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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 10th April 2012

This is Homeopathy Awareness Week. In fact, today is World Homeopathy Day. I’ve written about homeopathy before but I thought I should do my bit for awareness by making as many people as possible aware that homeopathy has no scientific basis and that any effects seen are either a result of the placebo effect or simply a disease running its natural course.

It is easy to mock homeopathy and this week is creating plenty of good examples. Someone picked up on the homophone and said ‘Homeopathy; weak; I knew that’. More seriously, someone else asked when it will be ‘Homeopathy Beware Week’. And, of course, there have been plenty of comments about whether homeopathy awareness week should be marked by homeopaths only talking about it once in every 1030 words because that will give it greater strength.

I looked to see if there was a commercial organisation behind this event and found that it is the work of the ‘World Homeopathy Awareness Organisation (WHAO)’ ‘a non-profit NGO’ but with, it appears, sponsorship from companies exploiting homeopathy for profit. The British Homeopathic Association has its awareness week from 14th – 21st June so it seems the WHAO has some work to do even amongst believers. What made me view the event more seriously is that it seems, for the WHAO, the theme of this year’s week is ‘helping fertility for men and women’.

The choice of the week commencing 10th April seems to be based on the birth of Samuel Hahnemann on that day in 1755. Hahnemann is, of course, revered as the inventor of homeopathy though as I explained in this blog entry, he was born 130 years after the Prince of Orange used highly diluted medicines to restore his troops to health based on the placebo effect of their belief in his powers.

The interesting thing about homeopathy, for me, is the dilemmas it throws up about how it should be dealt with and the read across from there to drug policy.

Obviously, no government funded health service should be spending scarce resources on homeopathy but where is the harm in individuals spending their own money if they wish to do so? My answer to that would be that there is no harm, providing they are given only the truth when making a decision. Sadly, that is not the case all too often. Following legal action against outright false claims, manufacturers of homeopathic substances have become more cunning. Thus, you will find, on some products, advice about what to do if you accidentally take an overdose. Clearly, unless you have an intolerance to the sucrose and lactose used to make the pills, there is no such thing as an overdose of homeopathy but, by suggesting there is, the manufacturers hope to deceive people into thinking there is no chemical effect from taking the pills.

Rather worryingly, the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency actually requires products to be labelled in ways that might lead people to believe that there is proof of efficacy. Saying ‘A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the relief of or treatment of…’ seems to me to be an entirely wrong use of the word ‘medicinal’.

The real harm comes when homeopaths suggest that their pills should be used to the exclusion of conventional medicine or when they exploit the vulnerable as they are doing with this year’s theme. People who have been unable to have their own children are, often, desperate and depressed. I'm appalled that homeopaths think that suggesting homeopathy can help overcome fertility problems is appropriate.

There are plenty of examples of what can happen when homeopaths persuade people to ignore conventional medicine and Penelope Dingle is, sadly, just one of them. This letter makes difficult reading.

As someone who thinks people should be allowed to make their own choices I don't think we should ban homeopathy; people should be free to spend their money how they wish. We should, though, regulate the industry to make sure that people aren’t enticed to use homeopathy by fancy marketing and false claims.

That does raise another dilemma. You shouldn’t regulate the industry by seeming to be offering approval to ‘certified’ homeopaths and manufacturers because that will lead some people to think it is an established medical treatment. What has to be done is regulation of what homeopaths are allowed to say and close enforcement of that regulation.

And there is the read across to drug policy. The replacement for prohibition must not be a regime that allows the unscrupulous to profit by promoting the use of drugs. It must be one where people are given factual information about the substances concerned so as to be able to make a truly informed choice about whether to use them or not.

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