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

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.

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.

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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 09/19/2013 - 01:34 pm.

    Get Your Own Darn Name

    The fact that they steal the name recognition of Doctors Without Borders and all of its good work makes me almost as angry as their worthless treatments. I hope they don’t undermine DWB’s reputation.

    P.S. — Love the “Homeopaths Without Boarders” typo in one of the long quotes. Is there an association of homeopaths who run unsuccessful boarding houses?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/19/2013 - 03:22 pm.


    In most cases where some ‘miracle cure’ is claimed, the disease has never been formally diagnosed, so no one knows where there was a serious disease to be cured in the first place.

  3. Submitted by Sandra Courtney on 09/19/2013 - 06:09 pm.

    Facts: Homeopathy in treatment epidemics and pandemics

    Homeopathy has a stellar history with regard to the treatment of people suffering in disasters world-wide. The readers here are welcome to read facts using this link below.

  4. Submitted by Laurie Willberg on 09/20/2013 - 05:55 am.

    Facts not opinions about Homeopathy

    Homeopathy has been used by the Cuban government to prevent annual Leptospirosis outbreaks for the past 5 years with tremendous success. It is presently being used in India for the prevention of malaria and in Brazil for the prevention of Dengue fever.
    One of the largest meta-analyses ever undertaken on the medical and cost-effectiveness of Homeopathy was actually commissioned by the Swiss government and published in English in 2011. Homeopathy is a valued medical system and part of the national health care system of Switzerland. David Shaw must be living under a rock and completely oblivious to the health care system in his own country. It’s apparent he knows nothing about Homeopathy, and even less about Homeopaths Without Borders.
    The BMJ should be shot for publishing such idiotic slander about humanitarians who are clearly having a positive impact in reducing the suffering of thousands of people.

    • Submitted by Mark Mattingly on 09/21/2013 - 10:10 pm.

      The claim that homeopathy has been able to prevent annual Leptospirosis outbreaks in Cuba is one of the most potentially damaging of all. The study that homeopaths use to support the claim is not a study. It is a reaction to the oral dosing of a homeopathic remedy to millions. It was done with no prior large scale clinical trials of either safety or even if it was effective. This view is from the Society of Homeopaths: ” presenting homeoprophylaxis as a safe and effective solution with the current paucity of evidence is reckless and misleading. ”

      Exploiting the most vulnerable and using the unproven results to aid their cause is a pattern. Looking at the Leptospirosis outbreak. Ethical? Previous double-blind studies–0. Previous safety studies-0. Did they tell the people they were taking an experiental remedy–no. No randomized controls were used. So, no method was devised to measure outcomes, so any perceived result could not be measured. Their response was it was an emergancy situation because not enough vaccine was available. So they spent $200,000 and a week later had the million doses. No predefined anything just give it to them and claim sucess.

      Prevention of malaria and Dengue fever the same pattern, but no call that there was an emergency.

    • Submitted by Mark Mattingly on 09/22/2013 - 04:28 pm.

      Exploitation,inadequate testing, unverifiliable results.

      Laurie seems to think that being used is the same as being effective. Using any medical treatment before adequate testing is unethical and dangerous. Is it slander to hold homeopaths to modern standards evidence and treatment? Is there even one good double-blind trial showing that homeopathy can be recommended for the treatment of malaria or Dengue fever? How can they be humanitarians, if they treat without adequate evidence? That’s an example of exploitation. Further exploitation is to these examples of medical malpractice as examples of “tremendous success”.

  5. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/20/2013 - 08:45 am.

    Homeopathy and the University of Minnesota

    Those with an interest in this topic might want to consult some background material.

    For example:

    1. Homeopathy at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center?
    (Star-Tribune Community Voices Blog)

    2. Why Would an Academic Health Center Support Homeopathy?
    (Chronicle of Higher Education)

    3. Response to 2. by two University of Minnesota Medical School Deans
    (Chronicle of Higher Education)

    Homeopathy and many other forms of so-called alternative medicine have no place in an institution that purports to be pursuing evidence based medicine.

    William B. Gleason, PhD
    U of M faculty and alum
    (Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Medical School)

  6. Submitted by Sandra Courtney on 09/20/2013 - 10:38 am.

    Promising Research Trials Homeopathy in Treatment of Cancer

    There are many research trials proving the efficacy of homeopathy in the treatment of cancer. This is just one of them. There are many more.

    Cancer patients treated with the Banerji protocols utilising homoeopathic medicine: a Best Case Series Program of the National Cancer Institute USA

    Abstract: “Lung and oesophageal carcinoma patients were treated with homoeopathic remedies at the PBHRF according to Banerji’s protocol until there was complete regression of the tumors. Case records including pathology and radiology reports for 14 patients were submitted for review by the US NCI BCS Program. Four of these cases had an independent confirmation of the diagnosis and radiographic response and were accepted as sufficient information for the NCI to initiate further investigation. These four cases are presented in detail in this report along with follow-up and outcome information. This study describes the process and outcome of a selected case series review through the NCI BCS Program. The results of the review were deemed to be sufficient to warrant NCI-initiated prospective research follow-up in the form of an observational study.”


