Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy (Photo via Wikipedia)

On Wednesday, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (Australia's equivalent to the American Medical Association, more or less) formally asked pharmacists to stop stocking homeopathic “medicines” and doctors to stop prescribing them, on the grounds that homeopathic remedies do absolutely nothing.

The request comes three months after Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published an extensive review of previous studies on homeopathic remedies and concluded that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo for treating any medical condition, and previous studies claiming otherwise all proved deeply flawed upon inspection:

….Although some studies did report that homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy....

Dr. Frank Jones, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said that people who use homeopathic products to treat medical conditions endanger their health, because homeopathic users thus either delay getting effective medical treatment, or avoid it altogether. Jones expressed particular concern about reliance on so-called homeopathic vaccines.

"Do not prevent diseases"

Photo“These alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection,” Dr. Jones said. “Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunization.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in America reached the same conclusion in a background paper on homeopathy: “it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect.”

What exactly is homeopathy? The Food and Drug Administration offers this capsule summary:

The term "homeopathy" is derived from the Greek words homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering or disease). The first basic principles of homeopathy were formulated by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700's. The practice of homeopathy is based on the belief that disease symptoms can be cured by small doses of substances which produce similar symptoms in healthy people.

Here is an example of how this supposedly works, offered by a pro-homeopathic website in the U.K.:

Although homeopathy has its roots in Ancient Greek medicine, the system as we know it today is only around 200 years old. It all began with the observation that some remedies, when taken in raw form by a healthy person, produced very similar side-effects to the illnesses they were meant to treat. This led to the conclusion that 'like cures like' or, in other words: substances that produce symptoms can be used to treat those same symptoms when they are produced by an illnesses. This explains why Allium cepa (taken from onion, which causes watery eyes and running noses) is used to treat hay fever and common cold symptoms (like watery eyes and running noses). Another example is poison ivy, which causes itchiness, redness and intense burning and is used to treat conditions such as herpes and eczema, which both cause itchiness, redness and burning.

Sounded good in 1700

To be fair: such ideas sounded plausible in the 1700s, before humanity discovered the germ theory of disease in the 1860s, or started figuring out how allergies worked in the early 1900s – in other words, before we could even begin to accurately pinpoint the causes of various medical and biological problems that plague us.

Samuel Hahnemann died in 1843, two decades too early to even suspect that herpes and the common cold are actually caused by various invisible, not-quite-living things called “viruses.”

And given the abysmally ignorant and downright harmful state of the medical art in Hahnemann's day – some bloodletting prescriptions called for draining more blood out of a patient than we now know a typical adult human body actually contains – it's true that back then, getting no treatment at all (or taking a placebo) was often a better option than seeking official medical attention. For that matter, even rubbing poison ivy on your skin is less harmful than swallowing arsenic, bloodletting, purging and other spectacularly dangerous 18th-century medical treatments.

But medical science and science in general has advanced considerably since the mid-1700s, whereas homeopathic theories remain essentially unchanged. Another core pillar of homeopathic belief (which, again, might have sounded plausible before humanity really understood anything about atomic structure, the periodic table of elements, how atoms combine into molecules and other basic aspects of modern chemistry) is that diluting substances in water actually makes those substances more potent, and that water can “remember” and maintain the qualities of substances once diluted in it.

If you inspect the ingredients label of a homeopathic product, you’ll see the “active” ingredients are usually measured in C units: “This ingredient 6C,” “that ingredient 30C,” and so forth. They’re not talking about temperature measured in Celsius; the C in homeopathy stands for “centesimal,” which in homeopathic terms means “dilute to one part in a hundred.”

"Dilution increases strength"

Suppose you have a shot glass full of whiskey and want to dilute/strengthen it according to homeopathic principles. If you combine one drop of whiskey with 99 drops of water, you'll get 1C whiskey, which is 99 percent water and 1 percent whiskey.

Combining one drop of 1C whiskey with 99 drops of water results in 2C whiskey, which is 99.99 percent water and 0.01 percent whiskey. One drop of 2C added to 99 drops of water makes 3C, which is water containing 0.0001 percent whiskey, and so on.

Once you reach 12C you crash against the physical barrier of Avogadro’s limit, which means that your 12C whiskey probably doesn’t contain even a single molecule of alcohol. Yet, if the homeopathic “dilution increases strength” idea were true, drinking a glass of that 12C water should give you a much stronger alcoholic buzz than a glass of undiluted whiskey, and a glass of 200C water would presumably make you pass out from booze intoxication even though you never downed a single drop of alcohol.

If the homeopathic belief in dilution could be confirmed and reproduced under controlled circumstances, it would be a Nobel-worthy and world-changing discovery. No more shortages of life-saving drugs: just water one dose down (and strengthen it up) until there's enough for everybody.

No need to worry about high grocery costs, if a single bowl of nourishing soup plus a few hundred gallons of clean water can make enough fattening and filling homeopathic stew to feed a typical family all year. And if watering down gasoline strengthened its potency rather than destroyed your car's engine, humanity could solve the triple problems of “climate change,” “environmental pollution” and “high energy costs” in approximately half a day.

Unfortunately, despite the massive wealth and worldwide acclaim that would accrue to anybody proven capable of performing such wonders, no trustworthy, reproducible test results have ever shown homeopathic principles to work. That's why the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners urges doctors to stop risking their patients' health (and wasting untold amounts of money) prescribing ineffective homeopathic remedies.

As the RACGP's Dr. Frank Jones said: “Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists.”

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