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Homeopaths are exploiting some of world’s most vulnerable people, bioethicist charges

Bioethicist David Shaw calls some of the group’s activities “shocking” and much “more dubious than that of most homeopaths.”

The danger comes when people use homeopathic remedies instead of proven medicines to treat illnesses.

Few things are as ridiculous as homeopathic medicines, which are based on a 200-year-old totally discredited idea that if you dilute a substance that causes symptoms, you can then package that dilution in a pill or vial and use it to treat those symptoms.

No matter that the substance is diluted, as the British physician, science writer and homeopathic debunker Dr. Ben Goldacre has noted, to the point where “it equates to one molecule of the substance in a sphere of water whose diameter is roughly the distance from the earth to the sun.”

It will still work as a treatment, homeopaths claim, because — contrary to all known laws of the universe — the water retains the “memory” of the substance.

As I said: ridiculous.

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Still, people are free to waste their money on anything they want. And, for the most part, homeopathic medicines are innocuous — nothing more than very expensive sugar pills, as study after study has shown.

The danger comes, of course, when people use them instead of proven medicines to treat illnesses. And, tragically, that does happen. As I’ve reported here before, an Australian baby died from septicemia a few years ago after her parents opted to treat her extreme eczema with homeopathic medicines only.

Disturbing and dubious

It was disturbing, therefore, to read in the journal BMJ this week about a group called Homeopaths Without Borders. A key part of the group’s mission, writes David Shaw, a bioethicist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, is “to propagate homeopathy in countries where it has not previously had a foothold.”

Shaw calls some of the group’s activities “shocking” and much “more dubious than that of most homeopaths.” (In the U.S. and other developed countries, most practicing homeopaths  — and the multi-million-dollar companies that market homeopathic “remedies” — know they risk being sued if they make any medical claims for their products.)

Homeopaths Without Borders seems not to care, however. In Kenya, for example, they have trained midwives to use homeopathy to save lives in difficult deliveries.

Shaw focuses much of his commentary, however, on the group’s efforts in Haiti in the aftermath of that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

“Much as an opportunistic infection can take hold when a person’s immune system is weakened,” he writes, “so Homeopaths Without Borders strikes when a country is weakened by a disaster.”

He explains why he believes the group’s actions are unethical:

Unfortunately, people affected by massive earthquakes cannot benefit from homeopathy any more than people living safely in London. Although Homeopaths Without Borders’ workers may have helped to distribute water and food, any benefit was purely incidental to the presence of homeopathic treatments. Indeed, providing homeopathic treatments might actually harm patients by making them think that they do not need to seek conventional treatment for their injuries or diseases.

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Furthermore, the creation of homeopathic pharmacies increases the likelihood that Haitians will not obtain effective treatments for future illnesses. … Long after the earthquake, more people in Haiti will believe in a discredited system of so called medicine, making long term harm more likely than if the campaign had not been undertaken in the first place.

Unfortunately, Homeopaths Without Borders is expanding its proselytizing efforts in Haiti and other developing countries. “Its website states that it intends not only to train Haitian homeopaths,” notes Shaw, “but to have Haitians teach Haitians to become homeopaths.”

Recent actions in Haiti

Those efforts have apparently already begun. I went to the website for the group’s North American chapter and came across this disturbing first-person account of homeopaths recently in action in Haiti:

There were many families to be seen. A four-year-old child was seen who had been treated recently for Typhoid but was still having fevers, malaise and poor appetite. The Homeopathes chose to give him China 200c to cover Malaria and Typhoid. Another case they took consisted of a 70-year-old woman who had headaches in the sun and hypertension. She was asked about the etiology and revealed that she lost her husband and five children many years ago, but still thinks of them. The Homeopathes chose the correct remedy! Another family of three came to be seen and the three-year-old son was in his mother’s arms, rather listless and clinging to his mama, with the complaint of dry cough for eight days and dark, smelly urine which burned his penis when urinating for the last three days. The Homeopathes consulted with each other and gave him a dose of Phosphorus 200C. By the time his sister’s and mother’s cases were taken, he was up running around and smiling. The students were amazed!

Malaria. Typhoid. Hypertension. A possible urinary infection. Those are all serious illnesses. Yet nowhere does the author of this account say that the homeopaths referred those Haitians to a medical clinic. It sounds, however, as if the four-year-old with typhoid and perhaps some of the others may have already been receiving conventional treatment. Let’s hope that’s the case.

Needless to say, the  homeopathic “miracle cure” of the listless child with the cough and the urinary problem is highly suspect.

‘A contradiction in terms’

“Despite Homeopaths Without Borders’ claims to the contrary, ‘homeopathic humanitarian help’ is a contradiction in terms,” writes Shaw. “Although providing food, water, and solace to people in areas affected by wars and natural disasters certainly constitutes valuable humanitarian work, any homeopathic treatment deceives patients into thinking they are receiving real treatment when they are not.”

“Homeopathy is neither helpful nor humanitarian,” he adds, “and to claim otherwise to the victims of disasters amounts to exploitation of those in need of genuine aid.”

You can read Shaw’s commentary on the BMJ website.