WHO vs woo: Homeopathy and the World Health Organization


The World Health Organization has warned against the use of homeopathy to treat a wide range of diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and infant diarrhoea. Their statements came in a response to an open letter from the Voice of Young Science Network, which called upon the WHO to issue a clear statement about the inappropriate use of homeopathy to treat serious disease.

We are calling on the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. Homeopathy does not protect people from, or treat, these diseases. Those of us working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed. When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.

When the WHO responded, they were both critical of homeopathy and full of praise for the Voice of Young Science and Sense About Science for speaking out on homeopathy.  The Office of the Director General at the WHO said that the departmental responses (below) “clearly express the WHO’s position” on the use of homeopathy.

“WHO TB treatment/management guidelines […] do not recommend the use of homeopathy.” – WHO Stop TB Dept

“WHO’s evidence-based guidelines on treatment of tuberculosis… have no place for homeopathic medicines.” – WHO TB Strategy and Health Systems

“We have found no evidence to date that homeopathy would bring any benefit to the treatment of diarrhoea in children”  – WHO Dept of Child and Adolescent Health

“Thanks for the amazing documentation and for whistle blowing on this issue” – WHO Global Malaria Programme

“Let me end by congratulating the young clinicians and researchers of Sense About Science for their efforts to ensure evidence-based approaches to treating and caring for people living with HIV.” – WHO HIV/AIDS Dept

In response to the WHO statement, and its subsequent media coverage, the Northampton-based Society of Homeopaths issued their own press statement which – astonishingly – appears to acknowledge that homeopathy does not work for many of the diseases discussed.

… it rightly raises concerns about the promotion of homeopathy as a cure for TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS. Indeed, any such claims would themselves contravene The Society of Homeopaths’ Code of Ethics & Practice.

A good, if surprising, start from the Society of Homeopaths. But their statement continues…

[The] WHO have failed to acknowledge the evidence base for the use of homeopathy in the treatment of childhood diarrhoea in which, using randomised, double-blinded trials, the results were significant versus placebo […] This is just another poorly wrapped attempt to discredit homeopathy by Sense About Science.

I wouldn’t call it a poorly-wrapped attempt at discrediting homeopathy.  I’d call it a blatent and open attempt to discredit homeopathy.  And quite right too – homeopathy is bollocks.  But what’s this they say? Evidence? Placebo-controlled studies? Srsly?

The press statement cites two studies and a meta-analysis. The first study was conducted in Nicaragua by Dr. Jennifer Jacobs, and involved 81 children aged between six months and fifteen years. The children were randomly split into treatment groups, and treated either with intravenous fluid and placebo, or intravenous fluid and homeopathy. According to the study’s conclusion, there was a statistically significant decrease in the duration of the diarrhoea in patients receiving homeopathy.

Blimey, that sounds decent. It could just be an aberration though, so someone should really repeat the study.  And so we come to the Society of Homeopaths second cited study.

This second study was indeed a repeat of the Nicaraguan study.  It saw 116 Nepalese children, again aged between six months and fifteen years, treated with either homeopathy or placebo.  Again the study concluded that homeopathy showed a statistically significant improvement in the condition of the children.

On top of these studies is the meta-analysis, which looked at 242 children and also concluded that homeopathy was superior to placebo in the treatment of infant diarrhoea.  Maybe we’re going to have to revise our position on homeopathy?  It may be implausible bullshit, scientifically absurd and tantamount to sympathetic magic… but the test results say it works! Right?

Wrong.

The Nicaraguan study was published in the journal Paediatrics in 1994. Paediatrics is, to my understanding, a respectable peer-reviewed publication. And the very next issue they published a damning critique of the study, which concluded:

  1. The study used an unreliable and unproved diagnostic and therapeutic scheme.
  2. There was no control for product adulteration.
  3. Treatment selection was arbitrary.
  4. The data were placed into odd groupings without explanation, and contained errors and unexplained inconsistencies.
  5. The results were not clinically significant and were probably not statistically significant.
  6. There was no public health significance.
  7. Selection of references was incomplete and biased to support the claims of the article, and references were quoted inaccurately; and
  8. Editorializations were inappropriate.