    • Submitted by John Smith on 09/21/2013 - 02:13 pm.

      Did you actually read the article? It does NOT say anything about the efficacy of homeopathy. The authors themselves state that it was simply a process of selecting cases and that they would be reviewed.

      I’d like to see even one GOOD study (random, double blind, placebo controlled, with good power) that says that homeopathic medicine is statistically signifcantly different from placebo. There are none because homeopathy is simply quacks stealing money from people who don’t know any better.

  7. Submitted by Christine Jahnig on 09/20/2013 - 11:13 am.

    Homeopathy Works — Beautifully and Safely

    Why is a bioethicist with no knowledge of or training in homeopathy or homeopathic research commenting at all? I read one of his papers, and it was very clear that Dr. Shaw did not understand the value of external validity when he wrote the paper. An example of one of his papers is “Cryogenics: Seeking Life After Death”. How does that relate to the second most used system of medicine in the world today – homeopathy? Shaw’s resume between 2000 and 2005 includes jobs as a moral philosophy tutor, an English instructor and a medical editor. While they are admirable positions none of them qualify him in homeopathy.

    These are a few of the real facts about homeopathy:

    Homeopathy is famous for its cures of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, diseases considered incurable in conventional medicine. For case records google “homeopathy cured cases”.

    In 2005 the WHO recognized homeopathy as the second most used system of medicine in the world. In WHO’s 2003-4 report “Homeopathy: review and analysis of reports on controlled clinical trials” it noted that the majority of peer-reviewed scientific papers over the past 40 years have demonstrated that homeopathy is superior to placebo in placebo-controlled trials and is equivalent to conventional medicine in treating illnesses in humans and animals.

    70% to 90% of the world’s population uses alternative medicines (called traditional medicine) including homeopathy.

    Almost one-third of American medical schools including Harvard, Yale, John’s Hopkins and Georgetown offer course work in alternative medicines.

    At the end of 2010 there were 307 studies published in 119 respected, national and international, peer-reviewed journals including 11 meta-analyses, 8 systematic reviews, 1 Cochrane review and 95 DBRPCT’s proving homeopathy works to produce significant to substantial health benefits in a wide array of conditions.

    Homeopathy works. It’s safe. It’s inexpensive. That’s why it’s growing in use at annual rates of 10% to 30% in countries around the world. That’s why it’s being attacked.

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/20/2013 - 02:12 pm.


    First, I have pretty strong feelings about this, but I will distinguish myself from the homeopathy apologists and make clear that I don’t think anyone should be shot.

    Rather than try to rebut those who clearly didn’t read Shaw in the first place, I am just going to say how impressed I am that people from other states (Florida, New Jersey) and even other countries (Canada) are now commenting on Minnpost. In fact, this piece inspired the very first Minnpost comments ever for several homeopathy apologists.

  9. Submitted by TIM SHANNON on 02/17/2017 - 02:58 pm.

    Homeopathy & Cancer

    First of all, since I’m a homeopath, that would make me a “homeopathic apologist” according to some folks writing on this. For those people who would like to dismiss ANYTHING I say because I have positive things to say about homeopathy – this comment is not going to be of any use to you – nor will it likely even be heard.

    Instead, this is being written for open minded people, but also skeptical people. To be clear, there is a functional difference between skeptical and cynical. People who dismiss homeopathy out of hand – often without knowing the first thing about it, are cynics. These are the people who essentially say ” I wouldn’t believe it even if it did work.” Skeptics, on the other hand, are those that don’t just blindly believe one way or the other but are open to seeing reasonable evidence and developing their point of view from there. Cynics have their doors firmly shut. Skeptics have their dar ajar.

    Even though I’m a homeopath, I too am a skeptic. But my skepticism is MUCH more broad. I am skeptical of homeopathy, conventional medicine, chinese medicine, etc. You name the form of medicine, I’m skeptical. Does that mean I don’t think any forms of medicine work? Hardly. Instead I just look at each system and evaluate them on their merits. I’ve seen great things from conventional med, homeopathy, chinese med, Naturopathic Treatments, botanicals, etc. I’ve also seen all those systems fail dismally – or only partially help. So again, I take each with a grain of salt and apply the best medicine as I can justify from my experience. Even though I practice homeopathic medicine, I am a licensed naturopath. So that means I can order CT’s, MRI’s and administer a good amount of conventional meds if needed. So I am not a purist by any means. I do my best to use what works — then I watch the patient for evidence of clear and reasonable improvements.

    But fundamentally, I’m a skeptic. I consciously work to look for alternatives and ways to improve. If you want to improve, you HAVE to be an active skeptic. Otherwise, you just keep yourself in a little box and never look outside it to see there is MUCH more that works.

