As I often said, I find it regrettable that sceptics often say THERE IS NOT A SINGLE STUDY THAT SHOWS HOMEOPATHY TO BE EFFECTIVE (or something to that extent). This is quite simply not true, and it gives homeopathy-fans the occasion to suggest sceptics wrong. The truth is that THE TOTALITY OF THE MOST RELIABLE EVIDENCE FAILS TO SUGGEST THAT HIGHLY DILUTED HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES ARE EFFECTIVE BEYOND PLACEBO. As a message for consumers, this is a little more complex, but I believe that it’s worth being well-informed and truthful.
And that also means admitting that a few apparently rigorous trials of homeopathy exist and some of them show positive results. Today, I want to focus on this small set of studies.
How can a rigorous trial of a highly diluted homeopathic remedy yield a positive result? As far as I can see, there are several possibilities:
- Homeopathy does work after all, and we have not fully understood the laws of physics, chemistry etc. Homeopaths favour this option, of course, but I find it extremely unlikely, and most rational thinkers would discard this possibility outright. It is not that we don’t quite understand homeopathy’s mechanism; the fact is that we understand that there cannot be a mechanism that is in line with the laws of nature.
- The trial in question is the victim of some undetected error.
- The result has come about by chance. Of 100 trials, 5 would produce a positive result at the 5% probability level purely by chance.
- The researchers have cheated.
When we critically assess any given trial, we attempt, in a way, to determine which of the 4 solutions apply. But unfortunately we always have to contend with what the authors of the trial tell us. Publications never provide all the details we need for this purpose, and we are often left speculating which of the explanations might apply. Whatever it is, we assume the result is false-positive.
Naturally, this assumption is hard to accept for homeopaths; they merely conclude that we are biased against homeopathy and conclude that, however, rigorous a study of homeopathy is, sceptics will not accept its result, if it turns out to be positive.
But there might be a way to settle the argument and get some more objective verdict, I think. We only need to remind ourselves of a crucially important principle in all science: INDEPENDENT REPLICATION. To be convincing, a scientific paper needs to provide evidence that the results are reproducible. In medicine, it unquestionably is wise to accept a new finding only after it has been confirmed by other, independent researchers. Only if we have at least one (better several) independent replications, can we be reasonably sure that the result in question is true and not false-positive due to bias, chance, error or fraud.
And this is, I believe, the extremely odd phenomenon about the ‘positive’ and apparently rigorous studies of homeopathic remedies. Let’s look at the recent meta-analysis of Mathie et al. The authors found several studies that were both positive and fairly rigorous. These trials differ in many respects (e. g. remedies used, conditions treated) but they have, as far as I can see, one important feature in common: THEY HAVE NOT BEEN INDEPENDENTLY REPLICATED.
If that is not astounding, I don’t know what is!
Think of it: faced with a finding that flies in the face of science and would, if true, revolutionise much of medicine, scientists should jump with excitement. Yet, in reality, nobody seems to take the trouble to check whether it is the truth or an error.
To explain this absurdity more fully, let’s take just one of these trials as an example, one related to a common and serious condition: COPD
The study is by Prof Frass and was published in 2005 – surely long enough ago for plenty of independent replications to emerge. Its results showed that potentized (C30) potassium dichromate decreases the amount of tracheal secretions was reduced, extubation could be performed significantly earlier, and the length of stay was significantly shorter. This is a scientific as well as clinical sensation, if there ever was one!
The RCT was published in one of the leading journals on this subject (Chest) which is read by most specialists in the field, and it was at the time widely reported. Even today, there is hardly an interview with Prof Frass in which he does not boast about this trial with truly sensational results (only last week, I saw one). If Frass is correct, his findings would revolutionise the lives of thousands of seriously suffering patients at the very brink of death. In other words, it is inconceivable that Frass’ result has not been replicated!
But it hasn’t; at least there is nothing in Medline.
Why not? A risk-free, cheap, universally available and easy to administer treatment for such a severe, life-threatening condition would normally be picked up instantly. There should not be one, but dozens of independent replications by now. There should be several RCTs testing Frass’ therapy and at least one systematic review of these studies telling us clearly what is what.
But instead there is a deafening silence.
For heaven sakes, why?
The only logical explanation is that many centres around the world did try Frass’ therapy. Most likely they found it does not work and soon dismissed it. Others might even have gone to the trouble of conducting a formal study of Frass’ ‘sensational’ therapy and found it to be ineffective. Subsequently they felt too silly to submit it for publication – who would not laugh at them, if they said they trailed a remedy that was diluted 1: 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 and found it to be worthless? Others might have written up their study and submitted it for publication, but got rejected by all reputable journals in the field because the editors felt that comparing one placebo to another placebo is not real science.
And this is roughly, how it went with the other ‘positive’ and seemingly rigorous studies of homeopathy as well, I suspect.
Regardless of whether I am correct or not, the fact is that there are no independent replications (if readers know any, please let me know).
Once a sufficiently long period of time has lapsed and no replications of a ‘sensational’ finding did not emerge, the finding becomes unbelievable or bogus – no rational thinker can possibly believe such a results (I for one have not yet met an intensive care specialist who believes Frass’ findings, for instance). Subsequently, it is quietly dropped into the waste-basket of science where it no longer obstructs progress.
The absence of independent replications is therefore a most useful mechanism by which science rids itself of falsehoods.
It seems that homeopathy is such a falsehood.
I think I must have mentioned this once or twice before: I am constantly on the look-out for new evidence which shows or suggests that some form of alternative medicine works. Today, it seems, I have been lucky.
In this randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, 200 patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were randomly allocated to receive oral therapy with 3 × 30 drops/day of an extract of Pelargonium sidoides (EPs 7630) or placebo. Both treatments were administered in addition to standardised COPD- therapies, and the treatment period lasted 24 weeks. The primary endpoint of this study was the time to the next exacerbation of COPD. Secondary endpoints were the number of such exacerbations, consumption of antibiotics, quality of life, patient satisfaction, inability to work, and the tolerability of the treatment.
The results show that the median time to exacerbation was significantly prolonged with the herbal treatment compared to placebo (57 versus 43 days). The superiority of EPs 7630 over placebo was also confirmed in secondary endpoints, e.g., fewer exacerbations, less patients with antibiotic use, improved quality of life, higher patient satisfaction, and less days of inability to work. The incidence of minor gastrointestinal adverse events was higher in the EPs 7630 group.
The authors of the study conclude that “the results demonstrate a statistically significant and clinically relevant superiority of add-on therapy with EPs 7630 over placebo and a good long-term tolerability in the treatment of moderate to severe COPD. EPs 7630 prolonged time to exacerbations and reduced exacerbation frequency and antibiotic use.”
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a progressive and serious condition linked to smoking which makes breathing increasingly difficult. The symptoms of COPD typically include a productive cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Long-term exposure to other lung irritants—such as air pollution, chemical fumes, or dust may contribute to COPD. The condition is a major cause of disability, and currently it is the third leading cause of death, which means that millions of people suffer from COPD.
There is no cure for COPD; the damage to the airways and lungs is not reversible. Various symptomatic treatments exist, for instance, antibiotics, bronchio-dilators, steroids and physiotherapy. Lifestyle changes can further improve the situation, help patients to stay more active, and slow the progress of the disease.
It is clear that COPD is a very serious condition, that the burden of suffering for individual patients can be immense, that therapeutic options are limited and often associated with adverse-effects. In this situation, any new effective and safe therapy would be more than welcome. Pelargonium has previously shown promise in the treatment of asthma, acute bronchitis as well as other respiratory infections. It seems generally safe but is not totally devoid of adverse-effects.
This new study gives hope to COPD-sufferers as it suggests that Pelargonium sidoides might alleviate their symptoms. The trial seems rigorous but the benefit is not huge and the treatment is not a cure of COPD. Moreover, I should point out that any new finding of this nature requires independent confirmations. I do think that the trial is an important step in the right direction, yet I feel that it is too early for issuing general recommendations.