NHS must ban 'dangerous' homoeopathy
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Monday 19 March 2012
Britain's foremost professor of complementary medicine today launches a withering attack on the provision of homoeopathy on the NHS.
Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University says the use of state funding to provide a treatment which works no better than a placebo cannot be justified.
Homoeopathy may also be dangerous where it is subsituted for orthodox treatments of proven efficacy and involves doctors in deceiving their patients about the true value of the medicines they provide, he says.
"Homeopathy could be (and often is) used as an alternative to effective interventions. For example, the advice from homeopaths not to immunise has become a major cause of low vaccination rates. Also, the strategy of using homeopathy as a benign placebo can only work if clinicians do not tell the truth to their patients," he writes in The Biologist.
The attack is the latest on the 200-year-old practice, introduced by the German Physician Samuel Hahnemann, which today has millions of adherents all over the world. It is based on the principle that “like cures like” and its tinctures are made up from substances that produce the symptoms the patient is suffering from and then repeatedly diluting them until no molecules of the original remain.
Professor Ernst says this disregards most of what we know about physiology. The principle that the more a substance is diluted, the greater its effect is unscientific. “It is in contrast with the laws of physics, chemistry and pharmacology. Homeopathy is thus biologically implausible.”
Homoeopaths claim that even very low concentrations of their tinctures have been shown to differ from pure water. But Professor Ernst said even if that were true it would not explain their claimed positive effects. “The water in my kitchen sink differs from pure water after I have done the washing up, but this does not mean it is good for my health.”
The NHS spends an estimated £4 million a year on providing homoeopathic treatment. Two years ago an investigation by a Commons committee concluded that the funding should cease. The Science and Technology Committee said there was no evidence that it worked, and to continue funding it would divert NHS funds from more effective treatments and undermine the principle that government funding in health should be evidence based.
Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive of the Society of Biology, said: "The UK spends literally billions of pounds every year ensuring that the new and existing conventional medicines we take are effective, safe and fit for purpose. It makes no sense to allow other treatments to be made available through public expenditure without application of the same rigorous standards. That is what is happening with homeopathic treatments. It needs to stop."
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