Britain’s National Health Service about to ban homeopathy

Not before time!

Why Evolution Is True

Reader Barrie called my attention to an article in The Independent  that offers some good news: Britan’s NHS, based on a 48-page document about items that shouldn’t be prescribed in primary care medicine, seems set to stop prescribing Magic Water, otherwise known as homeopathic medicine.

The motivation for the whole document was to eliminate, as a cost-cutting measure, those prescribed items that were of low clinical effectiveness. So there are many drugs listed, but on page 14 you’ll find this:

Actually, given Prince Charles’s fondness for this quackery (he even uses it own his own farm animals), I’m surprised the expenditure by the NHS is less than £100,000 per year, but it sends an important signal to people that the government health agency sees homeopathy as ineffective. Now I’m sure that patients who want Magic Water can still buy it themselves, but at least doctors can’t prescribe it.

Here’s a…

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Ask A Homeopath?

I am indebted to Blue Wode (@Blue_Wode) for this tweet a few days ago:

Email your query re homeopathy to and get an answer within 24 hrs

My curiosity got the better of me so I decided to submit a query. This is what I wrote:

I suffer from cluster headaches which conventional medicine cannot cure. Can homeopathy do anything to help me?

My reason for submitting that query is simple enough. I suffer from cluster headaches. A cluster headache is a particular type of headache affecting about one person in a thousand. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of describing what they are like:

Cluster headache is a condition that involves, as its most prominent feature, an immense degree of pain that is almost always on only one side of the head. Cluster headaches occur periodically: spontaneous remissions interrupt active periods of pain. The cause of the condition is currently unknown. It affects approximately 0.1% of the population, and men are more commonly affected than women.

I’ve suffered from cluster headaches for about ten years but was only diagnosed three years ago. My attacks are episodic, a cluster lasts for around three months and then I have a period of remission of perhaps two years. During the cluster, alcohol and exercise act as triggers and have to be avoided. I take 480 mg of Verapamil during a cluster and have used sub-cutaneous injections of Sumatriptan as an abortive. I have just come to the end of a cluster, stopped my medication, and life is returning to normal. I’ve never considered using homeopathy but was curious to know what advice I might be given. My inquiry elicited this response:

Dear Mike

Thank you for contacting us about your cluster headaches.  There is no reason why homeopathy should not help your headaches, however in order to be able to treat them a full description of the symptoms is needed ie what makes them better and worse, when they started, and other such details.  Just as you would seek expert advice from a Doctor it is often best to see a qualified homeopath in order to get the best remedy for you.

However there are two remedies which may be able to help you:

Nat Mur is a remedy for headaches with a bursting pain that may feel like a hammer in one spot.  It is worse in the morning on waking at 10am to 10am – 3pm.  It is worse for sun and can start after a grief.

Belladonna is for headaches that are very intense, described as throbbing.  They begin in the right occiput and extend to teh right forehead or eye.  They aer worse at 3pm or at night, worse for light and the sun.  Hands and feet are icy cold during the headache.

Hopefully this is helpful to you.

All the best in your future good health!

Rachael Leffman

MA Cantab RSHom

on behalf of Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy

One of the first things that struck me were the ‘qualifications’ of the homeopath. They are always, it seems to me, very keen to put strings of letters after their names. According to her website, Rachael Leffman has a degree in French and Spanish and is registered with the Society of Homeopaths. I am assuming therefore that her knowledge of science and scientific method is limited.

Her first recommendation is Nat Mur (Natrum muriaticum) which is sodium chloride – better known as table salt. So to treat a condition thought to be caused by an abnormality of the hypothalamus, I have to use salty water? Correction: I have to use salty water which doesn’t contain any salt. Her other recommendation is Belladonna, originally extracted from the plant Atropa belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade. Homeopathic belladonna has been investigated (Ultramolecular homeopathy has no observable clinical effects. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled proving trial of Belladonna 30C,) and found to have ‘…………….no observable clinical effects.’

So my online consultation gave me two possible treatments, salty water and a homeopathic remedy which has been shown not to work. I’ll stick with Big Pharma.

Anyone who is suffering from cluster headaches or knows of someone who is a sufferer should visit the website of the Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headache (OUCH UK)  where they will receive help and information which is evidence based.

