Homeopathy's healing powers put to the test

 

Homeopathy, that most mild-mannered of medical treatments, has become the target of a protest campaign, writes PAUL CULLEN, Consumer Affairs Correspondent

LAST WEEK, OUTSIDE Boots branches throughout Britain, protesters staged mock “overdoses” of homeopathic remedies in a bid to prove they are worthless, and campaigners now want the National Health Service to remove its support for homeopathic treatments.

After years of growth, it seems that homeopathy and other alternative treatments are facing a backlash. First, they came under scrutiny from the mainstream scientific establishment. Then, they were ridiculed in popular books with titles such as Bad Science and Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All.

Not that you’d know all this in Ireland. Here, the alternative medicine scene continues to thrive and diversify and there are no plans by sceptics to organise protests similar to those in the UK. Two of the three main health insurers provide benefit for homeopathic treatment and make no apologies for doing so.

Homeopathy treats patients with heavily diluted preparations, the effects of which are said to be similar to the symptoms presented. The dilution continues to such an extent that there may be no molecules of the original substance left in the dose given to the patient. It is claimed that the water has a “memory” of the substance that was originally introduced into it.

Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, describes homeopathy as “an industry where sugar pills have healing powers conferred upon them by being shaken with one drop of the ingredient which has been diluted, so extremely, that 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”.

Critics say scientific studies show there is no evidence that homeopathy works, or that it is better than a placebo. Goldacre points out that many illnesses have a natural history; they are bad and then they get better. Wait long enough and your cold will get better, regardless of any medical intervention.

Other conditions, such as back pain, have a natural cycle, he says; good days come after bad days, eventually.

The bulk of scientific research has failed to find any evidence that homeopathic remedies work, but the Irish Society of Homeopaths says there are “many studies” which have demonstrated a positive effect. Spokeswoman Sheelagh Behan says homeopathy has “worked miracles” on her own pets and its effect on young babies, likewise, cannot be put down to the placebo effect.

Wexford octogenarian Ronnie Plant is another believer in the benefits of homeopathic treatment. “All these people treated down through the years, they can’t be wrong. It does work and the results are impressive, especially with niggling ailments.”

A naturopath, Plant has used homeopathic remedies for almost 50 years and says the results are “unbelievable”. Like many in the alternative medicine camp, he is distrustful of conventional medicine and in particular the power of the big drug companies.

His faith is unshakeable and criticisms of homeopathy wash off like water off a duck’s back. “Of course the scientists will say what they say. Doctors don’t want us to know about the benefits, because a doctor’s prescription pad is his cash-till.” In contrast, Behan will spend up to 90 minutes with a patient on a first appointment, in keeping with homeopathy’s aim to treat the patient, not the symptoms.

REGARDLESS OF THE ebb and flow of the debate, the popularity of homeopathy, along with alternative medicine generally, continues to grow. The movement claims 500 million users worldwide and 30 million in Europe, while the Irish Society of Homeopaths (ISH) says it has over 400 members.

Quinn Healthcare and Aviva both provide cover for homeopathy, while the VHI does not. “Our role as a health insurer is not to advise our members, but if alternative and complementary therapies are effective and proven in treating our members and reduce the need for in-patient treatment, we provide cover from an accredited, recognised organisation to allow our members to proactively manage their health needs,” says a spokesman for m Aviva.