Ethics and Safety
The provision of homeopathic remedies has been described as unethical. As homeopathic remedies often contain only water and/or alcohol, they are however thought to be generally safe – only in rare cases are the original ingredients present at detectable levels. This may be due to improper preparation or intentional low dilution. Instances of arsenic poisoning have occurred after use of arsenic-containing homeopathic preparations. Zicam Cold remedy Nasal Gel, which contains 2X (1:100) zinc gluconate, reportedly caused a small percentage of users to lose their sense of smell; 340 cases were settled out of court in 2006 for 12 million U.S. dollars. In 2009, the FDA advised consumers to stop using three discontinued cold remedy products manufactured by Zicam because it could cause permanent damage to users' sense of smell. Zicam was launched without a New Drug Application (NDA) under a provision in the FDA's Compliance Policy Guide called "Conditions Under Which Homeopathic Drugs May be Marketed" (CPG 7132.15), but the FDA warned Zicam via a Warning Letter that this policy does not apply when there is a health risk to consumers.
The lack of convincing scientific evidence supporting its efficacy and its use of remedies without active ingredients have led to characterizations as pseudoscience and quackery, or, in the words of a 1998 medical review, "placebo therapy at best and quackery at worst." The Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, has stated that homeopathic remedies are "rubbish" and do not serve as anything more than placebos. Jack Killen, acting deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says homeopathy "goes beyond current understanding of chemistry and physics." He adds: "There is, to my knowledge, no condition for which homeopathy has been proven to be an effective treatment." Ben Goldacre says that homeopaths who misrepresent scientific evidence to a scientifically illiterate public, have "...walled themselves off from academic medicine, and critique has been all too often met with avoidance rather than argument." Homeopaths often prefer to ignore meta-analyses in favour of cherry picked positive results, such as by promoting a particular observational study (one which Goldacre describes as "little more than a customer-satisfaction survey") as if it were more informative than a series of randomized controlled trials.
Referring specifically to homeopathy, the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has stated:
In the Committee's view, homeopathy is a placebo treatment and the Government should have a policy on prescribing placebos. The Government is reluctant to address the appropriateness and ethics of prescribing placebos to patients, which usually relies on some degree of patient deception. Prescribing of placebos is not consistent with informed patient choice - which the Government claims is very important - as it means patients do not have all the information needed to make choice meaningful.Beyond ethical issues and the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, prescribing pure placebos is bad medicine. Their effect is unreliable and unpredictable and cannot form the sole basis of any treatment on the NHS.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the United States' National Institutes of Health states:Homeopathy is a controversial topic in complementary medicine research. A number of the key concepts of homeopathy are not consistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics. For example, it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect. This, in turn, creates major challenges to rigorous clinical investigation of homeopathic remedies. For example, one cannot confirm that an extremely dilute remedy contains what is listed on the label, or develop objective measures that show effects of extremely dilute remedies in the human body.
On clinical grounds, patients who choose to use homeopathy in preference to normal medicine risk missing timely diagnosis and effective treatment, thereby worsening the outcomes of serious conditions. Critics of homeopathy have cited individual cases of patients of homeopathy failing to receive proper treatment for diseases that could have been easily diagnosed and managed with conventional medicine and who have died as a result and the "marketing practice" of criticizing and downplaying the effectiveness of mainstream medicine. Homeopaths claim that use of conventional medicines will "push the disease deeper" and cause more serious conditions, a process referred to as "suppression". Some homeopaths (particularly those who are non-physicians) advise their patients against immunisation. Some homeopaths suggest that vaccines be replaced with homeopathic "nosodes", created from biological materials such as pus, diseased tissue, bacilli from sputum or (in the case of "bowel nosodes") feces. While Hahnemann was opposed to such preparations, modern homeopaths often use them although there is no evidence to indicate they have any beneficial effects. Cases of homeopaths advising against the use of anti-malarial drugs have been identified. This puts visitors to the tropics who take this advice in severe danger, since homeopathic remedies are completely ineffective against the malaria parasite. Also, in one case in 2004, a homeopath instructed one of her patients to stop taking conventional medication for a heart condition, advising her on 22 June 2004 to "Stop ALL medications including homeopathic", advising her on or around 20 August that she no longer needed to take her heart medication, and adding on 23 August, "She just cannot take ANY drugs – I have suggested some homeopathic remedies ... I feel confident that if she follows the advice she will regain her health." The patient was admitted to hospital the next day, and died eight days later, the final diagnosis being "acute heart failure due to treatment discontinuation".
In 1978, Anthony Campbell, then a consultant physician at The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, criticised statements made by George Vithoulkas to promote his homeopathic treatments. Vithoulkas stated that syphilis, when treated with antibiotics, would develop into secondary and tertiary syphilis with involvement of the central nervous system. Campbell described this as a thoroughly irresponsible statement that could mislead an unfortunate layperson into refusing conventional medical treatment. This claim echoes the idea that treating a disease with external medication used to treat the symptoms would only drive it deeper into the body and conflicts with scientific studies, which indicate that penicillin treatment produces a complete cure of syphilis in more than 90% of cases.
A 2006 review by W. Steven Pray of the College of Pharmacy at Southwestern Oklahoma State University recommends that pharmacy colleges include a required course in unproven medications and therapies, that ethical dilemmas inherent in recommending products lacking proven safety and efficacy data be discussed, and that students should be taught where unproven systems such as homeopathy depart from evidence-based medicine.
Edzard Ernst, the first Professor of Complementary Medicine in the United Kingdom and a former homeopathic practitioner, has expressed his concerns about pharmacists who violate their ethical code by failing to provide customers with "necessary and relevant information" about the true nature of the homeopathic products they advertise and sell:
- "My plea is simply for honesty. Let people buy what they want, but tell them the truth about what they are buying. These treatments are biologically implausible and the clinical tests have shown they don't do anything at all in human beings. The argument that this information is not relevant or important for customers is quite simply ridiculous."
Michael Baum, Professor Emeritus of Surgery and visiting Professor of Medical Humanities at University College London (UCL), has described homoeopathy as a "cruel deception".
In an article entitled "Should We Maintain an Open Mind about Homeopathy?" published in the American Journal of Medicine, Michael Baum and Edzard Ernst – writing to other physicians – wrote that "Homeopathy is among the worst examples of faith-based medicine... These axioms are not only out of line with scientific facts but also directly opposed to them. If homeopathy is correct, much of physics, chemistry, and pharmacology must be incorrect...".
In 2013, Sir Mark Walport, the new UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser and head of the Government Office for Science, had this to say about homeopathy: "My view scientifically is absolutely clear: homoeopathy is nonsense, it is non-science. My advice to ministers is clear: that there is no science in homoeopathy. The most it can have is a placebo effect – it is then a political decision whether they spend money on it or not." His predecessor, Professor Sir John Beddington, referring to his views on homeopathy being "fundamentally ignored" by the Government, said: "The only one I could think of was homoeopathy, which is mad. It has no underpinning of scientific basis. In fact all of the science points to the fact that it is not at all sensible. The clear evidence is saying this is wrong, but homoeopathy is still used on the NHS."
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