets with a mother and her child who live in Maple Ridge, BC, who are happy consumers of homoeopathic products. She proudly shows the products she has in her medicine basket:
Stuff for colds
This is for, I believe this is dry cough
This is eardrops
The presenter doesn't say it, but this seems bizarre, since homoeopaths claim to administer "holistic" treatments that are highly dependent on the whole patient, not just the disease. Yet, these products are simply presented as classical pharmaceuticals, which they are definitely not.
The mother says that homoeopathics take longer than "the quick fix" such as Tylenol, but that there is nothing harmful in them. She is right. Homoeopathics have no effect whatsoever. It is therefore reasonable that the patient will need more time to recover. As the CBC Marketplace episode argues, there is nothing bad in these products either, since there is nothing in them at all. However, if the patient is lactose intolerant (a very popular diagnosis in alternative circles) he or she should think twice before using these products.
We are then informed that about 10 percent of Canadians have used homoeopathy, including the Montreal Canadians who just signed a deal to endorse Oscillococcinum, a product by Boiron, the world's largest manufacturer of homoeopathics.
Erica Johnson meets two people on the street who say that Oscillococcinum works for them. She then goes on telling us that European Royals, such as Queen Elizabeth have also used homoeopathy for decades. She wonders why, given how homoeopathics are made: a plant, animal or mineral ingredient is diluted again and again, and that between each dilution, the product is given a good shake. The theory is that the water retains the memory of the original ingredient. The more dilutions, the more powerful the memory and the stronger the product.
In order to give us an idea, host Erica Johnson explains what 30C, a popular dilution, stands for. Marketplace then orders tests from Matthew Forbes at the University of Toronto. His conclusion: there is so little active substance in homoeopathic remedies that it is below the detection limits of their equipment. The pills consist primarily of sucrose (sugar) and lactose (milk sugar). Worse: there is no way they would be able to distinguish two different homoeopathics from each other in a blind test.
We now get to see a short clip from Boiron, the world's largest manufacturer of homoeopathics. Host Erica Johnson meets with a representative of Boiron who says:
Perhaps science hasn't developed to the point where we have the equipment and the technology fine enough to be able to detect these very diluted substances.
This is not obviously ridiculous. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says, homoeopathy was dreamed up by Samuel Hahnemann at a time when we did not yet know anything about molecules and atoms. It was, therefore, not so ridiculous to assume that substances could be diluted forever. However, we now do know about molecules and atoms. We can, for example, dilute two salt molecules down to one, but when we dilute even further, some of our samples are no longer going to contain any salt molecules at all. The limit for this is called Avogadro's constant. In other words, the issue is not that our instruments are too imprecise to detect anything, the issue is that they don't detect anything, because there is nothing to detect in the first place.'
Yes, homoeopathy is somewhat of a mystery, but again, we know that it works.
This has not escaped Erica Johnson who says that believers in homoeopathy often talk about "mystery", "the unknown" and "unexplainable". But is the situation really that mysterious, or is there a better explanation? Boiron's representative continues:
There hasn't been a lot of demand for clinical studies. Again, because of it being a traditional medicine.
That seems a reasonable enough explanation for the lack of evidence: they simply don't do any clinical studies. This is quite plausible, since Boiron hardly spends any money at all on research.
We see our host back at the people from CFI who have been overdosing on homoeopathics. 20 minutes have passed. No one is having any nasty symptoms. They are all fine. Says one of them:
It is unlikely that taking this whole bottle will hurt you. Where you are going to get injured is if you take this instead of real medicine.
That's exactly what happened to a baby in Australia, says Erica Johnson. She is referring to the case of Gloria Sam, the baby daughter of a homoeopath who refused to treat her eczema with genuine medicine, and who died as a result. The parents have been jailed for manslaughter.
We now see Erica Johnson at the office of a Vancouver homoeopath who claims that homoeopathy is highly individualised. The homoeopath spends about two hours with the patient to make up the medical history. This is actually a part that many medical practitioners are envious about because talking with the patient can be quite valuable. But, real doctors are limited by the constraints forced on them by the health system, homoeopaths -who operate outside of the system- are not, and it shows. This two-hour consultation costs a whopping 200 dollars. The homoeopath can't explain how her administrations work:
Personally, I just use them.
Note that this is not necessarily bad. In medicine, we ask first if a therapy works. If we can also find an explanation, that is great, but the lack of an explanation will not prevent doctors from applying a therapy, only lack of evidence that the therapy actually works would prevent them from using it.
