This article is from a post by Professor Joe Schwarcz who has recently come under criticism by homeopaths in Canada for making inaccurate statements about their craft, and no doubt for being just plain mean for pointing out how absurd homeopathy is.
Homeopathic products. They are safe enough, no doubt about that. Millions of people around the world swear by them. No doubt about that either. Furthermore, their label features the term ‘DIN-HM,’ designating approval by Health Canada. So why then do I and my colleagues at the McGill Office for Science and Society support a class action lawsuit launched against Boiron Laboratories and Shoppers Drug Mart for marketing Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic medication advertised as a remedy for colds and the flu?
I have absolutely no desire to limit anyone’s freedom of choice when it comes to choosing health care products, or any company’s right to sell items that the public wants to buy, as long as these are safe. But I do have a desire to ensure that whatever choice consumers make is based on scientifically informed opinion. In the case of homeopathy, misinformation can have consequences ranging from a needless waste of money to foregoing more effective treatments. As an educator, I am also troubled by the promotion of a practice that is based on principles that cannot be supported by the established laws of chemistry, biology or physics. Hopefully, the publicity the current lawsuit will generate should help people understand the true nature of homeopathy.
Let’s begin by explaining what homeopathy is not. It is not an umbrella term for alternative or complementary practices. The use of herbal medications or acupuncture or reflexology has nothing to do with homeopathy. Homeopathy is a specific practice conceived in the early nineteenth century by Samuel Hahnemann, a conventionally trained German physician, who became disillusioned with bloodletting, leeches, suction cups, purges and arsenic powders, all standard treatments at the time. It seemed to Hahnemann that these did more harm than good. He was probably right.
One remedy that did work was an extract of the bark of the South American cinchona tree used to treat malaria. But lacking standardized preparations, there was a problem with finding the right dose. Hahnemann, interested in the maximum amount his patients could tolerate, became his own guinea pig and began to take increasing doses of cinchona bark. He was surprised to find that at a high dose he developed symptoms much like the ones he witnessed in his malaria patients. At that epic moment homeopathy was born! Hahnemann derived the term from the Greek “homoios” meaning “like,” and “pathos” meaning suffering. ‘Like cures like,’ Hahnemann concluded. A substance that causes symptoms in a healthy person will cure like symptoms in a sick person when given at a smaller dose.
Hahnemann went further and began to systematically test the effects of a large variety of natural substances on healthy people. Such “provings” led him to conclude that belladonna, for example, could be used to treat sore throats, because it caused throat constriction in healthy subjects. But belladonna is a classic poison. Was homeopathy therefore dangerous? Not at all. Hahnemann had another idea. He theorized that his medications would work by The Law of Infinitesimals. The smaller the dose, the more effective the substance would be in stimulating the body’s “vital force” in warding off the disease. A totally illogical conclusion.
“Active preparations” were made by repeated dilutions of the original extract. Hahnemann was not bothered by the fact that at these dilutions none of the original substance remained; he claimed that the power of the curative solution did not come from the presence of an active ingredient, but from the fact that the original substance had in some mystical way empowered the solution with curative properties. A simple dilution, however, was not enough. The vial had to be struck against a special leather pillow a fixed number of times to be “dynamized,” before adding a drop of the solution to a sugar pill.
These were bizarre ideas to be sure, but Hahnemann must have been impressed by the success of his homeopathic treatments. No surprise here. The placebo effect can indeed be very impressive. And patients certainly preferred a treatment that had no side effects to being bled or being purged. A real curiosity was that Hahnemann did not advocate a homeopathic treatment for malaria using ultra diluted cinchona bark. He must have recognized this would not work.
Hahnemann didn’t know about molecules, but today calculations readily show that homeopathic products such as Oscillococcinum 200C do not contain a single molecule of the duck organs that serve as the raw materials for the production of the final ‘remedy.’ The designation ‘C’ represents an initial dilution of 1 to 100, and 200C means repeating this 200 times. ‘C’ is confusing to the consumer because a larger number actually means a smaller dose, and in any case, the term does not conform to the Canadian Weights and Measures Act. This issue, while included in the law suit, is not its essence.
The main thrust of the legal action is that Oscillococcinum is mislabeled because the product clearly states that it contains the ‘medicinal ingredients,’ Anas Barbarie Hepatis et Cordis extractum 200C (duck liver and heart), as well as the non medicinal ingredients, sucrose and lactose. No chemical test can determine the presence of any ‘medicinal ingredient,’ and furthermore, the label states that every one gram of product contains 0.85 grams of sucrose and 0.15 grams of lactose. For anyone, except perhaps homeopaths, 0.85 and 0.15 add up to 1, leaving no room for any other ingredient.
How can a product claim to contain a medicinal ingredient when no such substance can in any way be detected? Oscillococcinum amounts to a mislabeled sugar pill. If it is to be marketed, it should be honestly labeled. The lawsuit against Boiron and Shoppers Drug Mart aims to ensure that this happens, preventing the public from being misled.
Homeopaths of course have to admit that there is not a single molecule of the original substance in the final product, but they maintain that the dilution and shaking leaves some sort of imprint on the solution. We’ll aim our scientific guns at that soft target next week.