Oct 01 2009
I try not to let my blog get too focussed on any one topic, but the point of this blog is to engage the public and the media and so at times a hot topic requires increased attention. When the creationists are campaigning to impose their ideology on science education, for example, they will garner my blogging attention.
Perhaps one of the hottest media science topics today is the swine flu/H1N1 pandemic and upcoming vaccine, and the anti-vaccine movement in general. This is a perfect storm of quackery, sensationalism, misinformation, and public concern.
One aspect of the anti-vaccine movement is that those who are proponents for an unscientific medical modality are keen to criticize science-based medicine because they are their competitors (ideological and/or financial). The same is true generally of pseudoscience – in order to promote your pseudoscientific claims you have to simultaneously attack the real scientists who are likely to point out that your claims are bunk.
Which brings me to homeopathy and vaccines. Homeopathy, as I have written many times before, is about as close to pure pseudoscience as you get. They have their own pre-scientific magical notions of health and illness which are incompatible with modern knowledge of biology and physics.
In a recent press release, the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths simultaneously claim that the H1N1 vaccine is dangerous and not effective, while homeopathic treatments are proven effective. This, of course, is the opposite of the truth. They are essentially saying – don’t use that science-based treatment which doesn’t work, use our absurd snake oil instead.
The press release is not completely devoid of media savvy, which means they know when to be coy. They write:
Whilst the seriousness of contracting swine flu seems to be limited, the potential adverse reactions of this new, and hastily tested vaccination, cannot be fully known at this stage. This leads to the important question; are adverse reactions to the vaccination likely to be worse than the potential dangers of the illness?
The art of implication – how to say that the vaccine is not safe without directly claiming it’s not safe. They then go on to – anecdotes – saying that reports have raised concerns, again without having to be tied down to any specific factual claims.
The claim that the seriousness of H1N1 is limited is more uncertain than that safety of the vaccine. So far the overall virulence of this flu strain is no worse than the seasonal flu – but the seasonal flu puts 200,000 people in the hospital and kills 36,000 people in the US every year. Also, while the regular seasonal flu tends to kill the old and the sick, H1N1 kills young and healthy individuals as well as pregnant women. There is probably a genetic susceptibility in about 1% of the populations that get a particularly deadly version of the flu from this H1N1.
And there is the possibility, like with the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, that as this flu strain sweeps around the world it will mutate into a more virulent strain. So it could get worse – we just won’t know until it happens, which is why we have to be prepared before it happens.
After trashing the flu vaccine the press release goes on to make these astounding claims, quoting Steve Scrutton, Director of ARH:
“Homeopaths have been successfully treating people suffering from influenza for over two centuries. The remedies homeopaths frequently prescribe to treat influenza, such as Gelsemium, Bryonia Alba and Eupatorium Perfoliatum, are both highly effective and entirely safe.”
No references were given for these claims. So I did a PubMed search on Gelsemium and Influenza, yielding zero results. I then searched Gelsemium alone which yielded 61 results, none of which were studies of homeopathic Gelsemium and flu or any infection.
Bryonia Alba alone yielded 93 results, no studies of the substance in treating flu or viral illness. I did find a double-blind controlled trial of the ability of dowsing homeopaths to tell homeopathic Bryonia from placebo – dead negative.
Eupatorium Perfoliatum resulted in 11 results. One was an unblinded study of malaria in mice. Another study was an unblinded comparison with aspirin for symptomatic treatment of the common cold. The study found no difference, which they interepreted as meaning that both treatments are equally effective. But this study could also mean that the two are equally ineffective, or that the study was not powerful enough or adequately designed to detect an effect or difference (there was no control group to calibrate the study). There were no studies of Eupatorium Perfoliatum and flu.
I then did a search on homeopathy and influenza, which yielded 24 results. The first hit was a Cochrane review of homeopathic Oscillococcinum, which concluded:
Current evidence does not support a preventative effect of Oscillococcinum-like homeopathic medicines in influenza and influenza-like syndromes.
Interesting that Oscillococcinum was not mentioned in the press release, but is a common homeoapthic prescription for flu. It is also silliness squared, because it is a homeopathic prepration of a nonexistent delusion.
There was another review of homeopathic remedies in general and flu, which concluded:
A meta-analysis stressing the poor methodological quality of trials of homeopathic preparations in influenza concludes that there is no proven preventive or curative effect.
What I did not find are any studies to support the claims being made in this press release, which probably explains the absence of references to such evidence.
In the absence of any actual scientific evidence that homeopathy works for anything, let alone specifically influenza, or even that homeopathic “remedies” are anything but water, the ARH resorts to crappy evidence, namely completely unreliable historical data. They write:
“Homeopathy’s success at treating the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 is well documented, especially in the USA. The medical records of hospitals across the country consistently show a mortality rate of above 28% in sufferers treated conventionally, as opposed to a mortality rate of just over 1% of those treated with homeopathy”.
What’s worse than anecdotal evidence? Century old anecdotal evidence. All we know is that homeopaths reported lower mortality rates. This is worthless data. We have no idea how these patients were actually treated, if they also received standard medical care, how sick they were, were they comparable to those not treated with homeopathy, etc. This is a mess of uncontrolled variables – worthless.
If these historical claims of homeopaths were anywhere close to the truth, then it should be a trivial matter to document with a modern randomized placebo controlled trial. And yet they have no evidence to back up these astounding claims. The bigger the therapeutic effect of a treatment, the easier it is to demonstrate in a clinical trial. Where is the evidence? It doesn’t exist because homeopathy is a dangerous fantasy.
Also – if homeopathic treatment for the flu were as effective as homeopaths claim then it would be their duty to study it in such a way that they would convince the scientific community and thereby bring their effective treatment to the masses. They have not done this – either way they are guilty of malfeasance. There is simply no excuse for promoting a treatment for a century without ever bothering to research it in an accepted and compelling way to find out if it actually works.
Homeopaths are dangerous quacks. They promote treatments which not only cannot possibly work based upon the laws of physics and chemistry, the clinical data shows that they in fact do not work. But in order to promote their snake oil they are telling the public that the H1N1 flu is not that bad (which is false) and they are fearmongering about the upcoming vaccine, which is safe and effective.
The degree to which the public actually listens to the absurd claims of homeopaths is directly proportional to a resulting increase in suffering and death from treatable diseases.
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