world homeopathy awareness week

On Taking Health Advice from Gandhi… World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015

World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) is approaching once again, to take place from the 10th to the 16th of April 2015.

Last year’s WHAW took place just as the NHMRC’s draft information paper examining evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating health conditions had been made public, which led to a substantial amount of awareness raising via the media that homeopathy is not an effective modality. Similarly, this year WHAW is taking place the month following the release of the NHMRC’s completed review on homeopathy. This review has lead to headlines stating the findings that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo, which makes for some fine public awareness of homeopathy from an evidence based perspective.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week’s theme for 2015 is, “Homeopathy For Infectious Diseases’.

There is no evidence for, nor plausible mechanism by which, homeopathy can be of any use in treating infectious disease; and I feel that it is highly unethical and very dangerous to mislead people by claiming such, particularly in the midst of the US’ current measles outbreak, and the ongoing ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The belief that ‘homeoprophylaxis’ (also referred to as ‘homeopathic vaccination’) provides any protection from diseases which ought to be prevented with immunisation leads to parents falsely assuming that they have adequately addressed preventative healthcare. This false sense of safety is both incredibly dangerous and cruel – ‘homeoprophylaxis’ (and homeopathy in general) cheats consumers into believing that they are looking after their own and their childrens’ health.

Speaking of unreliable and non-credible health advice, the organisers of WHAW have uploaded the image below as their cover photo on the Facebook page for World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015, featuring a pro-homeopathy quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

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Source: WHAW Facebook

Mahatma Gandhi is a widely influential and highly esteemed man; a peace activist, civil rights pioneer and the preeminent leader of Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. His philosophies regarding human rights, non-violent civil disobedience and the nature of humanity are valued by many people worldwide.

Did this qualify him to speak on matters of medicine and health with any authority though? He had no medical training or expertise (he was educated in law), but nonetheless penned a treatise on health matters, in which he noted, “I have arrived at certain definite conclusions from that experience, and I now set them down for the benefit of my readers.”

“A Guide to Health” by Mahatman Gandhi is available as a free ebook, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. It contains some quite fantastic claims and philosophies about the human body and the nature of disease, which I will gently describe as “ill informed”. For example,

The world is compounded of the five elements,—earth, water, air, fire, and ether. So too is our body. It is a sort of miniature world. Hence the body stands in need of all the elements in due proportion,—pure earth, pure water, pure fire or sunlight, pure air, and open space. When any one of these falls short of its due proportion, illness is caused in the body. – p12

On the cause of fever:

As most fevers are caused by disorders of the bowels, the very first thing to do is to starve the patient. It is a mere superstition that a weak man will get weaker by starving. As we have already seen, only that portion of our food is really useful which is assimilated into the blood, and the remainder only clogs the bowels. In fever the digestive organs are very weak, the tongue gets coated, and the lips are hard and dry. If any food is given to the patient in this condition, it will remain undigested and aid the fever. Starving the patient gives his digestive organs time to perform their work; hence the need to starve him for a day or two. – p100

On smallpox:

In fact it is caused, just like other diseases, by the blood getting impure owing to some disorder of the bowels; and the poison that accumulates in the system is expelled in the form of small-pox. If this view is correct, then there is absolutely no need to be afraid of small-pox. If it were really a contagious disease, everyone should catch it by merely touching the patient; but this is not always the case. – p105

Incidentally, Gandhi is highly quotable by anti-vaccination campaigners:

Vaccination is a barbarous practice, and it is one of the most fatal of all the delusions current in our time, not to be found even among the so-called savage races of the world. – p107

On first aid for burns:

If the skin has simply got red by the burn, there is no more effective remedy than the application of a mud poultice. If the fingers have been burnt, care should be taken, when the poultice is applied, that they do not touch against one another. This same treatment may be applied in cases of acid-burns, and scalds of every description. -p132

(Incidentally, for evidence-based guidelines on treating burns and some unfortunate quackery regarding burns, here is an excellent report by another of the Skeptic Zone reporters, Heidi Robertson.)

Gandhi himself ruminated on whether indeed he was qualified or correct in writing on health matters:

One question which I have asked myself again and again, in the course of writing this book, is why I of all persons should write it. Is there any justification at all for one like me, who am no doctor, and whose knowledge of the matters dealt with in these pages must be necessarily imperfect, attempting to write a book of this kind?

My defence is this. The “science” of medicine is itself based upon imperfect knowledge, most of it being mere quackery. But this book, at any rate, has been prompted by the purest of motives. The attempt is here made not so much to show how to cure diseases as to point out the means of preventing them. And a little reflection will show that the prevention of disease is a comparatively simple matter, not requiring much specialist knowledge, although it is by no means an easy thing to put these principles into practice. Our object has been to show the unity of origin and treatment of all diseases, so that all people may learn to treat their diseases themselves when they do arise, as they often do, in spite of great care in the observance of the laws of health. -p143

Unfortunately, pure motives are not enough when it comes to dispensing health advice, nor was Gandhi’s necessarily qualified to pass judgement that most science based medicine is ‘mere quackery’. It is also pertinent to remember that Gandhi wrote this treatise in 1921 – our body of knowledge in the field of medicine has grown immensely over the past century.

I invite you to have a fossick around “A Guide to Health” (his thoughts on chastity and childbirth were too long to include in this post, but they’re quite amazing) and come to your own conclusions as to whether you think he is a reputable source of health advice.

I ask you to then consider whether the endorsement of homeopathy cited by WHAW holds much gravitas when you’re aware of Gandhi’s ideas on health and medicine in general.

