Homeopathy is an energy medicine that sees disease as a disturbance in the body’s life force, and aids it in the task of healing and rebalancing. Unfortunately its efficacy is often ignored by allopathic medicine, presumably because of a lack of understanding of how it works.
In Australia, increasing numbers of people are choosing to visit a naturopath rather than a doctor, and this trend is certainly true for homeopathy, the world’s fastest-growing health modality, and the second most commonly-used form of medicine after traditional herbal medicine.
However, not everyone is happy with this success story. Especially in the UK and Australia, homeopathy has come under criticism from ‘sceptics’ groups and the media, leading to a negative public image and calls for it to be marginalised.
What is homeopathy?
In 1796, a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann became fed up with the fairly primitive and dangerous medicine of the day, and gave up his practice as a doctor in order to carry out deep research into medical matters.
The end result was a new and radically different medical system. Derived from the Greek words homoios (similar) and pathos (suffering), homeopathy is based on the idea of ‘treating like with like’. This involves taking a substance that, if given to a healthy person in higher doses, would precipitate the same symptoms. There are no possible side-effects. Over a period of years, Hahnemann and his colleagues painstakingly tested homeopathic preparations on themselves in order to observe the results in a thorough and holistic manner.
To distinguish his new medical paradigm, he coined the term ‘allopathy’ (literally ‘other than the disease’) to describe mainstream medicine, referring to its methods that failed to address the root cause of illness. This label is still in use today.
In contrast, homeopathy is an energy medicine that sees disease as a disturbance in the body’s life force, and aids it in the task of healing and rebalancing. Due to its holistic nature, homeopathy takes personality, lifestyle and hereditary dimensions into account, and acknowledges the role of mental and emotional factors.
Very popular among its users, homeopathy continues to attract new adherents.
In Western countries, these converts are frequently people who try it after conventional medicine has given up on them and then experience a dramatic reversal of their symptoms. Not being subject to patents, homeopathic remedies are cheaper than pharmaceuticals, offering substantial cost savings to stretched health budgets. Users tend to be better educated than the population as a whole. *1
During the 19th century, both allopathic and homeopathic streams of medicine were competing for prominence. Homeopathy attracted patients due to far better survival chances for patients during epidemics of cholera, typhoid and other fatal diseases. During the 1830s cholera epidemic in Europe, the death rate for those being treated with allopathic medicine was 40-80 per cent, whereas for homeopathy it was 2-33 per cent.*2
Last century, with allopathy achieving a dominant position, homeopathy experienced a downturn but it later underwent a resurgence in the 1970s as holistic values were rediscovered. Countries where homeopathy is employed most frequently today include India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In Germany it has been used by 60 per cent of citizens.*3
How homeopathy works
To create a homeopathic preparation, a substance is mixed, often with alcohol or distilled water, and then vigorously shaken. A succession of dilution steps is carried out, known as potentisation, and medicines are identified by the number of these steps, often ranging between 3-200. With each successive dilution, such a preparation becomes deeper-acting, a concept that may seem strange to a casual observer.
A nosode is a type of homeopathic preparation involving potentised disease tissue that is considered to serve both as a curative remedy and prophylactic by naturally stimulating the immune system against a specific condition. Given the current intolerant climate in Australia towards any perceived criticism of vaccination, much of the homeopathy community has distanced itself from actively endorsing prophylaxis.
In the higher dilutions, a point is often reached where not a single molecule of the original substance remains. This is seized on, illogically, by some sceptics as proof that homeopathy cannot work. However, there are two options: either homeopathy works no better than as a placebo, or the existing laws of chemistry and physics need to be rewritten. In turn this would have far-reaching effects on the pharmaceutical model.
Studies and controversies
The placebo effect is real, and can apply to natural therapies, pharmaceuticals, and even consultations. In the case of homeopathy, the positive results experienced by babies and animals, where the placebo effect cannot be a factor, strongly suggest that other forces are at work.
Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard for medical testing, and have become the basis for what is termed ‘evidence-based medicine.’ Unfortunately, the evidence basis for mainstream medicine itself is weak: the British Medical Journal has evaluated only 36 per cent of conventional medical procedures as beneficial, or likely to be beneficial.
Homeopathy advocates question the use of RCTs for testing homeopathy because these trials focus narrowly on the short-term alleviation of a single symptom when homeopathic medicine is ideally tailored to the whole individual. American naturopath and homeopath Dr. Andy Somody argues that adopting a simplistic ‘cookbook’ approach to treatment encourages ‘middling’ results that do not reflect homeopathy’s true potential as a healing modality.
Despite this, an analysis of all 142 RCTs carried out between 1950 and 2009 showed 44 per cent positive results, 8 per cent negative, and 48 per cent inconclusive. For the majority of these studies that were placebo-controlled, the outcomes were even more favourable, with 43 per cent positive, 3 per cent negative, and 54 per cent inconclusive.
In Cuba, the government depends on homeopathy to manage epidemics of the bacterial disease leptospirosis via prophylaxis. According to an extremely large population study, this has been highly successful. Another large clinical trial at Bristol Homoeopathic Hospital in the UK over a six-year period involved 6,500 patients who were suffering from a wide range of conditions. It was found that 71 per cent experienced some improvement in their health, with 51 per cent seeing a more substantial improvement.
A Swiss government-commissioned investigation of homeopathy looked at a range of evidence, including high-quality studies, ‘real world’ benefits, and pre-clinical research. In 2011, its report drew positive conclusions about homeopathy’s efficacy and cost-effectiveness.
One particular meta-analysis published in 2005 in The Lancet medical journal drew negative conclusions, but has been criticised for its methods. From 110 homeopathic clinical trials and 110 conventional medical trials, 21 high quality homeopathic studies and 9 high quality conventional studies were identified. Rather than carry out a side-by-side comparison, the homeopathic studies were then further narrowed down to 8 using arbitrary criteria, resulting in a conclusion that homeopathy was no better than a placebo.
This prompted an editorial titled The End of Homeopathy, which somewhat contradictorily lamented its growing popularity. No full details were provided about which studies had been chosen and rejected, although this information was released four months later following concerted lobbying efforts. The Lancet meta-analysis was condemned by several scientists and experts from around the world.
At the cutting edge
While the mechanism through which homeopathy works is still unknown, cutting-edge science is pointing to potential mechanisms.
In 1988 pioneering French immunologist Jacques Benveniste caused a furore when he claimed in the journal Nature that an ultra-diluted preparation of histamine had successfully trigged an allergic response in cell cultures. These findings were popularised in the media as the ‘memory of water’, and attracted widespread public interest before being aggressively debunked by a team including the sceptic and magician James Randi. Benveniste lost his credibility, government funding, and laboratory.
Madeleine Ennis is a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. A former homeopathic sceptic, she wanted to see the Benveniste controversy laid to rest. To her surprise, her team found positive results that were replicated in four different laboratories. This has shifted her outlook, and she acknowledges that some real effect has to be involved.Ennis was later disappointed to see her findings ‘debunked’ on the British TV show Horizon, using different and less rigorous laboratory protocols that she realised were going to lead to a negative result.
French virologist Luc Montagnier won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for being one of a small team who discovered the HIV virus. Recently, Montagnier has courted controversy for his researches that shed light on homeopathic action while turning the materialist-reductionist scientific paradigm on its head.
In the January 2011 issue of Science, Montagnier stated ‘What we have found is that DNA produces structural changes in water, which persist at very high dilutions, and which lead to resonant electromagnetic signals that we can measure.’ According to him, these findings have been replicated by teams in Italy, Germany, and the US.
Far stranger is a recent experiment in which an electromagnetic signature was obtained from a homeopathically potentised HIV DNA sample, and was then electronically transmitted from France to Italy to make a close-to-replica DNA structure. This builds on similar research carried out in 1992 by a pair of Russian scientists. Criticisms of this experiment are generally based on the notion that such results are too unbelievable to possibly be true.
