Homeopathetic: Part 1

Homeopathy is an alternative medicine that is widely practised and completely ineffective, so I thought it was important to do a post on the issue. It’s pretty long, so I’ll split it into two parts. If you don’t know anything about homeopathy- never fear! All questions will be answered below.

There are few images more appalling to modern culture than that of a suffering child. Imagine then, a baby covered in suppurating sores, her skin so cracked that she is barely recognizable. Imagine her once jet-black hair turned bright white, and her incessant crying from the agonizing pain she is suffering. One would assume that this child was living in a third-world country, suffering from some incurable disease. You would acknowledge the tragedy of the situation, but accept that it’s unlikely that anything could have been done to help her.

Those details are easy to assume, but are also completely untrue. The baby in question was nine-month-old Gloria Sam, daughter to Thomas and Manju Sam. The family were residents of Sydney, Australia, and had access to excellent healthcare. The child was not suffering from a tragic, incurable disease- she was suffering from a fairly common dermatological condition called eczema. In cases of severe eczema, the skin cracks all over the body, causing itching and pain, and it can be dangerous if left untreated.

Eczema proved to be more than just dangerous for little Gloria Sam. Her skin was so badly damaged that it no longer acted as a barrier against germs. She was covered in infected sores, and developed septicemia as a result of this. She was eventually admitted to hospital, but her condition was so advanced that nothing could be done to help her. She died just three days later, from an illness that had plagued her for her entire short life.

Many people would be inclined to blame her parents, asking why they did not seek help earlier. In truth, they did take Gloria to a doctor almost six months before, who in turn referred them to a dermatologist. Sadly, this is where the decisions of the parents determined the child’s fate. They decided to ignore the advice of the specialized doctors, and treat her only with an increasingly popular alternative medicine called homeopathy, which contributed greatly to her tragic death. So controversial was this move, that both parents were jailed in 2009 on charges of manslaughter by gross criminal negligence.

Why, then, is homeopathy so controversial? In order to determine the answer, it is necessary to first discuss the main concepts of the practice, and the claims of the doctors who use it. Homeopathy was first devised in the late eighteenth century by a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann. He developed the treatments based on the assumption that “like cures like”- the idea that a substance which brings about a symptom in a healthy person can be used to treat the same symptoms of a disease. For example, if the patient suffers from asthma, homeopaths would concoct a cure containing animal hair.

The other main feature of the treatment is that each cure has to be diluted using an elaborate process, which originally involved hitting the container several times off a wooden “striking board”. The medicines are diluted to the point that it would take swallowing a sphere with a diameter equal to the distance between the earth and the sun to ingest just one active molecule- in other words, the substances contain none of the original active ingredient. Homeopaths dismiss this, however, explaining the concept of “water memory”; quite literally, that water remembers every substance it has come into contact with. They propose that this is how the cures can still be effective when they contain only water- this way, no active molecules are required.

Homeopathy is part of the complementary and alternative medicine market, or CAM. Their treatments are available readily from chemists and specialized health shops, and are very popular, particularly due to the huge demand for natural remedies. The medicines are available for a huge range of ailments, from hay fever and asthma to malaria and cancer. Homeopaths are keen to promote the treatments, claiming that they relieve symptoms from every illness imaginable. However, scientists and conventional doctors often oppose these claims.

We’ll explore some of the reasons for this oppisition in the second half of this post, next week.


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