Senior doctors have attacked a plan by practitioners of alternative medicine to promote the role of homeopathy in the treatment of HIV and Aids.
Two professors from University College London (UCL) have criticised the Society of Homeopaths, Europe's largest organisation representing lay homeopaths, for organising a symposium on HIV, in London on 1 December – World Aids Day.
The conference will hear presentations about the work of homeopaths with Aids patients in Africa and one on work with Aids patients in the UK. Paula Ross, chief executive of the Society of Homeopaths, said the conference would be "a discussion forum for the exploration and critical appraisal of the use of homeopathy".
Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at UCL and a long-standing critic of alternative medicine, said the application of homeopathy in the context of Aids demonstrates how a therapy that is apparently safe – because it has no biochemical effect – can do damage.
Homeopathy employs the principle of treating like with like by taking a tiny sample of what is thought to have caused the symptoms and then repeatedly diluting it in a process known as potentiation. The resulting remedy may be so dilute as to not contain a single molecule of the original substance but is claimed to have a powerful effect.
This is disputed by some doctors who say there is no evidence that homeopathy is any better than a placebo at treating ailments. While this may not matter for minor conditions such as fatigue or stress caused by everyday pressures, it does matter when it is applied to serious diseases such as HIV and Aids.
"People say homeopathy cannot do any harm but when it is being promoted for HIV then there is a serious problem," Professor Baum told The Lancet.
Professor Baum is backed by David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at UCL, who highlighted an incident last year when an undercover investigation by a charity revealed that homeopathy clinics were prepared to provide homeopathic pills to travellers to prevent malaria, typhoid, dengue and yellow fever.
"Making false claims about treating colds is one thing but it is quite another to make false claims about malaria," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Society of Homeopaths said: "We are by no means talking of a cure for Aids or advocating that people stop taking their conventional medical treatment. That is not what it is about. This is a fairly new area for homoeopathy. We treat individuals, not named diseases and it is how individuals experience their symptoms that determines how we treat the totality of their symptoms."
Both Professor Baum and Professor Colquhoun were signatories to a letter last May from a group of doctors and scientists calling on primary care trusts (PCTs) to withdraw NHS funding for homeopathy. The West Kent Primary Care Trust has since announced that, from next March, it will stop paying for patients treated at the Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital. Several PCTs have stopped or reduced funding to the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, where referrals from GPs were down 20 per cent in October compared with the same month last year.