Montagnier has since taken up a position as head of a new research institute at a Shanghai university. Compared to the intellectual straightjacket that scientists encounter in the West, the Chinese research community is far more open-minded. Montagnier had heard of people who have privately reproduced Benveniste’s findings but who were understandably discouraged from publishing by the realistic prospect of seeing their careers derailed. Montagnier, who compares Benveniste to Galileo, concedes that Benveniste’s results were not 100 per cent reproducible, which in turn led to their being prematurely dismissed.
The scientific inquisition
In 2009-2010, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held hearings on the subject of homeopathy that were dominated by individuals opposed to homeopathy, including three members of Sense About Science, an anti-naturopathy body that was receiving pharmaceutical funding.
This was followed by the negative Evidence Check 2 report, which was endorsed by three of the four MPs present. Of these, one was a Sense about Science supporter, while another two had joined the committee late and missed the hearings. None of the three endorsing MPs had in-depth knowledge of homeopathy. In response, a total of 70 MPs supported a motion critical of the report, and the Department of Health dismissed its recommendations.
Committee chair Phil Willis had emphasised, ‘This is not an inquiry into whether homeopathy works or not…….I want to make that absolutely clear.’Despite his efforts, inevitably questionable media stories about homeopathy dominated the landscape, became ingrained into the public’s consciousness, and the report was used as leverage in attempts to incrementally shut down the modality.
The UK is remarkable for having four remaining homeopathic hospitals. However, in late 2014, NHS Lanarkshire became Scotland’s third health board to stop sending referrals to Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital, despite 88 per cent of patients who responded to a survey stating that they felt better as a result of using homeopathy. NHS Lanarkshire’s consultation process was viewed as deficient and deceptive by some patients.
Meanwhile the British government has been under pressure to end public funding of homeopathy, despite its representing a miniscule fraction of the total health budget. At the same time, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has been busy challenging advertising supportive of homeopathy, including that found on practitioners’ websites.
Homeopathy has a long history in Australia. However, things changed in 1880 when the British Medical Association took over our medical system. Being an allopathic body, it worked against the interests of homeopathy. Australia once possessed five homeopathic hospitals, but during the first half of the 20th century they were slowly turned into regular institutions as homeopathy waned.
Regulation of homeopathic preparations is administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and in 1999 the Australian Register of Homoeopaths was voluntarily created to set competency standards in liaison with the Federal Government.
In 2012, a leaked draft statement by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) contained a strong statement branding homeopathy as ‘unethical’, basing its opinion on the Evidence Check 2 report.
Later, in April 2014, the NHMRC released a draft of its homeopathy review report, which claimed there was no reliable evidence that homeopathicremedies are effective in treating health conditions. A later Freedom of Information request by Complementary Medicines Australia found that two of the three experts consulted by NHMRC expressed numerous concerns about the methodology and selective use of data, but their concerns were overridden. More specifically, these included:
- Excluding randomised controlled trials in favour of systematic reviews, thereby bypassing ‘Level 1’ evidence.
- Limiting the number of databases accessed, in at least one case for a non-scientific reason.
- Ignoring non-English-language studies.
- Limiting studies to a narrow 16-year time window.
- No homeopath being appointed by the review panel.
Perhaps most tellingly, the review was chaired by Professor Peter Brooks, directly after resigning his membership of the anti-naturopathy body Friends of Science in Medicine.
Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in negative coverage from an anti-homeopathy national media. More interesting is the fact that just ten years ago there was a far healthier media balance on this subject that has since gone out of the window in favour of partisanship and triumphalism. Media slant is echoed in the comments beneath, with one common argument being that it is dangerous because people in need of urgent medical attention will use homeopathy instead.
Despite the final homeopathy review report being unreleased, the NHMRC, the media, and other groups have been using the draft version to undermine homeopathy, and this is occurring on four fronts.
- The media has criticised taxpayers’ funds being used for homeopathic training. Over the years, the number of homeopathy training institutions has been diminishing, and a loss of support via the VET FEE-HELP scheme would seriously undermine the viability of those that remain.
