It’s a while since I’ve put homeopathy in my sights.
Most of what I’ve written in the past have been general observations. Let’s look at an actual product I’ve seen sitting on the shelves in a New Zealand pharmacy.
Before looking at my chosen remedy, to recap on homeopathy briefly: repeatedly diluting the original ingredients eventually eliminates the ingredients. While the starting solution may have contained some herbs or other substances, if many repeated dilutions are applied, the final solution will have none. Describing the mixture by a dilution ratio is misleading, as this describes part (not all) of the process of the making of the mixture, not the amounts in the final mixture being sold.
Most stores I visited carried Naturo-Pharm’s range of homeopathic products.
In my earlier article I mention NaturoPharm’s ‘Wartoff’ product.
It isn’t the most startling product, but it’ll do to illustrate the point.
Like other products NaturoPharm offers, it’s claimed that it ’assists the body’s normal immune response and maintains the skin’s defences against warts.’
One of Alison’s articles addresses the issues of claims to ‘boost the immune system’; I’ll let her article cover that. Suffice to say here that that claim makes little sense.
But what about the claim to maintain ’the skin’s defences against warts’?
Readers more familiar with homeopathy will see that this plays to the notion that the human body has all it needs, it only needs a little ‘assistance’.
Warts are mostly commonly caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). By the time warts are present, you already have an infection – what’s wanted is a treatment to remove the cells containing the virus, without spreading the virus.
Wartoff comes as an oral spray, pills (tablets) or a paint. I’m going to focus on the oral spray. (Judging form the website, the pills contain the same ingredients as the spray, but the paint has different ingredients.)
Let’s look at the ingredients. According to Naturo-Pharm’s website, Wartoff oral spray contains:
Solvent (They don’t specify what this on the website. Water or some kind of alcohol are likely possibilities.)
Antimonium crud 24x = 12C
Nitric acid 24x = 12C
Thuja 60x = 30C
They’ve given a mixture of dilution factors that I’ve standardised to ‘C’ values, the number of repeated 1 in 100 dilutions.
At 30C, nothing of the original ingredient will be present.
Even at 12C dilution you’d expect damn-all of the ingredient. Without bothering readers with the mathematics, 12C is roughly the dilution past which you’re most likely to lose all of the original ingredient.
Just to make this a little more entertaining, let’s quote wikipedia on 30C dilutions:
on average, this would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.
Even 12C dilutions are extra-ordinarily small. To give some idea, wikipedia–wonderful source of fun quotes for once–gives the example that 12C of table salt, is roughly the same as diluting 8 tenths of a gram of salt in the Atlantic Ocean.
Eliminating what cannot be present in the product sold in any measurable amount, we end up with:
Spray solution: 100% water (or alcohol, or whatever)
That’s what should be on the label.
Citing the dilution ratios is misleading to readers not familiar with what the dilutions mean. By listing the ingredients the marketing is implying that those ingredients are present in the final product, but they are not.
(In the case of pills the base ingredient of the pill is likely to be lactose, a sugar.)
None of this matters to modern homeopaths.
Modern homeopaths will in fact admit there is none of the ingredients are in the final product, proclaiming that the water retains a ’memory’ of the ingredients that were once present.
You read that right.
The notion of water retaining a ’memory’ of things is nonsense, of course. Water molecules in liquid water are constantly moving, they do not maintain any ordered structure.
To further add to the silliness to hold true to homeopathic rationale, improbably pure pill bases or solvents to be used.
I don’t expect every customer to have to break all this down, or want to.
Pharmacies have little excuse. Pharmacists should know that homeopathic remedies are implausible treatments and not carry them in their stores.
Similarly if a GP offers homeopathy, then, in my opinion, the GP has lost their ability to think soundly about remedies – something you really don’t want in a medical practitioner. Lest you think that I’m making up that GPs would offer something this silly, some even proudly advertise it on their websites, like this GP.
The potential for harm
Rare exceptions such as this daft burn treatment aside, the usual danger of homeopathic ‘remedies’ is that people will not seek medical advice to identify the likely cause of their illness, but instead attempt to treat what they see, the symptom rather than the underlying cause, with a ‘remedy’ that does nothing.
The ensuing delay in moving to treating the cause can allow the underlying illness or problem to develop further. This is one of the reasons that the claims issue I raised earlier needs to be applied to products regardless of if they are ‘alternative’ or not.
As one simple example, Naturo-Pharm offers ‘Fevamed Relief’, targeted at babies with fever.
You’d hope that if a baby has fever parent would try determine the cause of the fever and work from that, not give them some placebo remedy and hope for the best.
Similarly it’s not sound to imply that homeopathy can serve as an alternative to or compensate for, say, vaccines as this article by New Zealand’s Immunisation Awareness Society might be read as suggesting.
It’s interesting that while MedSafe guidelines indicate that homeopathic remedies cannot make therapeutic claims, so many of the names of the products would seem be implying a therapy, e.g. Wartoff, FevaMed, ThrushMed, Flu-Guard, QuitSmoke, etc.
(Somewhat tongue-in-cheek here.) Some of the homeopathic remedies I saw contained 11% alcohol. Maybe it’d be cheaper and more ’effective’ to have a nip of brandy or your favourite tipple? This reminds me that my winter-time nips often have herbs in them – they’re an ingredient in some whiskies. Hmm… ’Cheers’ anyone?
1. This article is an old draft from just over two years ago, never released, that I’ve lightly edited.
2. Wartoff is listed as having nitric acid in it. Nitric acid in larger non-homeopathic amounts painted onto a wart might ’burn off’ the wart, but it makes no sense in a pill or an oral spray. I am not recommending use of nitric acid on warts: nitric acid is corrosive and can cause scars.
3. Looking briefly in the corner pharmacy this morning, other products NaturePharm manufactor have 11% alcohol as the solvent; this pharmacy hasn’t got WartOff on the shelf at present.
4. I rarely see this mentioned; it’s curious it’s not. If the impossibly small dilutions they create matter so much, impurities in the base or solvent would too – but we never hear about that.
5. This depends on who makes the call to have a product on the shelves, the pharmacist or the chain. Either way it’s not a good look.
6. Searching online you can find other examples. Searching is not helped by that a few homeopaths who, as far as I can tell, have no formal medical qualification style themselves as ‘GP homeopaths’.
A selection of some of the related articles on Code for life: