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Diluted Regulation. Or why homeopathy is bunk.

January 11, 2011

The BBC today published an article online, in support of their Newsnight programme.  It seems that after a lengthy investigation the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), the UK regulator for pharmacists, has decided to take no action against pharmacies who offer homeopathic ‘vaccinations’ against various diseases, including malaria, yellow fever and typhoid.  I must admit that this is a disappointing decision from my point of view.

Why is it disappointing?  First, a little background on homeopathy.  A homeopathic preparation is based on the ‘law of similars’, which states that a substance that causes certain symptoms in people can be prepared in certain ways to prevent or cure those symptoms when they are caused by a disease.  The way these substances are prepared is to dilute them in water, in a series of steps punctuated by vigorous shaking or striking, until there is none, or effectively none, of the original substance left.  The resulting water is then left in this form or formed into ‘pills’.  The preparation is administered to people by homeopaths as a cure or prophylaxis (vaccination) for disease.

There has never been a rigorous, verified scientific study that has shown that these remedies have any effectiveness at all, beyond the placebo effect.  They contain no active ingredient and some homeopaths claim that they derive their effect from water having a ‘memory’ of the diluted substance.  The UK Government’s Chief Scientist, Prof John Beddington has said:

“there is no scientific evidence to indicate that homeopathic remedies are efficacious and the fundamental underpinning of homeopathy seems to me to be scientific nonsense.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they are ineffective.  Now, of course, because they contain no active ingredient these preparations are quite safe in themselves.  They will cause no harmful effects, unless the sugar in the ‘pills’ affects your teeth slightly.  The problem lies in the fact that pharmacists, registered health professionals, are offering homeopathic ‘vaccinations’ as an alternative to proven vaccinations that are known to work with a high degree of effectiveness.  People trust pharmacists to look out for their best interests, secure in the knowledge that they are regulated by a professional body.

So why didn’t that professional body take action against pharmacists who offered an ineffective product instead of a scientifically proven one?  The GPhC says that:

1.  the pharmacies involved have since taken “remedial” action to prevent people being advised that homeopathy was as effective as more conventional methods.

The pharmacies concerned continue to offer homeopathic alternatives to conventional medicine.  They cover themselves by stating that there is “good, anecdotal” evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathic ‘vaccinations’.  Oh, really?  Some people think that it worked for them, therefore it did?  These people should be ashamed to call themselves scientists.

2.  the allegation about the pharmacies “would fall below the current threshold criteria for referral to the investigating committee”.

Apparently, the relevant test is whether a pharmacist is being “reckless with the safety and wellbeing of others.”  How much more reckless can you get than to pack someone off to a malaria-infested part of the world with sugar pills instead of proper anti-malarial drugs?  Malaria is a debilitating and often-deadly disease.  Telling someone they are protected when they clearly are not is, at the least, reckless in my book.  People have suffered as a result of this unscientific and irresponsible quackery.

The GPhC have dropped the ball in a big way with this complaint.  It has taken them several years to get to this point.  If I ran an investigation like that I would be sacked and rightly so.  The decision is not just incomprehensible to me, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) is not too impressed either:

“We would be very concerned if a patient took a homeopathic preparation to travel to an area where there may be yellow fever, typhoid, malaria, believing they were safe when in fact they wouldn’t be safe

People are being put at risk of serious illness.  NHS money, our money, is being spent on this and similar kinds of pseudoscientific nonsense, with no evidential basis.  As an investigator, I rely completely on  evidence and I would like to think that those responsible for our health did too.  If this watered-down standard is what we can expect from UK health-regulating bodies then I think we should all be concerned.

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