A Canadian naturopath is feeling the heat after she boasted about treating a young child’s behavioral problems with a homeopathic remedy made from the saliva of a rabid dog. But it’s really only the latest episode to highlight the absurdity of the popular alternative “medicine.”
Earlier this February, Anke Zimmermann, an accredited naturopathic physician based in Victoria, British Columbia, wrote a blog post that went viral about her recent experiences treating a four-year-old patient known only by Jonah.
According to the post, Jonah was brought into her care by his parents last October. For about three years, he had been acting out (including bouts of growling at people and hiding underneath tables), having trouble sleeping, and had a persistent fear of werewolves. Zimmerman then quickly zeroed on the “likely” source of Jonah’s problems—a nasty bite he got from a dog when he was two years old.
“A bite from an animal, with or without rabies vaccination has the potential to imprint an altered state in the person who was bitten, in some ways similar to a rabies infection,” Zimmerman explained in the post.
So Zimmerman decided to fight rabies with rabies. She gave Jonah a preparation of lyssinum, a homeopathic treatment supposedly made from the diluted saliva of a rabid dog. And afterward, Jonah’s growls reportedly quieted down and his behavior improved.
To back up a bit here, the shaky theory behind homeopathy is that all illness can be treated by identifying someone’s symptoms and giving them a vigorously diluted solution of a substance (read: poison) that causes those exact same symptoms. According to the theory, this helps because through dilution, the memory of the substance is retained, but not its harmful effects. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this approach.
It’s hard to undersell just how inane homeopathy, which originated in the 19th century, really is. Sure, you can point to volumes of research showing it isn’t better than a placebo for treating anything. But the simple fact is that a homeopathic remedy—if done “correctly”—contains zero molecules of the original substance used to prepare it. It is literally just water, usually dropped onto a sugar pill. And if done incorrectly, as is often the case, it can actually poison or even kill people.
It wasn’t until April last week that Zimmerman’s post received any outsized attention, when critics of homeopathy and other complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, noticed it. And after news outlets covered the post, so did Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s senior health officer.
Henry, who has spoken out against homeopathy before, told CBC News Monday that she had “grave concerns” about Zimmerman’s claims, adding that she would write to Health Canada, the country’s public health agency, about the remedy.
“There’s no way I can understand why we would have anything that was meant to be saliva of a rabid dog approved for use in this country,” she told CBC News.
For her part, Zimmerman‘s bitten back against the criticism she’s gotten.
“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have homeopathy not working [and] be toxic,” she told CBC News. “This child dramatically improved—the parents are very happy. Isn’t that something that’s interesting? Shouldn’t we be looking into that?”
According to Jen Gunter, a Canadian-American gynecologist who has long debunked outrageous medical claims and wrote about the post, Zimmerman’s logic is about as flawed as the one underlying homeopathy.
“Yes, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say your treatment has a dilute amount of rabies but also poses no risk,” she told Gizmodo. “It’s either rabies free, meaning water, or it’s not and hence unsafe. It is clearly water/a sugar pill and hence a scam.”
Rabies, which I’ll remind you is universally fatal without early treatment, isn’t even the worst ingredient in the homeopathy tool box. Several homeopaths, during the height of the Ebola outbreak in Africa that began in 2014, advocated using the blood and saliva of Ebola victims to whip up antidotes for an outbreak that ultimately killed over 10,000 people. Eventually, the World Health Organization felt compelled to debunk the claim on Twitter.
On the bright side, governments that once sunk millions of dollars into proving homeopathy doesn’t work are now getting tougher on it.
Just this past December, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would start to crack down on homeopathic products that claim to treat diseases like colon cancer and the common cold (these products, much like supplements, aren’t allowed to state they can cure anything). That same year, the UK’s National Health Service, which provides free public insurance to residents, declared that it would stop covering homeopathic remedies.