David Beckham and Homeopathy

Amongst the many logical fallacies employed by supporters of homeopathy. appeal to celebrity is one of the most common. (Follow the Twitter hashtag #homeopathy to see examples.) Typically, they will latch on to some particular newsworthy event and try and use that to promote their cause. The website of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths is awash with advice for Olympic participants and spectators. At the moment we have EURO2012 and the Olympic Games in the headlines so sport is the focus, hence “David Beckham and Homeopathy” has featured prominently on my twitterfeed. Curiousity got the better of me so I decided to find out if there was any truth to the claim that David Beckham does indeed use homeopathy. I googled David Beckham and homeopathy. This produced pages and pages of results but almost exclusively they were sites promoting homeopathy and strangely enough, many of them used exactly the same wording. No reputable news source seems to have reported or commented on David Beckham’s use of homeopathy, unless that is, the Tehran Times counts as a reputable news source. A little more googling reveals that the source of the Beckham is none other than Dana Ullman who at the time was promoting the sale of a book, The Homeopathic Revolution. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if Ullman provides sources for his claim that, numerous sports greats have bragged about their use of homeopathic medicines including David Beckham, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, and many more.

Whether he does or not is largely irrelevant. The use of homeopathy by celebrities does not validate it. Some homeopathy websites claim that Beckham’s treatment of choice was Arnica.  Once again Google is my friend. A search for arnica pubmed brings up a long list of reputable studies that have investigated the efficacy of homeopathic Arnica. Top of the list isEfficacy of homeopathic arnica: a systematic review of placebo-controlled clinical trials.” by Ernst and Pittler (1998) which concludes that, “The claim that homeopathic arnica is efficacious beyond a placebo effect is not supported by rigorous clinical trials.

Whilst I’m on the subject of celebrities and homeopathy I cannot ignore the Queen, who, we are told,  “….. is never far from 60 vials of homeopathic medicines, carried in a special leather case, without which she won’t travel anywhere.”

It would appear then that members of the Royal Family do use homeopathy ……… except when they’re ill.

The Popularity of Homeopathy

I came across Anarchic Teapot’s blog post on homeopathy a few days ago. Titled “At least the title’s not misleading – Impossible Cure”, it’s well worth a read. It deals with the claims of a proponent of homeopathy that almost everything under the sun, including autism, can be treated by this particular form of quackery. I don’t need to spend any time examining the claims on the site – Anarchic Teapot does a thorough job of eviscerating the content of the website and the claims made by its author. (For those interested the site can be viewed here.)

I stumbled on the website some while ago after googling ‘homeopathy and autism’ and like Mr Teapot, was appalled by views expressed. Much of the content is devoted to promoting a book, ‘Impossible Cure’. The website features a preview of Chapter 1, Homeopathy Revealed. Part of this deals with the’popularity’ of homeopathy and contains the statement,

…….. in England, 42 percent of physicans refer patients to homeopaths

Really? Almost half of the doctors in England refer patients to homeopaths? That doesn’t fit with my, albeit limited, experience. I sought out the source of this statistic and found it in a paper published in the British Medical Journal. The authors were R Wharton and G Lewith. George Lewith’s Wikipedia entry says he ‘is a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Southampton, where he leads the Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit. He is a prominent advocate of complementary medicine in the UK.’ He was involved with the now defunct Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Medicine and is now vice chair of the inappropriately named College of Medicine.

The full text of the BMJ paper can be viewed here (pdf). The ‘research’ consisted of sending a postal questionnaire to 200 general practitioners in Avon of whom 145 responded. The questionnaire was made up of twelve questions, one of which asked about referral patterns. 68 GPs (42%) of the sample reported referring patients to homeopaths.These results were published in the BMJ in 1986 and this is the source of the much vaunted claim that nearly half of the doctors in England refer patients to homeopaths. The report itself reads like a poor piece of GCSE coursework and I’m staggered that it ever reached the pages of the British Medical Journal. I can summarise it quite easily,

Over a quarter of a century ago, a shoddy piece of research found that a few GPs in a small part of England  sent a handful of patients for treatment by homeopaths.

Such is their desperation, this bogus statistic appears regularly on the websites of homeopaths. It has been used by Dana Ullman and Nancy Malik. Knowing the weakness of their position, they crave respectability and resort to Argumentum ad populum.

The reality is of course that homeopathy in the UK is in rapid decline. According to the British Homeopathic Association, in 2011 400 GPs used homeopathy in their everyday practice. That’s 400 out of 41 000, or 0.98%.

0.98% is a long way short of 42%

Homeopathy and the ASA

Following my online complaint I’ve received a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority which states “We checked the website address you highlighted today and I am pleased to let you know that it appears to have been withdrawn. I agree that it’s likely for the claims such as those you pointed out in your comments and attachment to be problematic, but as it seems that the website has been amended to remove them, we don’t propose to act further at this time.”

The offending website had been claiming a homeopathic ‘cure’ for cancer.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wayne’s World of Homeopathy

A few years ago I had some dealings with a young man called Wayne. My job was to teach him Biology, his job was to pass GCSE Science. Based on his SAT score I knew that Wayne wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer but first impressions were promising. He seemed interested and keen to learn so I anticipated a productive teacher-student relationship. After only a few lessons I realised this was not going to be the case. Wayne was always keen to answer questions. The trouble was, his answers were nonsense. But not ordinary nonsense, sciencey nonsense.

