Homeopathy, hissy-fits and how to catch malaria
Ever open-minded and keen to learn about the complexities of one of the most popular alternative therapies and unwilling to rely on the biased news media and sneering science blogs, I tried to find a trustworthy source of information about the homeopathic product, Malaria Officinalis 30c, which has been in the news a bit lately.
Naturally, I didn’t find one though this case report from PubMed, whose headline tentatively suggests homoeopathy may not be effective in preventing malaria, makes for interesting reading. I did, however, find a site called Homeopathy for Health featuring something called simply Malaria 30c. The site is a mine of information about homeopathy and, surprisingly, it doubles up as a site where one can order homeopathic products to try for oneself. For Malaria 30c, you only need provide $22.99 (currently £14.41) in exchange for ‘a family economy size of 1 oz bottle of 800 pellets with 265 doses, sucrose base’. Sounds like a bargain!
It might seem alarming to see a wee bottle with just Malaria 30c on the label. The PubMed article tell us that such a remedy would be made from African swamp water containing impurities, algae and plants as well as mosquito slough, larvae and eggs. Thankfully, the homeopathy site reassures us that
Nosodes are safe homeopathic vibrational preparations of viral or bacterial substances. There are no whole molecules of the actual substance in 30C potency.
No, indeed. Diluting something at 1 part substance to 1,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts dilutant isn’t likely to leave a whole molecule of the substance, so one has to wonder if it can work at all but, apparently, if they shake it up a set number of times in a special way this “makes the difference between an inert solution and an active homeopathic remedy,” (according to a representative of the Society of Homeopaths, see my earlier post here).
Unfortunately, the next sentence says:
Nosodes are therefore so much safer than vaccines and injection of foreign material into the blood stream.
Oh dear. The problem here is that malaria is an extremely serious infectious disease. According to Wiki, the disease kills between one and three million people annually, the majority of whom are young children in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Unless one has hard evidence that taking a “nosode” that has been diluted out of existence actually does stop one getting malaria, it’s a wee bit irresponsible to be promoting the remedy as “safe”. Certainly it’s safe in the sense that it’s not likely to poison you but if you’re intending to rely on it as protection when visiting, say, sub-Saharan Africa, that would seem to make it sort of, well, unsafe, n’est-ce pas?
This was what poor Janeza Podgoršek did while on a trip to Africa in 1996. In spite of the prophylactic drops he’d taken on the advice of a homeopath, when he returned to his native Slovenia he was diagnosed with malaria. He asked the same homeopath to treat him, which she was evidently happy to do. He died.
Or there was the woman in the PubMed article linked to above, who did the same and whose infection with malaria wasn’t detected by conventional medicine in time to prevent major organ failure necessitating a two month stay in intensive care.
Presumably it was concern over the irresponsible promotion of an unproven remedy for such a serious disease that prompted a member of the public to raise the alarm over the selling of Malaria Officinalis 30c at Neal’s Yard Remedies, which is not just a den of New Age self-indulgence in Convent Garden for vaguely hippie types from Islington, as I’d previously thought, but a chain of stores and an online vendor.
Like any responsible retailer, NYR withdrew the product, which it has stocked for twenty years, as soon as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency ordered it to do so, declaring its sale to be potentially dangerous and misleading. There’s a full account over at the Quackometer site but, be warned, it is very biased in favour of reason and — worse — cunningly omits to say anything about the failures of science and conventional medicine that would prove that homeopathy isn’t the batshit it appears to be on careful examination.
The bit of this story I’m most interested in is what it might teach us about taking positive action and actually speaking up about things like this. This product shouldn’t have been on the shelves of any retailer for twenty years before somebody actually tried to get something done about it but, having done so, they may have prevented future tragedies like the ones I mention above.
The bit I like best is when the Guardian newspaper arranged for NYR to participate in the regular ‘You Ask, They Answer‘ series carried on their Ethical Living blog, telling readers that “for the next four days, ethical skin and body care products firm Neal’s Yard Remedies will be doing its best to answer your questions”.
As it turned out, the feature ended up being ‘We ask, they throw a hissy fit and bottle out’. The questions started at lunchtime on Tuesday. After twelve hours and dozens of unanswered questions, this comment appears from Ethical Living blogger, Adam Vaughan:
Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I’ve now been told they ‘will not be taking part in the debate’.
And twelve hours later:
I am the Guardian’s environment website editor. We have tried again to convince NYR to respond to your comments but they have reiterated their position that they do not wish to enter the debate.
We will keep trying to change their mind, but if they stick to that we will be closing this thread in a hour…
And so it closed. Looking at what was asked I can’t imagine why NYR would shy away from such questions as:
How do you validate the medical efficacy of your ‘remedies’?
Have you ever been offered a natural remedy that was so obviously without any merit that you refused to bottle it and sell it to your gullible customers, or does pretty much anything go? Do you see no problem with trying to be ‘ethical’ while at the same time selling snake oil for a living?
If I have discovered a new homeopathic remedy how do I go about getting it on the shelves of your shops? Will it hinder my pitch that I have no evidence for my new remedy?
Presumably they imagined Guardian readers were going to ask for recommendations about face packs and bath oil. That’ll teach ’em.
According to a follow up piece published today, an NYR representative had assured Adam Vaughan that the reason they hadn’t answered anything by Tuesday evening was because they were busy formulating “a catch-all response to the homeopathy questions,” but then they changed their mind and just pulled out. PR guru Max Clifford is quoted as saying that not responding to criticism is almost never the right strategy.
You should always stand up, otherwise, all anyone gets is the other side of the argument, and people then assume — rightly or wrongly — that you don’t have a leg to stand on.
Well, they don’t, do they?
To round off, here’s a video of how BBC Inside Out covered the story when it broke last year. It includes an interview in which the firm’s Director of Medicine (who, as is pretty obvious, isn’t medically qualified) disgraces herself.