Are sugar pills effective substitutes for vaccines? That’s what some are asking about Health Canada’s decision to approve 82 homeopathic “nosodes” which are sold by homeopaths as vaccine alternatives. Homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system of sugar pills. Of all alternative medicine, homeopathy is the most implausible of them all. Based on the absurd notion of “like cures like” (which is sympathetic magic, not science), proponents of homeopathy believe that any substance can be an effective remedy if it’s diluted enough: cancer, boar testicles, crude oil, oxygen, skim milk even pieces of the Berlin Wall are all homeopathic remedies. In the case of nosodes, it’s infectious material. But this isn’t attenuated viruses, or anything you’d find in a real vaccine. This is simply raw infectious material that’s diluted. And when I say dilute, I mean dilute. The 30C “potency” is common – that’s a dilution of 10-60. You would have to give two billion doses per second, to six billion people, for 4 billion years, to deliver a single molecule of the original material. So nosodes are effectively and mathematically inert – they are pure placebo. Not surprisingly, there is no persuasive medical evidence that homeopathy has medicinal effects.
The Natural Health Product regulations, under Canada’s Food and Drugs Act, regulate homeopathic products as well as products like nutritional supplements, probiotics, traditional Chinese medicine, vitamins, and herbal remedies. They are a deliberate shadow of the regulations that govern drug products — requiring some manufacturing quality and safety standards, while effectively removing the standards for product efficacy claims. Yet Health Canada insists that this doesn’t compromise quality, safety, or efficacy:
Through the Natural Health Products Directorate, Health Canada ensures that all Canadians have ready access to natural health products that are safe, effective and of high quality, while respecting freedom of choice and philosophical and cultural diversity.
When used for self-limiting conditions, the risk of harm from homeopathy may be slight. But not if it makes people think they’re using medicine, when they’re actually doing nothing at all. And a framework that gives even a veneer of credibility to sugar pills increases the perception that homeopathy has legitimate medical uses. We’ve seen this worldwide with homeopaths descending on Haiti or treating HIV in Africa, illustrating that proponents lack any insight into the fact that these products are inert. You even get one one ethicist has called “one of the worst charities in the world“, Homeopaths Without Borders:
Homeopaths Without Borders (HWB) has provided homeopathic care and education in Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Sri Lanka. Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it has focused efforts there, too. Besides minor ailments, HWB also treats malaria, typhoid, cholera, dengue fever, advanced diabetes, and educates about the “beneficial effects” of these treatments.
Laugh or cry? I can’t decide. There’s something really wrong with a company that deludes the barely educated global poor with the false hope of a malaria treatment–when they could have been seeking assistance that might actually save their life. It’s even more wrong that it can get the tax exemption status known as 501(c)3 in the US.
What Health Canada does has very real consequences in the rest of the world. Just this week I noticed the following at the UK website, What Doctors Don’t Tell You:
Health Canada’s approval is being treated internationally as a stamp of legitimacy for these products. From the BC Medical Journal, Health Canada licenses homeopathic vaccines:
Remarkably, at the same time as Health Canada focuses on influenza education, flu shots, and other proven prevention measures, that same body has licensed 10 products with a homeopathic preparation called “influenzinum.” According to providers, influenzinum is for “preventing the flu and its related symptoms.” Homeopathic vaccines are available for other infectious diseases as well. Health Canada licenses homeopathic preparations purported to prevent polio, measles, and pertussis. Health Canada continues to assure Canadians that it tests products for safety and efficacy before allowing them to enter the market. All approved homeopathic products are given a DIN-HM number. The website states, “A NPN or DIN-HM means that the product has been authorized for sale in Canada and is safe and effective when used according the instructions on the label.”
Homeopathic vaccines are available for other infectious diseases as well. Health Canada licenses homeopathic preparations purported to prevent polio, measles, and pertussis.
This week, Carly Weeks, writing in the Globe and Mail, gave her take on Health Canada’s actions:
Health Canada is responsible for protecting Canadians from unsafe or ineffective products. So why hasn’t the department done anything to stop the sale of nosodes, dubious homeopathic concoctions promoted by many naturopathic and homeopathic practitioners as being superior to traditional vaccines?
It’s a question a growing number of medical professionals are asking. As vaccination rates continue to fall and outbreaks of preventable illnesses, such as measles and whooping cough, are becoming increasingly common, doctors are worried that nosodes could divert more people from legitimate immunization campaigns and lead them to an alternative therapy that doesn’t work.
There are no shortage of proponents, she found:
Many naturopathic practitioners say nosodes are equally or more effective than regular vaccines and that the added bonus is they contain no additives or preservatives, which may be found in trace amounts in some vaccines.
Anna Sienicka, a homeopathic practitioner in Toronto, says she and her family use nosodes and believes they offer protection.
“There are no side effects,” she said. “There are no chemicals or anything else.”
She said that ample research has backed the immunizing power of nosodes. One of the most cited studies, published in the journal Homeopathy, looked at the use of nosodes to prevent leptospirosis, a bacterial disease common in Cuba. After cases of the disease fell, the researchers attributed it to the use of nosodes. However, it’s worth noting that a sizable portion of the high-risk population had already received traditional vaccines, which would help reduce transmission. The study has several other flaws, such as the fact the homeopathic treatment was administered right before the peak of the disease outbreak, after which it would be expected that rates of infection would fall.
Weeks is correct. Contrary to what the homeopath says, nosodes haven’t been shown to prevent leptospirosis. There’s an extensive review of the study over at Science-Based Medicine, and also at Respectful Insolence which points out the numerous flaws in the paper.
Bad Science Watch is calling on Health Canada to stop approving nosodes for sale in Canada and revoke the licenses of all currently approved nosode products. This would include a mandatory recall of all existing nosode products.
Health Canada has essentially eliminated the scientific requirements for approving homeopathic remedies, so we should not be surprised to see products emerge that are promoted as vaccine alternatives. Homeopathic nosodes that are deemed “safe and effective” provides yet another example of the consequence of regulating pseudoscientific practices. This is a regulatory failure, not just for Canadians, but for public health endeavors worldwide. The minimum we should expect from a regulator is that when we’re told a product is “safe and effective” is that we have some assurance it actually works. There’s no societal or individual benefit by licensing homeopathic nosodes for sale. Bad Science Watch is inviting you to take action against nosodes. Join the campaign here.