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Hundreds take ‘overdoses’ of homeopathic ‘medicine’ – with no ill effect

Last weekend was the second annual 10:23 Challenge event.

Last weekend was the second annual 10:23 Challenge event. Hundreds of protesters in 23 cities in 10 countries (although apparently none in Minnesota) took very public overdoses of homeopathic “medicines” — everything from sleeping pills to arsenicum album (yes, supposedly derived from arsenic and recommended for a variety of ailments).

Not a single person got ill from the overdoses. And that was the protesters’ point.

You can’t overdose on properly prepared homeopathic medicines. That’s because they are made using a dilution process that removes any possibility of active ingredients. (Although sometimes, as was the case with the homeopathic baby teething tablets recalled by the FDA last fall, this process isn’t followed and substances that can actually cause harm remain in the product.)

In plain language: These “medicines” contain nothing more than sugar pills and water.

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In plainer language: They don’t work (except as placebos).

Wasted effort?
The 10:23 Challenge, which received some press coverage overseas but barely a media mention here in the States, was amusing to follow online (see this Guardian video), and I applaud the protesters’ efforts.

But are such actions a waste of time and energy?

Sometimes I think they are. The people I’ve met who use homeopathic remedies aren’t really interested in scientific evidence — even though that science is pretty simple to grasp. (The evidence refuting homeopathy can be found in basic biology, chemistry and physics, the kind you had — or should have had — by at least junior high.) No, the true believers are going to retain their faith in homeopathy’s grand-sounding nonsense (like the “law of similars” and the “law of infinitesimals”) no matter what the science says — or even how much their bank accounts become depleted by buying these products.

And, believe me, a lot of people are making a lot of money from marketing homeopathic nonsense — including all the stores that sell the stuff.

Here’s an example from British physicist and science writer Simon Singh, a well-known European critic of homeopathy, of just how big those profit margins can be:

Each year a homoeopathic company called Boiron kills a muscovy duck and then extracts its heart and liver. This is then repeatedly diluted to create the entire world’s supply of the flu remedy that generates sales of more than $20 million. There is no reason why a duck’s heart and liver should cure flu, particularly when it is so diluted that the resulting pills contain no extract of duck. This has to be the ultimate quack remedy.

First, do no harm
Such an example may make rational people smile at others’ gullibility, but it’s important to remember that homeopathy can result in harm — when people use these treatments instead of seeking medical care for a serious illness.

In 2006, Singh sent Alice Tuff, a young intern at the British nonprofit organization Sense About Science, to visit 10 London homeopath clinics chosen at random. Tuff told the homeopaths a made-up story about her being about to take an extended trip to malaria-infested areas of West Africa. What should she do, Tuff asked the homeopaths, to protect herself against the potentially deadly disease?

Writes Singh:

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Seven out of the ten homeopaths failed to ask about the patient’s medical background and also failed to offer any general advice about bite prevention. Worse still, ten out of ten homeopaths were willing to advise homeopathic protection against malaria instead of conventional treatment, which would have put our pretend traveller’s life at risk.

As Singh notes, the homeopaths offered anecdotes — not science — to support their advice:

According to one practitioner, “Once somebody told me she went to Africa to work and she said the people who took malaria tablets got malaria, although it was probably a different subversive type not the full blown, but the people who took homeopathics didn’t. They didn’t get ill at all.” She also advised that homeopathy could protect against yellow fever, dysentery and typhoid. Another homeopath tried to explain the mechanism behind the remedies: “The remedies should lower your susceptibility; because what they do is they make it so your energy – your living energy – doesn’t have a kind of malaria-shaped hole in it. The malarial mosquitoes won’t come along and fill that in. The remedies sort it out.”

I have no idea how or why that homeopath concocted the idea of a malaria-shaped hole in one’s living energy (whatever that is) or why the other homeopath thinks it’s OK to prescribe medicine based on what “somebody” once told her. But those kinds of reports make me realize that events like the 10:23 Challenge are necessary.

It’s one thing for a homeopath to tell someone to take a homeopathic “medicine” to ease the symptoms of the common cold. The pill won’t help you — but it won’t harm you, either. (The same can be said for most over-the-counter conventional cold and flu medicines.) But it’s quite another thing — and a dangerous one at that — to be prescribing one of these sugar pills in place of an anti-malaria drug.

As New York Times columnist and anti-malaria campaigner Nicholas Kristoff pointed out in his paper on Tuesday, about five American travellers die of malaria each year.

Let’s hope, then, that the 10:23 Challenge event continues to grow each year. And, hey, I just may join it next year.