- There has been pressure on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to review accreditation of homeopathy in the higher education sector.
- NHMRC CEO Warwick Anderson has criticised pharmacies that sell homeopathic medicines, in the process crossing the line from research into lobbying.
- As with several other complementary therapies, homeopathy is recognised by many Australian health insurance companies, but there have been calls to remove it. Following a separate review by health agencies, policies containing ‘unproven’ natural therapies are set to lose their 10-39 per cent federal rebates on April 1st 2015.
A likely outcome is that health funds will be persuaded to remove those natural therapies classed as ‘unproven’ in order to protect rebates on their other coverage areas.
The website of NSW business Homeopathy Plus has been targeted by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over statements advocating homeopathic prophylaxis for whooping cough while casting doubts on the effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccine. Following a request by the ACCC, this material was removed, but was later reinstated. As a result ACCC commenced legal action, and following a ruling against the company in December 2014 a fine is yet to be determined.
Protecting heath choice
Two figures approach in a dark alley, and money is handed over in exchange for a brown paper bag containing a bottle of Arnica 30C and a stash of Nux Vomica. At some point could homeopaths become like the secret female reading circles in Afghanistan or the Christian services in Moscow flats, that were kept secret for fear of falling foul of Communism or the Taliban’s religious police?
In the UK, freedom of choice in health care is generally considered sacrosanct by the government as part and parcel of living in a democracy. In Australia, however, attitudes are different, with this freedom sometimes trumped by mainstream scientific opinion. While homeopathy will never disappear in Australia, it may eventually have to go underground.
Groups are springing up in defence of this gentle and holistic therapy that has been in existence for the past two hundred years. These include H:MC21 (Homeopathy: Medicine of the 21st Century) in the UK, which is impressively resolute and focused in its goals.
Over here, a group of concerned homeopaths has set up Friends of Homoeopathy Australia in response to the NHMRC draft review. It urges practitioners to alert their patients of this campaign, so that they can continue to make informed choices in regards to their health. At present, its two main areas of focus are the private health insurance review of natural therapies, and pressure to review accreditation of homeopathy in the higher education sector.
The group can be followed on Facebook or Twitter, and anyone can sign up to receive updates about its activities.
(a) Peter Fisher, who is homeopath to the Queen (UK), has stated:“One of the things I rather like is that you find pretty consistently the cohort that chooses homeopathy has higher levels of education.”
(b) “At entry, homeopathy patients were younger, more educated, and were more likely to be white collar workers or in self-employed jobs.”
(a) When Cholera finally struck Europe in 1831 the mortality rate (under conventional treatment) was between 40% (Imperial Council of Russia) to 80% (Osler’s Practice of Medicine).
(b) Dr. Wild, Allopathic editor of Dublin Quarterly Journal, reported in Austria, the Allopathic mortality was 66% and the homeopathic mortality was 33%.
(c) 1830 –Johann Emanuel Veith 1787 –1877, pastor and canon of the cathedral of St. Stephen’s, in Vienna, homeopath, student of Samuel Hahnemann, Johann Emanuel Veith witnessed the cure of his brother by homeopathy and immediately converted to homeopathy. He treated 125 patients with Cholera in 1830, losing only 3 patients. (2.4% death rate.)
http://www.homeopathy-ecch.org/ 2nd news item, report is at https://www.bah-bonn.de/index.php?eID=dumpFile&t=f&f=4233&token=8724d36ab6615321300b76f723126d5e07d6e21e and can be translated. The pie graph is on p7.
Australian Homoeopathic Association: www.homeopathyoz.org
Australian Register of Homoeopaths: www.aroh.com.au
Friends of Homoeopathy Australia: www.friendsofhomau.com
The Aurum Project: www.aurumproject.org.au
Department of Health natural therapies private health insurance review: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/phi-natural-therapies
H:MC21 (UK): www.hmc21.org
Homeopathy Heals Me: www.homeopathyheals.me.uk
Extraordinary Medicine: www.extraordinarymedicine.org
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