Homeopathy: New labeling laws hope to separate fact from fiction

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With Health Canada’s new homeopathy labeling laws in effect, manufacturers are prohibited from recommending cough, cold and flu homeopathic remedies for children 12 or younger, unless supported by scientific evidence. In addition, homeopathic remedies referred to as nosodes can no longer be marketed as homeopathic vaccines.

Stephen Hoption Cann, clinical associate professor in UBC’s school of population and public health, discusses why homeopathy continues to attract followers, even as it fails to satisfy scientific criteria.

Stephen Hoption Cann

Stephen Hoption Cann

Do you think Health Canada is taking the right approach toward homeopathic products?
Yes. Nobody’s saying that you can’t do clinical trials to study these homeopathic remedies. If you do have a product that you think could be beneficial in a certain illness, it’s better to do a proper clinical study and prove that that is indeed the case. Simply claiming that it does something when there’s no real evidence to support it is a danger to patients.

Do you have any concerns about people using homeopathy?
Homeopathy is probably not harmful to use as a companion treatment to conventional therapy. But if you’re using it as a treatment alone for a serious condition, that’s when concern arises. People might be using these products for conditions that are treatable with conventional therapies.

When it comes to children, we don’t typically see some of these serious infections that vaccinations prevent, so parents don’t realize how hazardous it can be for their children to be unvaccinated. It would be a danger to give a child nosodes in place of vaccines that offer no protection and put them at risk of developing the disease. It is also a danger to the public: an unvaccinated child can pick up an illness and spread it to others. You need about 90 per cent of the population to be vaccinated in order to prevent most outbreaks.

Does homeopathy have any scientific validity?
No scientific study has proven that it works. It was developed by a physician named Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s, when doctors used things like bloodletting or toxic mixtures of substances. Hahnemann wanted to find a better way of treating patients. He came up with the concept of “like cures like”: essentially, giving a small amount of something that induces a symptom will cure similar symptoms, and the more diluted it is the more potent it becomes against an illness.

It’s a difficult concept to reconcile in light of modern scientific thought. Remedies are diluted so much that you actually dilute out the original ingredient, so what are you actually giving the patient? The other concern is that if a patient has a serious illness and takes a homeopathic therapy, is that patient going to get worse when they could have used a conventional treatment that has been proven to be effective? 

Why has homeopathy stuck around so long?
I think one of the main reasons is that conventional medicine just hasn’t cured every disease. Some of our conventional treatments are less effective than many patients would desire. Patients may be looking for something that conventional medicine can’t offer.

Homeopathic therapies may have no side effects, while some medicines might. It’s an alternative for people that feel that they maybe don’t have any other avenues for treatment. There’s also that potential placebo effect. For things like seasonal allergies or colds, they’re going to get better with time, whether you take the therapy or not. So you might attribute feeling better to the therapy when it’s really just the illness running its course.