Me: “What acid is produced in the stomach?”
Wayne: “Chlorophyll”.

This wasn’t a one off. This was what Wayne did. Every time a question was asked, Wayne had an answer. And every time Wayne had an answer it was sciencey nonsense. I began to think of Wayne as a sort of random science word generator. At first I found this mildly amusing but this faded and irritation and frustration took over. It was frustrating because Wayne always believed he was correct and it was difficult to persuade him otherwise. After all, isn’t “chlorophyll” just a slightly different way of saying “hydrochloric acid”? In Wayne’s World it was.

I was reminded of Wayne a few days ago when following the #homeopathy and #ten23 hashtags on Twitter. Homeopathy Awareness Week was launched on June 14th 2011 and produced a flood of postings from the supporters of homeopathy. Wayne came to mind because so many of those supporters had the same approach to science as he did.

Me: “How does homeopathy work?”
Wayne: “Electromagnet forces.”

(This conversation did not take place, but it might have done.) Rather like Wayne, homeopaths crave scientific credibility. For many years they seemed happy to bump along as an ‘alternative’ to medicine and relied on anecdotes and personal testimonies to justify their existence. This has changed. Perhaps it was the attention of the skeptic community, as exemplified by the Ten23 campaign, which brought about a shift in emphasis. Now we see attempts by homeopaths to use science to shore up their beliefs.

They found a potential ally in Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier. (Montagnier’s Nobel Prize was awarded for his work on the discovery of HIV). Montagnier joined a small but exclusive group of Nobel Laureates who moved out of their area of expertise to produce a piece of work which diminished their status as respected scientists. Andy Lewis describes his work, and its considerable shortcomings, in the Quackometer. Nonetheless, homeopaths seized upon his work as the justification they needed.

The work of a Nobel prize winner, despite having been demolished by the scientific commumity, spawned a new wave of websites devoted to the ‘scientific’ explanation of homeopathy. In this situation, quantum physics is the last refuge of the homeopathic scoundrel.

One of the possible explanation how homeopathy works is the ability of water to form stable water clusters, that carry information. But I personally see in water clusters only the “materialization” of the invisible forces and fields that derives from succussion, the serial dilution with shaking by forceful striking. (This water clusters may form from succussion and remain stable till to an certain dilution. Homeopathy works also without the water clusters.) Effects that derives from succussion can also be found in the studies of Victor Schauberger on implosion vortexes observed in nature.”  Homeopathy and the Quantum World.

Links to this website have been tweeted over and over again by supporters of homeopathy. I haven’t been able to find out who the author is. I think it must be Wayne. He would be proud of it.

If anyone really wants to know how homeopathy works, the answer is here.

Homeopathy Awareness Week

World Homeopathy Awareness Week took place between April 10-16 2011 with the aim of “celebrating the healing art of homeopathy“. To promote their cause, the faithful were encouraged to share information on Twitter using the #WHAW hashtag. This their duly did but they can’t have anticipated the response from the skeptic community. Attempts to peddle their familiar line in psuedo-science were met with requests for evidence which in turn produced even more nonsense. Predictably, homeopathy tweeters resorted to the BigPharma shill gambit and sundry other insults. An exchange I had with a tweeter began when they claimed that homeopaths cared more for their patients than did Doctors. It ended when the homeopath tweeted, “… don’t replace your regular drugs, in fact kill yourself with them, I don’t care.” So much for caring homeopaths. From my perspective, homeopaths failed miserably to advance their case via Twitter and ended up scoring a notable own goal. Unabashed however, this week sees the launch in the UK of Homeopathy Awareness Week. Once more, we can expect our twitter feeds to be filled with the usual woo and quackery.

On one level this is mildly amusing and provides good sport for skeptics. Homeopaths are easy targets for debunking and ridicule. On another level, it’s a that the promotion of homeopathy is still a threat to the health and well being of millions of people. In case anyone is any doubt, the “efficacy” of homeopathy has been comprehensively evaluated by Edzard Ernst – Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, homeopathy and its supporters continue to try and make the case for the value of this non-treatment.

  1. MP David Tredinnick repeatedly tries to convince the UK Parliament that the NHS is obliged to offer homeopathy.  Andy Lewis refutes the case in the Quackometer. My correspondence with my MP, a signatory of the Early Day Motion, is here.
  2. Homeopathy is touted as an alternative to vaccinations – A canna’ change the laws of physics examines the science behind the claim.
  3. Homeopathy seems to be targetting parts of the world where health care is limited, by making ludicrous and dangerous claims that it can treat HIV-AIDS.

Twitter users can join the debate by using the hashtags #HAW, #homeopathy, #ten23.