Thursday, 6 January 2011

Pointless Placebo

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Newsnight this week 1 featured a segment on homeopathy and calls for more controls and regulations for the industry. Many popular celebrities and much of the royal family use homeopathy, making it popular and trendy within the media and public alike. The use of homeopathy to treat mild conditions, in which effective treatment does not exist I’m sure has a place within medicine, as science has already established that the placebo effect can be very powerful. However, what is not acceptable is when homeopathy is used instead of conventional medicines and so putting a person’s life at risk. The program talked with Simon Sigh, who recently won a liable case in court when he spoke out against pseudoscience, and consulted with Zofia Dymitr, the current chairwoman of the society of homeopaths. The debate was interesting because Zofia said she did not condone the use of homeopathy in treating tropical diseases, or as a prophylaxis to prevent infection, which is something many homeopathic clinics have been claiming. Unfortunately there is on unified regulatory body in order to police the homeopaths claims.

Homeopathy has a huge following, many of whom don’t know the truth about the treatment and the scientific fact that it is so dilute that it doesn’t actually contain any active ingredients what so ever. The problem arises not just from misleading the public and the lack of accurate labeling on the packaging, but from well meaning people traveling out to developing countries and setting up clinics there, in order to offer homeopathic treatments to the local population. This is fundamentally wrong, the community in many developing countries tends to have a respect and trust in westerners and there western medicine, and they usually only have a basic understanding of English, these facts combined make them very vulnerable. They are not making an informed decision as to what they are taking, and in doing so do not receiving often life saving real medication for the diseases.  The standard of health care in many of these countries is often very basic; patients tend to have very little understanding of what they are taking and so trust the doctor. Further challenges arise from the existing alternative medicines provided from the witch doctors or other respected members of the community, which are cheaper and seem more natural and closer to the peoples cultural beliefs, mislead thousands of people every year, preventing then from obtaining effective treatment. This is challenging enough without adding to this by offering homeopathy to an already crowded and confusing selection of treatment options.

The call for better labeling on homeopathic treatments is one graining much support both within and outside of the scientific community. I’m sure there are many homeopaths that follow current regulations, and advise patients to seek conventional medicine for serious conditions and do not make outrageous and unsupported claims. But there is also a minority, who are putting people at risk, and this needs to be addressed. Many people also seek out homeopathic treatments after reading alternative medicine books and websites, and so pharmacies that insist on selling these treatments need to have clear labeling to advise the customers of what they are actually getting, as many believe they are buying herb extracts when in fact its just sugar pills. Education and clear labeling are the most effective ways to insure that people know what they are getting and can make a decision for themselves. Sense About Science 2, a organization who campaigns for accurate science within the media and public domain, have produced a memorandum for people to sign in order to push the government in to clearer and more accurate labeling on homeopathic treatments 3. I would urge everyone to please sign this petition in order to allow people to make informed decisions for themselves, rather than allowing them to be misled by the current labeling. For those who feel more strongly about the fallacy which is homeopathy and do not support the governments decision to offer it on the NHS, costing the tax payer thousands of pounds which could have been better spent on proven effective treatments. There is a campaign called 10:23 4, which is organized by the Merseyside skeptics and is a large scale protest and event where people gather and ‘overdose’ on homeopathy treatments. Because the tablets are sugar pills, and contain no actual active ingredients at the standard 30c dose, they are harmless and so the guidelines on the packaging make it look like a medication with complex warnings and dosage guidelines, when in fact it is just placebo sugar pills. Last year demonstration saw 400 people take a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’, to show ‘there is nothing in it’, which will be repeated this year on a larger scale. All thought this campaign has received much media coverage, there are many people out there still unwilling to accept the science and reality behind it, but at least they have been presented with the facts and allowed the freedom to choose.

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