Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Saturday, 18 May 2019

On the overreach of homeopaths and why homeopathy now finds itself in difficulty



There's a scene in Family Guy where Peter (the dad) asks to see the newspaper (Brian the family dog is reading it) and expresses surprise at the lack of mention of a certain ornithological piece. As Brian starts to ask Peter what he means Stewie (the baby) tries to stop him, but too late, Peter starts singing Surfin' Bird.

I can't help wondering if my poor friends think the same whenever homeopathy is mentioned in my earshot ;)

To most people homeopathy is a harmless pastime, you feel a bit under the weather, you take a pill 'for' it (or 'for' you - it's never entirely clear), you get better. If asked they might ascribe the getting better to the homeopathy and ignore the possibility that they'd have got better anyway. Friends of skeptics probably wonder why we get so exercised about this. Here's why.

If homeopaths and homeopathy stuck to "helping people feel a bit better when they're under the weather" - let's call that Moderate Homeopathy - I'd expect you'd not hear much of a peep from doctors, nurses, vets, scientists, patients, skeptic activists and anyone who's ever given a sideways look at a homeopath opining that they can cure or prevent a serious disease - let's call that Extremist Homeopathy.

As is often the case Extremist Homeopathy flourishes in the vacuum of Moderate Homeopathy's utter failure to call it out. It's incredibly rare to hear a homeopath correct or criticise another homeopath's ideas or pronouncements and I can only think of one example (if you know of others please let me know). Peter Fisher (a doctor and homeopath who sadly died last year in a cycling accident in London) strongly criticised those homeopaths who were claiming that homeoprophylaxis (the preventive wing of homeopathy) could stop people from getting malaria if they took homeopathic vaccinations or pills. It can't. He was pretty cross about them having said this (as part of a BBC undercover operation(1)) because it was a harmful thing to say (people could become very ill) - and of course it did the reputation of homeopathy no favours at all.
"I'm very angry about it because people are going to get malaria - there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won't find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice." - note, a senior homeopath said that homeopathy could not prevent malaria - it's not just skeptics who said that.
Since 2006 several homeopaths (who would probably consider themselves Moderate) have been sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority for making claims that homeopathy can help people with asthma, fertility problems, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, menopause and so on. Unfortunately this is veering into Extremist Homeopathy territory as homeopathy cannot help with any of these. The quality of evidence is not in homeopathy's favour though no-one should deny that people might feel better after talking with a kindly homeopath who is able (thanks to charging for it) to spend time listening to the person and make them feel supported.

The most-obviously Extremist Homeopaths are now offering homeopathy to treat or prevent autism. The mistaken notion that vaccination can lead to autism has led to a three-pronged approach to try and prevent or reverse this - in short a money-making scam which can leave children unvaccinated or harmed by ridiculous protocols.

1. Tell the parent not to vaccinate the child (or, more accurate, create a culture of fear in which parents become reluctant to vaccinate and provide a 'safe haven' for them to come to you) and offer them homeoprophylaxis - a non-existent homeopathic alternative to vaccination.
2. For parents who have vaccinated and are now worried about future autism, offer them a Homeopathic Detox Therapy package where the imagined bad effects of vaccination can be undone with homeopathy.
3. Where a child has autism, imply that it was caused by vaccination or other 'toxins' and that homeopathy and high-dose supplements ('CEASE therapy') can now detox the child and reverse autism(2). There is no requirement (and no-one even to require it) for these homeopaths to be DBS (formerly CRB) checked and no safeguarding of children.

These types of claims, several made by members of the Society of Homeopaths, have made critics of homeopathy sit up and take particular notice and act on their concerns.

Homeopaths seem to believe that they should be in charge of their own regulation (which is a privilege not a right) but until they collectively stop putting people's health at risk their claims are always going to be closely scrutinised by the same people who've gradually helped to cause the public mood to shift away from seeing homeopathy as being harmless or benign.

Homeopaths will not listen to advice from skeptics but in case this can reach any of them here's my attempt nonetheless at telling homeopaths why they now find themselves in defensive-mode and what I think they need to do:

Homeopathy is its own worst enemy. It has massively overreached in its claims. Doing so means skeptics* have taken notice and acted coherently to try address it. Success has been slow going but is very definitely heading in that direction. The evidence is not in favour of homeopathy so when doctors and pressure groups ask the NHS to defund it they are knocking at an open door. Claiming to cure or prevent diseases while being unable to do so is harmful (directly and indirectly) and until homeopaths have the courage to call out other homeopaths over this you can probably expect greater scrutiny, tighter regulation and more unfavourable news articles.  Any annoyance you feel at skeptics for curtailing your claims and activities is because you've failed to regulate yourselves and you put people at potential risk from active or passive harms.

There was probably a case to be made for homeopathy on the NHS, but homepaths blew it by exploiting its presence on the NHS as a cover for more harmful notions. It is true that doctors are not always able to help patients and some doctors had said they found it useful to be able to refer those patients to what could have been just a harmless distraction (the patient would still be under proper medical care and in little danger from having no real treatment if monitored). Losing them to private homeopaths risks losing that oversight and puts patients at risk from dangerous ideas and bad advice.

If homeopaths had stuck to offering people support without making wild claims I probably wouldn't have written a single blog post or tweet, or written to regulators (I've been in touch with the Advertising Standards Authority, three different Trading Standards branches, Professional Standards Authority in the UK as well as regulators in Ireland and the US). I'd not have signed or shared petitions or lent my voice to calls for homeopathy to be defunded by the NHS (successful) by insurance companies (partially successful) or removed as a first line treatment for vets (successful), and I'd not have welcomed the attitudinal change among newspaper editors and TV producers in several countries which means articles and programmes now actively criticise the dangerous claims made, instead of advertising homeopathy clinics as they used to (still do, but to a lesser extent).

*Not just bloggers like me but doctors, nurses, vets, scientists, angry patients, health activists and skeptic bloggers.

References
(1) Malaria advice 'risks lives' (BBC News) 13 July 2006
(2) Homeopaths ‘treat’ autistic children with rabid dog saliva (The Times) 14 April 2019

See also
How homeopaths push useless alternatives to crucial vaccines (The Times) 4 May 2019

The Times view on homeopathic treatments: Dangerous Quackery (The Times) 4 May 2019
Homeopathic alternatives to the measles vaccine pose a risk to public health



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Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).