The Nepalese study was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine. As best I can tell, this is not a respectable peer-reviewed journal, but some pseudomedical rag.  Surely however, it is a fallacy to say that a good study becomes a poor study if published in a poor journal. My real problem is the identity of the study’s author. Like the Nicaraguan study before it, the Nepalese study was written by Dr Jennifer Jacobs.

This is something of a red flag because it means there is no independent verification – the studies were conducted by the same author.  Indeed, the cited meta analysis was also conducted by Jacobs.  In fact, according to the website Quackometer, every published study which looks at infant diarrhoea and homeopathy was authored or co-authored by Dr Jennifer Jacobs.

To Jacobs’ credit, her meta-analysis does acknowledge that her studies were relatively small and therefore lacked statistical punch. To remedy this, she conducted a third study, in Honduras in 2006. This most recent study looked at 292 children and concluded:

There was no significant difference in the likelihood of resolution of diarrheal symptoms between the treatment and placebo groups.

Hear this story and more in Skeptics with a K episode #003

Hear this story and more on Skeptics with a K

This study, Jacobs’ largest and most recent, went mysteriously unmentioned in the Society of Homeopaths press release – even though Jacobs attempts to excuse the result in the study text and pretend it doesn’t say homeopathy doesn’t work.  Which is exactly what it says.

Infant Diarrhoea is the second biggest cause of infant mortality worldwide, but worryingly the Society of Homeopaths appears to be more interested in propping up their nonsense with cherry picked studies and misrepresented science, than they are with these children’s lives.

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  1. #1 by Nancy on September 2, 2009 - 18:33

    Real (homeopathic) medicine cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails

  2. #2 by Mike on September 2, 2009 - 19:19

    You got anything to back that up, Nancy? Or are you just throwing out assertions?

  3. #3 by menshealth on September 23, 2009 - 06:36

    Ya I am totally agree that We should not depend on only homeopathy! It is not totally solution. But it is also true that homeopathy will help to prevent some disease also. Thank you for sharing a good article with us.

  4. #4 by Pete on September 28, 2009 - 08:31

    People, if water has a memory, then homeopathy is nothing but sh*t.

  5. #5 by Dr. Nancy on December 20, 2009 - 12:08

    Homeopathy is non-toxic system of medical science originated in Germany by Dr. Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) (the founder and father of homeopathy). He was M.D. in conventional medicine. The term “homoeopathy” was coined in 1807.

    The four fundamental principles of Homeopathy are: –

    1. Law of similars/Like cures like (1796): Disease can be cured by a medicinal substance given in micro doses that produces similar symptoms in health people when given in large doses.

    2. Law of minimum dose (1801): Since the homoeopathic medicines act at a dynamic level, only a minute quantity of the medicine is administered which is enough/sufficient to stimulate the dynamically deranged vital force/innate healing powers to bring about the necessary curative change in a patient

    3. Law of simplex (1810): At any given time, only one remedy can be the exact similar to the presenting disease condition of the patient. So a single remedy (one remedy at a time) is given based upon their constitution/totality of the symptoms which includes physical, mental, and emotional aspects/symptoms.

    4. Hering’s law of five directions of cure (1845): Cure progresses from above downwards, from within outwards, center to periphery, from more important organ to less important one, in reverse order of coming of the symptoms

  6. #6 by Andy MacGrath on February 8, 2010 - 05:24

    You know, this whole thing would be a laugh-fest were it not for the fact that too many people will buy into the homeopathic bulloney and refuse medication. And thus, die.
    This “Dr” Scherr or whatever his name is should be locked up for attempted murder, or even negligent homicide if people die unnecessarily due to his quackery.

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