April 10 is World Homeopathy Day but, far from celebrating it, it should be banned entirely because it wastes public resources and is even dangerous to the welfare of the public. It should not be thought of as medicine. It doesn’t even deserve to be called ‘alternative medicine’. It is nothing other than quackery.
In this article I’d like to take things from the beginning in case readers are not aware about the false claims and lack of scientific evidence contained within homeopathy. After all, I have to admit that I was ignorant of these things into my mid-twenties; until then I did believe that homeo was a valid form of medicine. Alas!
Homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century in what is now Germany. Homeopathy Day marks Hahnemann’s birthday, in fact. He came to the inaccurate conclusion, through experience of consuming cinchona bark, that what causes you to become ill can also cure you (homeopathy comes from the Greek for ‘like’ and ‘suffering’). These substances, like cinchona, he would then dilute to miniscule levels, claiming that the water or alcohol the agent was dissolved in would carry the substance’s health properties. It is important to state here that this claim has no scientific backing whatsoever.
When homeopathy was invented by Hahnemann, it was a novel, even welcome, proposition. After all, back then what counted for medicine was primitive and even dangerous, with the treatment often worse than the ailment itself. The medical world, such as it was, did not know much about viruses, bacteria or how diseases spread. Until the 19th century it wasn’t even standard practice for doctors to wash their hands regularly. So, the introduction of homeopathic pills and potions, which are basically harmless, was an interesting idea thrown into the mix of medical developments.
But over decades and into the 20th century, homeopathy was debunked by the scientific community. Antibiotics were developed, as well as antiviral, and we learnt more and more about DNA, cancers, influenza, ulcers, arthritis, smallpox and a whole range of other illnesses. As this happened homeopathy’s credibility evaporated as its assumptions and claims were disproved.
Nevertheless, despite being “an outrage to human reason”, as one physician put it, homeopathy’s supporters have remained loyal and their numbers have grown.
Is some of this down to a lack of knowledge behind what constitutes homeopathy? As I admitted earlier, I used to be under the impression that homeopathy was a genuine form of medicine. My mother gave us, as children, homeopathy pills to protect us from conjunctivitis and I gobbled up the sweet ‘medicines’ with glee. Other family and friends believe in it as well and I only came to realise the truth about it after watching a documentary by Richard Dawkins (famous to religious people for authoring the book ‘The God Delusion’) in 2007.
So, how is it meant to work? One of the two fundamental tenets of homeopathy is that “like cures like” — that is, if something causes a fever, the same thing will also ease it through the second law, that of minimum dosage, where a core ingredient is diluted to the point that there no longer remains even a single molecule of the original substance left.
If there is none of the original substance left in the ‘medicine’, it stands to reason that it could not possibly work. However, homeopaths have come up with a bizarre idea that water can contain a memory of what was diluted in it and thus retain healing properties. This completely contradicts all relevant scientific knowledge.
Homeopathic prescriptions are also given a veneer of respectability with their Latin names. Natrum muriaticum, after all, sounds so much more convincing as a cure than table salt. On the other hand, one might shy away from Oscillococcinum if one knew it was derived from duck liver but fret not – there’s nothing really in it at all.
But there are millions of people who swear by those sugar pills and they obviously wouldn’t if they didn’t think they were benefiting somehow.
Critics of homeopathy have an idea about this. Many ailments resolve themselves on their own. Take a contemporary example – while Covid-19 is a very serious disease, some people experience only a few, minor symptoms that are beaten by the body’s own immune system within a few days. Most illnesses have this sort of growth curve before petering out (or, in the case of serious cases, killing the afflicted person). But if I take homeopathy while ill and then recover, I might be tempted to ascribe the cure to the pills.
The problem with this is that homeopathic ‘treatments’ are not tested anywhere near as rigorously as allopathic ones. Claims of homeopathic efficacy are usually based on cherry-picking favourable results whereas real medicines go through numerous blind and double-blind trials. Only a fraction of medicines that are proposed ever make it into pharmacies because those that do not pass all the trials are discarded.
However, even those medicines that pass the tests often have side-effects. This is another angle of attack for the homeopathy lobby, who point out that their ‘treatments’ have no side-effects. But common sense tells us rightly that it is impossible for homeopathy to have side-effects because, at the end of the day, it is made up of just a bit of sugar, nothing more.
In India, the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, Homeopathy) has overall governmental responsibility for this so-call alternative medicine and has embarrassed itself on at least two occasions in the last one year.
Without any basis in fact, the Ministry advised the public to take homeopathy at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to build immunity and stave off infection. It was widely (and rightly) mocked for this ridiculous suggestion.
Then, after it emerged that the Prince of Wales had had the coronavirus, India’s AYUSH’s Minister of State tweeted that Prince Charles had been cured through Ayurveda (another pseudo-scientific practice) and homeopathy. Charles is a known supporter of homeo (for which he has received criticism in the UK) but his staff denied the claims made in this tweet.
I say scrap AYUSH. In the 2021-22 budget it has been allocated nearly Rs 3,000 crore, an increase of 40 per cent (!) on the previous financial year. The Union Health Ministry, meanwhile, will get Rs 71,000 crore, an increase of just 9 per cent. Admittedly, AYUSH’s budget is only 4 per cent of the Health Ministry’s but it is growing at a grotesque rate and, in a country that is poor and whose government spends a miserable 0.34 percent of its GDP on health, even another 4 per cent going towards real medicine and science could be of immense benefit rather than being poured down the drain of so-called alternative medicine.
India’s increasing support for this nonsense runs counter to the trend seen in other countries. Although there are still some that do not restrict it, the UK and France forbid government funding for homeopathy, while Spain proposed banning it entirely as dangerous. The US health service has clearly cautioned that there is no research that has proven the effectiveness of homeopathy, while Russia and Australia have also warned against it.
So, are there no redeeming features of homeopathy? Strangely, despite all I’ve said, yes there are. Admittedly the prescriptions themselves do not work. That has to be clearly stated. But homeopaths tend to give more time to their patients during consultations and that reassuring experience is something that even Dawkins admired about it. But that’s about it.
By all means, let people believe in homeopathy. Their belief in it makes it more of a faith, though, like Christianity, Hinduism or the like. We should therefore have all suggestions that it is medicine, which gives it a veneer of scientific respectability, removed. Its pills and potions should not be called medicines, shops that sell them should not be called pharmacies, its practitioners should not be called doctors and the government should use the money it is frittering away on the AYUSH Ministry on real healthcare and science.