MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

homeopathy

Vaccinations are unquestionably amongst the biggest achievements in the history of medicine. They have prevented billions of diseases and saved millions of lives. Despite all this, there has been an irritatingly vocal movement protesting against immunizations and thus jeopardising the progress made. Kata summarized the notions and tactics of these activists and identified the following ‘common anti-vaccination tropes‘ from searching relevant sites on the internet:

1 I am not anti-vaccine, I am pro-safe vaccine.

2 Vaccines are toxic.

3 Vaccines should be 100% safe.

4 You cannot prove that vaccines are safe.

5 Vaccines did not save us.

6 Vaccines are not natural.

7 I am an expert in my own child.

8 Galileo was persecuted too.

9 Science has been wrong before.

10 So many people simply cannot be wrong.

11 You must be in the pocket of BIG PHARMA.

12 I do not believe that the problems after vaccination occur coincidentally.

And what has this to do with alternative medicine, you may well ask?

In my experience, many of the arguments resonate with those of alternative medicine enthusiasts. Moreover, there is a mountain of evidence to show that many practitioners of alternative medicine are an established and important part of the anti-vax movement; in particular, homeopaths, chiropractors, naturopaths and practitioners of anthroposophic medicine are implicated.

The literature on this topic is vast, so I am spoilt for choice in providing an example. The one that I have selected is by Kate Birch, a mother who apparently found homeopathy so effective for her children that she decided to become a homeopath. Her book “Vaccine Free. Prevention & treatment of infectious contagious disease with homeopathy” provides details about the “homeopathic prevention and treatment” of the following diseases:

Rabies

Tetanus

Polio

Diphtheria

Whooping cough

Mumps

Scarlet fever

Streptococcus A

Roseola

Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Measles

German measles

Chickenpox

Smallpox

Anthrax

Plague

Haemophilus influencae

Otitis media

Influenza

Mononucleosis

Pneumonia

Tuberculosis

Conjunctivitis

Herpes simplex type 1 and 2

Genital warts

Gonorrhoea

Syphilis

AIDS/HIV

Hepatitis A, B, and C

Yellow fewer

Dengue fever

Malaria

Typhoid

Typhus

Cholera

While copying this list from her book, I became so angry that I was about to write something that I might later regret. It is therefore better to end this post abruptly. I leave it to my readers to comment.

Boiron, the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic products, has recently been in the headlines more often and less favourably than their PR-team may have hoped for. Now they have added to this attention by publishing a large and seemingly impressive multi-national study of homeopathy.

Its objective was “to evaluate the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine for the prevention and treatment of migraine in children”. For this purpose, the researchers recruited 59 homeopaths from 12 countries who included into the study a total of 168 children with “definite or probable” migraine. The homeopaths had complete freedom to individualise their treatments according to the distinct characteristics of their patients.

The primary study-endpoints were the frequency, severity and duration of migraine attacks during 3 months of homeopathic treatment compared to the 3 months prior to that period. The secondary outcome measure was the amount of days off school. The results are fairly clear-cut and demonstrated that all of these variables improved in the period of homeopathic care.

This study is remarkable but possibly not in the way Boiron intended it to be. The first thing to notice is that each homeopath in this study barely treated 3 patients. I wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of setting up a multi-national trial with dozens of homeopaths from around the globe when, in the end, the total sample size is not higher than that achievable in one single well-organised, one-centre study. A multitude of countries, cultures and homeopaths is only an asset for a study, if justified through the recruitment of a large patient sample; otherwise, it is just an unwelcome source for confounding and bias.

But the main concern I have with this study lies elsewhere. Its stated objective was “…to evaluate the effectiveness of homeopathic medicines…” This aim cannot possibly be tackled with a study of this nature. As it stands, this study merely investigated what happens in 3 months while children receive 3 months of homeopathic care. The observed findings are not necessarily due to the homeopathic medicines; they might be due to the passage of time, the tender loving care received by their homeopaths, the expectation of the homeopaths and/or the parents, a regression towards the mean, the natural history of the (in some cases only “probable”) migraine, any concomitant treatments administered during the 3 months, a change in life-style, a placebo-effect, a Hawthorne-effect, or the many other factors that I have not thought of.

