There are a lot of ancient medicinal cures that we no longer use. We don’t consume dried mummy powder, for example. We generally don’t use leeches (though there’s still at least one present-day use). But somehow, some so-called medical practitioners are still employing homeopathic medicine, a discredited 18th-century practice.
Homeopathy describes an entire system of alternative medicine devised by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 based on a “like cures like” principle. Essentially, Hahnemann believed that something can cure a sick person if it causes similar problems in healthy people. This may sound similar to, but is nothing like vaccines, weakened microbes used to train the body’s immune system.
Basically, homeopaths find a substance from a list of many remedies, and then dilute it a great deal either in tincture, water, or some other substance and have patients ingest it to cure symptoms. This is fine because ultimately the placebo effect can cure a whole lot, symptomatically. But when homeopathic remedies are offered in place of cancer treatment, well, that’s bad news. Last week, the European Academies Science Advisory Council issued a statement: After reviewing the research out there, they determined that there’s no robust, reproducible evidence backing homeopathy’s effectiveness for any of the diseases it’s supposed to treat.
Now, the European scientists don’t want to ban homeopathic medicines outright. Rather, they’d like to ensure that consumers are better informed and that vendors are upfront about the evidence backing the products’ effectiveness.
The council’s decision isn’t the law, though. “I don’t think there’s going to be any decline in interest” in homeopathic treatments, Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine told Gizmodo. “Especially given the internet claims” regarding their effectiveness. Obviously, super diluted mixtures are safe, which homeopathy websites emphasize. This is not the case if you have a life-threatening illness—again, some suspect websites claim homeopathic remedies can treat cancer. Regardless, the committee is meant to help guide the European Union’s regulatory bodies as they make decisions on the practice.
Here in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration regulates homeopathy, allowing “homeopathic remedies that meet certain conditions to be marketed without agency pre approval” so long as vendors are upfront about the product’s strength and what it contains. The FDA “does not evaluate the remedies for safety or effectiveness,” though. And while remedies are so diluted that they’re safe, recently, several “homeopathic products” used by infants have caused harm, like a magnetic bracelet that caused lead poisoning.
Caplan said that if you’d like to see less use of homeopathic remedies, it’s not the FDA to blame—after all, it’s Congress and state legislatures who make laws. Still, he thinks the FDA should condemn the entire practice outright. But until then, he hopes more people at least see the EASAC’s statement.
After all, homeopathy is quackery, he said. “It’s a bit like fortune telling and astrology,” he said. “It’s got traditions and practitioners who make money on it.”