    There are many examples of questionable treatments with all forms of medicine. I can give countless examples of this, but a good example in the conventional system is anti depressants. People are SO woefully ignorant of the facts about these drugs – that for decades there has been little evidence to show that they are effective beyond placebo. Yet, they are THE go to for anxiety, depression, and all manner of undefined ills coming out of the ER. Do I believe that no one benefits from them? of course not! But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t placebo’s.

    I have occasional patients on antidepressants for whom I cannot get them successfuly off the drug. But the majority do better with homeopathy. Some could say it’s swapping placebo’s. Certainly, on a case by case basis, there’s no way to evaluate that. But clinical success has merit when it’s durable and repeatable. I don’t wait for clinical trials (which have their own problems both from the scientific perspective as well as economicaly) to give me permission/direction as to what works.

    Patients are often the same. They come to me and us alternative med “quacks” because they’ve been to the experts (conventional doc’s) who often can’t offer adequate help – or any help when it comes to chronic disease. They are NOT looking for some trial to prove if the treatment works, they are looking for results. Often, certainly not always, I can deliver better results than the best of conventional care. Sometimes my efforts also are an adjunct, not a full replacement for conventional treatment. However, it’s common for me to help people off of many drugs they no longer need; thyroid meds, anti-hypertensives, antidepressants, anxiolytics, analgesics and some others.

    The vast majority of articles like this tend to smear homeopathy out of hand. But they almost always neglect the single most important element in the discussion – does it work? They never go past looking @ the trials they love to love, and avoiding the ones that suggest there IS biological action. In other words, once closed minded, we tend to look for evidence that reflects our internal reality/beliefs. Of course, this phenomenon is Not exclusive to conventional doctors – or even doctors particularly.

    But anyway, here’s a little ditty about homeopathy and cancer, from the book “Integrative Oncology” By Abrams & Weil.

    “Even though homeopathic remedies used in clinical trials appear to be safe and without adverse effects and with the widespread use of these remedies in cancer care in Europe, it is still unclear if homeopathy has any clinical effect in cancer patients, and until recently, homeopathy has not received attention as a possible treatment option.

    A 2008 clinical report from India on patients with lung and esophageal carcinoma who were treated with homoeopathic remedies according to Banerji’s protocol revealed that there was complete regression of the tumors. Case records including pathology and radiology reports for 14 patients were submitted for review to the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) Best Case Series Program. Four of these cases had an independent confirmation of the diagnosis and radiographic response. These cases were accepted by the NCI as sufficient information to initiate further investigation. Unfortunately, since that report, no clinical trials were conducted in an attempt to repeat and verify Banerji’s findings (Banerji, Campbell, & 2008).”

    That little sentence at the end tells the tale. The phrase that says no trials have been conducted to follow-up. This is a common phenomenon. Here we have documented complete remissions of often deadly cancer using NOTHING but homeopathy in Rural India. Hey, maybe it’s a fluke! We don’t know with that few cases. But it also COULD be legit.

    Think of how wonderful it would be if we had a medical system who was interested in the best treatments – regardless of how much they cost (ridiculously cheap compared to conventional oncology treatments). Or what about a system of medicine that was interested more in the results than whether it seemed plausible. Wow,! that’d be revolutionary. Remember, there are numerous examples of theories that were considered obvious bunk. Then we found out that washing one’s hands before performing gynecological surgery saved lives! What a shock. But at the time, that doctor (Semmelweisz) washed his hands and had WAY better outcomes. But his colleagues, having no way to prove how this could work, mercilessly berated him. He’s just one of many other examples that show when we close our mind, we close also the possibility of improving our medicine.

    With regards to the book quotation above, you have a situation of some of the most skeptical doctors in the world saying – yes these are complete remissions of cancer with homeopathy. In a medical system truly looking for the best treatment, they wouldn’t be able to let this lie. They’d just HAVE to go to India and investigate these 2 hospitals in Kolkata to see for themselves. But nope, not a peep. That is the true tragedy that there IS evidence of homeopathy working in very serious pathology and the so called “science” based doc’s don’t follow up. Again, this type of miss is commonplace and certainly the norm. Even when it comes to less controversial treatments the same phenomenon is ubiquitous.

    The only thing left then for patients who have conditions that conventional med fails with, or is only partially effective with is alternatives. To brow beat and castigate folks for doing what they must do to try to get relief and good healthcare is a shame in my mind. The only thing it does is helps to reinforce the reality for most folks, that it’s better to keep silent.

    I hope we rise above this some day and simply agree to disagree without all the ad hominem and pejorative comments. If we had anything resembling a level playing field with alternatives being give a true chance in the share of good research, it would be a miracle. But it’s not even close to true today. The vast majority of $ spent on research goes to conventional treatments.

    In any case, this has gone on too long. Medicine should be about people trying to get and stay well – that is what we should be evaluating. Not just glad handing all the conventional “approved” treatments while bashing it’s alternatives.


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