To put the result of the Boiron-researchers into the right context, we should perhaps remember that even the most outspoken promoters of homeopathy on the planet concluded from an evaluation of the evidence that homeopathy is ineffective as a treatment of migraine. Therefore it seems surprising to publish the opposite result on the basis of such flimsy evidence made to look impressive by its multi-national nature.

I have been accused of going out of my way to comment on bogus evidence in the realm of homeopathy. If this claim were true, I would not be able to do much else. Debunking flawed homeopathy studies is not what I aim for or spend my time on. Yet this study, I thought, does deserve a brief comment.

Why? Because it has exemplary flaws, because it reflects on homeopathy as a  whole as well as on the journal it was published in (the top publication in this field), because it is Boiron-authored, because it produced an obviously misleading result, because it could lead many migraine-sufferers up the garden path and – let’s be honest – because Dan Ullman will start foaming from the mouth again, thus proving to the world that homeopathy is ineffective against acute anger and anguish.

Joking apart, the Boiron-authors conclude that “the results of this study demonstrate the interest of homeopathic medicines for this prevention and treatment of migraine attacks in children”. This is an utterly bizarre statement, as it does not follow from the study’s data at all.

But what can possibly be concluded from this article that is relevant to anyone? I did think hard about this question, and here is my considered answer: nothing (other than perhaps the suspicion that homeopathy-research is in a dire state).

Since it was first published, the “Swiss government report” on homeopathy has been celebrated as the most convincing proof so far that homeopathy works. On the back of this news, all sorts of strange stories have emerged. Their aim seems to be that consumers become convinced that homeopathy is based on compelling evidence.

Readers of this blog might therefore benefit from a brief and critical evaluation of this “evidence” in support of homeopathy. Recently, not one, two, three but four independent critiques of this document have become available.

Collectively, these articles [only one of which is mine] suggest that the “Swiss report” is hardly worth the paper it was written on; one of the critiques published in the Swiss Medical Weekly even stated that it amounted to “research misconduct”! Compared to such outspoken language, my own paper concluded much more conservatively: “this report [is] methodologically flawed, inaccurate and biased”.

So what is wrong with it? Why is this document not an accurate summary of the existing evidence? I said this would be a brief post, so I  will only mention some of the most striking flaws.

The report is not, as often claimed, a product by the Swiss government; in fact, it was produced by 13 authors who have no connection to any government and who are known proponents of homeopathy. For some unimaginable reason, they decided to invent their very own criteria for what constitutes evidence. For instance, they included case-reports and case-series, re-defined what is meant by effectiveness, were highly selective in choosing the articles they happened to like [presumably because of the direction of the result] while omitting lots of data that did not seem to confirm their prior belief, and assessed only a very narrow range of indications.

The report quotes several of my own reviews of homeopathy but, intriguingly, it omitted others for no conceivable reason. I was baffled to realise that the authors reported my conclusions differently from the original published text in my articles. If this had occurred once or twice, it might have been a forgivable error – but this happened in 10 of 22 instances.

Negative conclusions in my original reviews were thus repeatedly turned into positive verdicts, and evidence against homeopathy suddenly appeared to support it. This is, of course, a serious problem: if someone is too busy to look up my original articles, she is very unlikely to notice this extraordinary attempt to cheat.

To me, this approach seems similar to that of an accountant who produces a balance sheet where debts appear as credits. It is a simple yet dishonest way to generate a positive result where there is none!

The final straw for me came when I realised that the authors of this dubious report had declared that they were free of conflicts of interest. This notion is demonstrably wrong; several of them earn their living through homeopathy!

Knowing all this, sceptics might take any future praise of this “Swiss government report” with more than just a pinch of salt. Once we are aware of the full, embarrassing details, it is not difficult to understand how the final verdict turned out to be in favour of homeopathy: if we convert much of the negative data on any subject into positive evidence, any rubbish will come out smelling of roses – even homeopathy.

 

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