Homeopathy is a combination of tradition, art and a science that has been used for centuries. Does it really matter if its effect is placebo if it makes people feel better and regain good health?
And why do we have to prove something that’s been working for over a hundred years? Homeopathy is not the same as medicine, and it shouldn’t be measured by the same yardstick. Medicine is not 100% evidence-based itself but it still does wonderful things for people.
Homeopathy uses plant, mineral or animal substances to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself. The choice of the remedy to use in a particular case is based on the “Law of Similars”: a substance capable of producing a certain set of symptoms in a healthy individual can remove these same symptoms if given to an unwell individual. In other words, what a substance can cause, it can cure (Similia Similibus Currentur).
This is a natural law observed as far back as 400 BC by Hippocrates. This law was developed into a system of therapeutics 200 years ago by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann who is considered the father of homeopathy.
In 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that homoeopathy was used by around 500 million people worldwide, and constituted the largest complementary and alternative medicine regime. And there are studies showing the effectiveness of homoeopathy at a large scale.
Case study: Cuba
In Cuba, outbreaks of the tropical disease Leptospirosis is recorded by an efficient national surveillance programme. Its incidence correlates closely with heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding.
In response to a developing epidemic in late 2007, and with only enough vaccines to treat 15,000 high-risk people, the government decided to treat the entire population of the region over the age of one with homeopathic medicine.
The medicine was prepared from the inactivated causative organism provided by the Cuban National Vaccine Institute. It was a highly diluted preparation called homeoprophylaxis.
This medicine was given to the 2.3 million people living in the provinces usually worst affected. Within a few weeks the number of infections had fallen from 38 to 4 cases per 100,000 per week. This was significantly fewer than the 38 forecast based on historical figures for those weeks of the year. And the 8.8 million people from other provinces who did not receive homeopathic treatment suffered the forecast infection rate.
The effect appeared to be sustained – there was an 84% reduction in infection in the treated region the following year (2008) when, for the first time, incidence did not correlate with rainfall. In the same period, incidence in the untreated region increased by 22%.
Yesterday’s article in the Fairfax papers – Alternative medicine crackdown – suggested the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) might declare homeopathy baseless and unethical. This statement would be based on a 2010 evaluation of homeopathy by the British House of Commons science and technology committee which declared homeopathy was no more efficacious than a placebo.
In contrast to the UK government’s stance, the Swiss government’s 2011 report on homeopathic medicine represents the most comprehensive evaluation of homeopathic medicine ever produced by a government and has just been published in English.
The report says homeopathic treatment is both efficacious and cost-effective and recommends homeopathic treatment be reimbursed by Switzerland’s national health insurance program.
Insurance companies are very particular about which practitioners they cover and rightly so. A homeopath, for instance, needs to belong to a particular association that has a high minimun standard of education to be able to have clients receive private insurance rebates.
All health practitioners can cause harm. Medicine can cause serious harm and even death; there are many medical mishaps and deaths every year. According to the former Australian Council for Safety and Quality in Health Care, the rate of adverse events in Australian hospitals is around 10%.
But there have very few deaths from homoeopathy.
All deaths are sad but as a Victorian report says: “It is important to recognise that human error is inevitable for even the best trained and best-qualified healthcare providers.”
People have a right to choose the treatments they want and decide how to manage their health issues. All health professionals including homeopaths should be qualified so the public has appropriate treatment. Treatments should be based on how well they make people feel rather than how scientific or traditional the medicine is.