The homoeopath then opens up a few cases that look not unlike the jewellery and cosmetics cases used by door to door sales people, and the conversation turns to alternatives for vaccines. A bottle is shown with a homoeopathic cure and prophylactic for polio, an extremely serious disease that once killed and crippled countless children, until vaccines came along.
Erica Johnson takes this up with the doctor who warns that there is absolutely no evidence that dangerous infectious diseases could be prevented by these homoeopathic products and that while people may have the illusion that they are being protected, this could very well lead to new epidemics.
She tells this to the mother we have seen before, who confirms that her child is not properly vaccinated for polio, measles, whooping cough, pertussis (a mistake, since whooping cough and pertussis are the same disease). The mother nevertheless thinks that her child is protected, thanks to the homoeopathic products she gave him.
We find Erica Johnson back with the group of CFI people. 35 minutes have passed, all of them seem fine. One person tells us that he took three bottles of arsenic and belladonna, poisons that should have killed him. Says one of them:
They should not be allowed to make claims that are not true. When a product is overwhelmingly water, they should not be able to say it cures cancer.
Homoeopathy to cure cancer? Yes, indeed, that is what many homoeopaths claim. Erica Johnson phones a homoeopath and who says that first-stage breast cancer can be cured in two weeks. Says the oncologist:
That's absolutely shocking and it's clearly bogus, and there is absolutely no evidence to back it up whatsoever.
At the very best, I think it's sad. At the worst, I think it's a total scam. A delay in visiting an evidence-based cancer centre is a delay in treatment. A delay in treatment can have very serious results.
Marketplace tried to talk to several homoeopathic organisations, but found only one that was willing to talk to them on camera, the Homeopathic Medical Council of Canada. Spokesperson was Ranvir Sharda, the president. He claims on camera that homoeopathy can treat cancer and that he himself has cured all types of cancer.
Erica Johnson then touches upon an important point:
Why then, can't anyone point to the research that proves [...] it's been around for a couple hundred years.
Politeness doesn't seem to be the homoeopath's strongest point as he interrupts her continuously. Nevertheless, he says that he will send her some documentation, documentation she did not receive so far.
Marketplace did receive studies from other homoeopaths, including one by a Nobel Prize winner, the homoeopaths claim explain how homoeopathy works. However, the experts they have consulted said that these studies do not prove anything. Although Erica Johnson doesn't say it, the Nobel Prize winner study she is referring to is a highly controversial study by Luc Montagnier which was published in 2009, entitled Electromagnetic signals are produced by aqueous nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA sequences. Marketplace contacted him and he told them that he:
cannot extrapolate it to the products used in homeopathy
Erica Johnson now heads to the Ontario Ministry of Health to find out why the government is thinking of regulating the homoeopathic industry, given that this may lend them credibility. The interview is disappointing. No valid reasons are given except that they want the patient to be treated in a "safe environment". One could ask what the use of a safe environment is, if the treatment is useless.
We meet the Boiron representative again. When confronted with the fact that no active ingredient was found in their product, she reacted:
This product does have an active ingredient. [Erica Johnson spoke over the rep. so I can't understand what is said here] Continue looking for the right technology.
After repeating that the product contains no active ingredient, the Boiron representative suggests to take it up with Health Canada since they issued an identification number for homoeopathic medicines for the product. Erica Johnson then explains that Health Canada does not test the products but simply relies on the Homoeopathic Pharmacopoeia. This not entirely correct.
Health Canada relies on the evidence provided by the homoeopathic manufacturer who is free to provide any evidence it sees fit. Usually, they provide only the weakest evidence, namely the homoeopathic provings as recorded in the Homoeopathic Pharmacopoeia. This evidence is so weak, and so unreliable that it is essentially no evidence at all.
We now see the group of the Centre for Inquiry again. 45 minutes have passed since they took their overdoses. All of them are still accounted for, and not the least bit poisoned. These products are "modern-day snake-oil" says one of them. "if there were actually snake oil in it, it would actually do something", says another.
This is how the programme ends. In other words: stay away from homoeopathy, there is absolutely no evidence that it does anything positive for anyone, beyond the placebo effect.
Or, as the Science Committee of the British House of Commons concluded:
Homoeopathy is nothing more than an elaborate placebo that is theoretically weak and scientifically implausible.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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