Finally, please take into account what is possibly the icing on the cake here… I have not been able to find any evidence that the quote used by WHAW can reasonably be attributed to Gandhi. Neither have these skeptics on stackexchange, or commenters on this post of Orac’s. Likewise, @zeno001 has been searching for an original source for the quote, to no avail (but he has listed some examples of Gandhi mentioning homeopathy, seemingly not in a favourable light)*.

The only place I’ve found the Gandhi quote “Homeopathy… cures a larger percentage of cases than any other method of treatment and is beyond doubt a safe, economical and a most complete medical science” (or any variations thereof), has been on pro-homeopathy sites – not in any independent archives of Gandhi’s writings or speeches. As such, I think that it’s a fair call to label the quote as unverified.

So to summarise, the WHAW organisers have used an unverified quote from a source whose health advice is highly questionable, to promote awareness of a modality for which there is no evidence of efficacy in treating disease greater than that of a placebo.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015. Once again helping to raise public awareness that homeopathy is bulldust.

* Updated 24/03/2015, thanks to zeno001 for the additional information.

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World Homeopathy Awareness Week – Raising Awareness that Homeopathy is Bulldust!

Well, this week is rather special – it’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week!

First, a very brief primer on homeopathy. Homeopathy was founded in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his postulation that “like cures like” – for example, a small amount of a stimulant, such as caffeine, is purported to help with sleep troubles. Homeopathic preparations are produced by “dynamisation” or “potentisation”, in which active ingredients are diluted with alcohol or distilled water, then “succussed” (a form of ritualistic vigorous shaking). The dilution process is repeated until the likelihood of a single molecule of the original ingredient being present in a bottle of homeopathic “remedy” is as close as can be to zero.

Homeopathic remedies are sold as liquids or sugar pills and can be found in health food stores, online shops and to my great disappointment, in pharmacies in Australia. Homeopathy is at times confused with herbalism, as it is included within the scope of “natural medicine”, thus it is worth noting that while herbal remedies contain active ingredients, homeopathic remedies contain no detectable trace of such. For more information, visit the 10:23 Campaign’s page, “What is Homeopathy?” 

 

Beginning on the 10th of April each year,coinciding with the birthday of Hahnemann, World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) has been established by the World Homeopathy Awareness Organization to coordinate global promotion of homeopathy by those who practice and advocate it. Simultaneously, WHAW has been embraced by critics of homeopathy as a fine time to raise awareness of the lack of plausibility behind the mechanisms used to create homeopathic “remedies”, and the lack of evidence that homeopathy has any physiological effect beyond that of a placebo.

This year, WHAW related discussion kicked off a couple of days early, as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council released a draft of their information paper, “Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions“. The NHMRC is accepting feedback on this paper until May 26th, so if you wish to provide them with any feedback for consideration, details on doing so are available via the above link.

Admittedly, when I first heard that the NHMRC were conducting a review on homeopathy studies, I was flummoxed – I was familiar with the findings on homeopathy already, and it seemed akin to reviewing findings on whether the sky was blue, or whether water was… wet. However, more public awareness on homeopathy – and the findings that no credible evidence supports its efficacy – has been a great prompt for the media to get on board and for public discussion of homeopathy to increase.

In short, people are still investing their money and hope in products and treatments which have no plausible mechanism of action beyond a placebo. Pharmacies are still selling homeopathic products, in what I consider to be a terribly unethical case of lending false credibility. A small but important minority of general practitioners are referring their patients to homeopaths and naturopaths (some of whom include homeopathy in their practice). There are people who, heart-breakingly, eschew evidence based medicine in favour of homeopathy – as was seen in the tragic case of Penelope Dingle. As such, I believe that it is worth getting the word out, loud and clear, that homeopathy is a sham.

 

I’ve spotted a few fantastic reads during WHAW this year. First up, Ken Harvey has written a piece on The Drum titled “Homeopathy – We Can’t Have it Both Ways“, in which he discusses the fact that, while the NHMRC paper condemns homeopathy, other authorities still give it legitimacy, by accrediting the study of homeopathy, including it in health insurance plans and allowing it to be sold in pharmacies.

From the Good Thinking Society, here is a wonderful page on Homeopathy Awareness Week, with a list of twelve quick facts on homeopathy. The project director, Michael Marshall, explains the importance of the site and of awareness of homeopathy in his Guardian piece, “Homeopathy Awareness Can Make The World A Happier and Healthier Place“.

This week’s episode of The Skeptic Zone Podcast (permalink) has more information on homeopathy than molecules of active ingredients in a homeopathic dilution, and includes my first attempt at a podcast report (replete with awful jokes, such as the one I’ve just made), in which I cover a minor skeptical activism success on the Better Health Channel’s promotion of WHAW. After an impromptu letter writing and social media campaign last week, and in light of the NHMRC draft report on homeopathy, the Better Health Channel made the commendable decision to remove WHAW from their events calendar. If you’re not already a regular Skeptic Zone listener, I encourage you to give it a go this week – despite my cheesy lines, the show is great.

Speaking of humour, I’d like to provide two more links on which to end this post. They’re not to be taken seriously, but sometimes laughter is… the best medicine. (Sorry – I’ll see myself out).

How Does Homeopathy Work? (from the 10:23 Campaign)

List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy (from RationalWiki)

10:23 Campaign Against Homeopathy – Antarctic 2011 (a short video via The Skeptic Zone, in which Dr Paul Willis puts himself on the line and takes a homeopathic overdose!)

2009-11-02-homeoComic by Luke Surl, shared under Creative Commons Licence