Miracle cures or quack medicine?

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Homeopathy, supported by specialist stores, mainstream pharmacies, and high-profile figures as Prince Charles and Paul McCartney, is big business.

It  is an alternative or ‘complementary’ therapy, and treatments are described as ‘holistic’, claiming to treat ‘mind, body and soul’.

Homeopathic remedies are dilutions of active ingredients in water or alcohol, which will cure symptoms without a prescription.

The dilution is also necessary because at normal dosage, the ingredients, such as arsenic, would often be highly poisonous. A common dilution is comparable to one drop in more than the total number of atoms in the universe.

The dilution is said to be key to the treatment, but a ratio like this sounds like quackery to a me; just a cheap way to make safe treatments that, like the Bach Rescue Remedy ‘flower essence’ (£7 for 20ml), can be sold to a large market at inflated prices.

Supporters of homeopathy  like to think that it is anti-capitalist, but consider that Holland & Barrett, which carries such products, is in the top 20 pharmaceutical firms in the US.

Homeopathy has been funded by the NHS since  its establishment . Clinical trials by the NHS Centre for Reviews and Disseminations, however, have shown that it only functions because of a placebo effect.

It is also possible that, having taken a homeopathic treatment, one may over time gradually begin to feel better, just as if one  had done nothing.

Advocates have argued that it is difficult to test clinically, due to the personalised nature of each diagnosis and prescription. This just sounds like an excuse to avoid the truth that homeopathy is virtually always found to be scientifically defunct.

Michael Baum, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at UCL, recently described homeopathy as ‘a cruel deception’, and encouraged hospital trusts to cancel their contracts for homeopathic services.

A fifth have cut funding for homeopathy in the last two years, and the five dedicated homeopathic hospitals in the UK are now in crisis.

Of course, it is a concern that without these services, patients may instead visit unqualified ‘back-street quacks’ who may rip their patients off, or even harm them.

The NHS’ current financial quagmire (it overspent by about £547 million in 2005-6), however, means that it has to cut back somewhere.

There is already controversy over its reluctance to fund potentially cancer-treating drugs such as Herceptin or to increase funding of IVF. So would it really be right for it to prioritise an unproven practice over these vital services?

I am concerned, though, that homeopathy may actually be harmful. It encourages people to  self-medicate instead of addressing the underlying cause of the problem.

Some homeopaths have encouraged parents to boycott the MMR vaccine, warning that it may cause autism in their children, but this unsubstantiated link has meant many children have gone unvaccinated.

Some have claimed that homeopathy has an essential role in understanding that the same illness in different people may require different treatments – and some have claimed that practitioners of conventional medicine are staid and old-fashioned.

I agree that we need continual re-evaluation of the way medicine is practised, but conventional medicine is already self-critical.

All clinical trials must be registered before they begin, in order to ensure that unfavourable results cannot simply be hidden. It is honest.

Rarely do homeopaths admit the number of trials that have found that homeopathy has no effect.

 I urge you: stop wasting your money on pointless potions, and spend it on something nice like a box of chocolates instead. It’ll do you a lot more good.

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