The Australian Skeptics’

guide to

HOMOEOPATHY

 

Homoeopathy is one of the variants of so-called "alterna-tive" medicine, and was deve-loped in the early nineteenth century by Samuell Hahne-mann, a German physician.

Hahnemann believed that substances which were able to produce symptoms in a healthy, human being, could, after a specific process of dilution, relieve those symptoms in a sick person. He formulated homoeopathy's central principle —‘Similia similibus currentur' or 'like should cure like'. The name homoeopathy was derived by Hahnemann from Greek words meaning 'similar sickness’.

Hahnemann believed that the therapeutic power of a substance lay not in its actual matter, but rather in a force or energy that resided in the matter. The theory was that through the process of specific serial dilutions, the force or energy was liberated from its material base. As a result homoeopathic preparations were felt to have therapeutic power, even though in many cases there were no longer any molecules of the initial substance left.

The effects of various substances on healthy persons were studied by Hahnemann and his associates, and the results were printed in a volume called the 'Materia Medica'. The substance would be given in a non-diluted dose and a record would be made of all sensations or symptoms that occurred over the next hours or days. This process became known as proving.

This process was based upon an important assumption—that the effects reported had been caused by the substance. Even quite minor, and arguably normal sensations that occurred many days after ingestion, were attributed to the substance. For example, muriatic acid was associated with "dreams which are not remembered", and dandelion was thought to cause "loquacity and an inclination to laughter".

During the mid-nineteenth century homoeopathy became quite popular and this is often used by proponents of the therapy as evidence of its efficacy. This is incorrect—homoeopathy owed much of its popularity and its apparent benefits to the therapies being used at the time by regular doctors.

During this time popular ‘orthodox’ therapies included bleeding (by incision, cupping or leeches), purging (usually with mercury-containing com-pounds), and blistering. Doctor caused, iatrogenic, illness became almost epidemic.

When patients rejected these dangerous therapies and opted instead for Hahnemann's highly diluted preparations, they were observed, in many instances, to get better. Because their health had improved while they were taking the homoeopathic reme-dy it was assumed that this had actively caused the improve-ment. In fact the patients were recovering because they were no longer being poisoned or having their blood drained.

As medical knowledge advanc-ed and the barbaric therapies were discarded, homoeopathy fell out of use and by the early part of the twentieth century it was used by only a handful of practitioners. In recent times with the rise in interest in things labelled 'natural', homoeopa-thy's popularity has increased, and many modem day suppor-ters of this therapy choose to gloss over, or even ignore, important details of its history.

In assessing the effectiveness of homoeopathy it is important that a comparison be made with a standard treatment, a placebo, and no treatment. A number of trials have been conducted that did this, and the picture that has emerged from these is that homoeopathy is scientifically unproven.

Our current knowledge of chemistry and physics leads us to conclude that it is highly improbable that a preparation, containing no molecules of the active substance will exert a therapeutic effect, and the existing scientific research supports this view.

This does not mean though, that the Australian Skeptics are saying that such an effect does not exist. It means we are saying that it has not yet been shown to exist. In principle, the claims of homoeopathy could be confirmed through rigorous scientific studies, and these are required if its clinical usefulness is to be established. The onus of proof, as is standard in the world of science, is with those who are making the claim.

Until supportive evidence is available, patients must be advised of homoeopathy's unproven status.

Practitioners who fail to advise patients of this may be subject to legal action if harm arises. All homoeopathic preparations proposed for therapeutic use should be subjected to the same testing requirements as other drugs, and should not be allowed to make advertising claims unless their efficacy can be established.

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