Homeopathy, or how water cures everything

Let’s say you go to the doctor with an ear ache. Instead of giving you medicine, he gives you water. You’d be pretty upset, right? How the heck is that supposed to help you?

Strangely enough, that’s the premise of homeopathy. I used to think that homeopathy was just another term for “natural medicine” or an herbal remedy. Nope – an herbal remedy like echinacea or ginseng pretty much always contains echinacea or ginseng . Whether or not it will cure what ails you is another story, but nevertheless, it has the potential to work because natural remedies actually contain active ingredients. Homeopathic remedies on the other hand are just. plain. water.

Homeopathy operates on the outdated principle that like cures like. You can’t sleep? Since caffeine keeps you up, dilute concentrations of caffeine should put you right to sleep. Ok, so far it’s a little kooky, but hey – weirder things have worked. The next part is where you lose me. Instead of taking a substance and mushing it up or making it into a tea, you dilute so much that you’re literally left with water. How much do you dilute it? Homeopathic solutions are so dilute that it’s like one drop of medicine in all the water on earth. At that point, there is not one single molecule left of active ingredient in the medicine – it’s just water.

This is no secret. Homeopathic practitioners are fully aware that they’re giving you water. In homeopathy, the more dilute, the “better” the medicine. So how can they justify this? Homeopaths admit they have no idea how homeopathy works, and their best guess is that water must have a “memory” and thus can “remember” once being in contact with the active ingredient. I’m not quite sure how a molecule of water can “remember,” and, if it can remember, does it also remember everything else it has ever been in contact with, such as bacteria and toxins? Perhaps also other medicines? If so, homeopathic remedies could be quite dangerous.

But of course they’re not dangerous, because they’re water. And water doesn’t “remember”.

When my baby had a cold, I could not find any cold medicine for him – not even an herbal or “natural” remedy. It’s difficult to find any medicine at all for babies under a year old, because they have not been tested in children that young.  I get it – no company wants to be the first to test their product in babies. However, the pharmacy does offer a wide range of homeopathic medicines for babies. No danger in that and no testing needed – because it’s water. They boast claims such as “all natural” and “no side effects” – because it’s water. The fact that there are nothing but homeopathic cold medicines (not even “natural” ones) for babies should tip you off as to their ingredients (hint: it’s just water).

I can understand why homeopathy is popular. A homeopathic practitioner takes the time to sit down and talk to you, customizes a medication just for you, and may give you more individualized attention than conventional doctors. You feel special and cared for. Because you feel so special and cared for, the homeopathic medicine might even have a placebo effect on you, and lo and behold, your aches and pains are gone.

No harm no foul in that case – if water can cure your little aches and pains, that’s great. The only danger is if homeopathy prevents you from seeking medical attention for something serious. Homeopathy is quite popular in the UK, and tragically, a British baby died after her parents treated her severe skin disorder with homeopathic remedies instead of conventional medicine.

There has actually been some backlash against the popularity of homeopathy in the UK, with one protest group staging mass “overdoses” on homeopathic medicines. All over the world, hundreds of individuals gathered to take massive doses of homeopathic remedies in order to prove that there’s nothing to them. Of course, they suffered no ill consequences.

Homeopathic remedies in pharmacies are the medical equivalent of horoscopes in respectable newspapers. It just doesn’t make sense.

References here

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Taking the sting out of vaccines

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Ah needles – nobody likes ’em. Even if you’re not squeamish, you’ll probably hold your breath and look away when the nurse gets ready to jab you in the arm. But we continue to do it, knowing that momentary discomfort is a small price to pay for protection against potentially life-threatening diseases. However, there are some people who disagree.

There is no doubt that vaccines have revolutionized medicine: many childhood illnesses are but faint memories in the developed world. Polio is a prime example. The polio virus, which mainly affects children under 5 years of age, can cause total lifelong paralysis in mere hours. If the breathing muscles become paralysed, polio can be fatal. In the 1950s, parents were terrified and felt completely helpless in the face of this crippling disease preying on their children, which left approximately 11 000 Canadians paralysed between 1949 and 1954. Then, in 1955, a miracle: a polio vaccine was perfected, and children were effectively immunized against the disease. Ever since, children in most of the world have been vaccinated against polio and the number of cases worldwide has decreased by over 99% between 1988 and 2012. Thanks to vaccination, polio is now endemic to only 3 countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan), compared to 125 countries in 1988.

Other devastating childhood illnesses that were a simple fact of life for our grandparents, like measles and whooping cough, are now also easily preventable by vaccination.

In fact, vaccinations have been so effective that we seem to have completely forgotten the horror of these childhood illnesses. The proof? Some parents are now choosing to not vaccinate their children.

This baffling decision is largely due to rampant misinformation about vaccines. We live in an age of social media, where celebrities, bloggers, and other such “medical experts” have a vast pulpit from which to preach their anti-vaccination message.* One of the most vocal anti-vaccine advocates is the actress Jenny McCarthy. She is convinced that vaccines “triggered” her son’s autism. Although McCarthy has no medical or science background (in her own words, she gets her information from the “university of Google”), her anti-vaccine crusade has garnered much support from fearful parents in many countries, including Canada (check out the Jenny McCarthy body count). In interviews, McCarthy comes off as passionate and relatable – she’s just a mom doing what she thinks is best for her child. It’s not hard to see why parents of a child with autism, looking for a scapegoat, could easily be convinced of her beliefs.

Sadly, Jenny McCarthy is not alone. A quick Google search reveals a whole anti-vaccine community – it’s almost become trendy to not vaccinate. Where did all these ideas about vaccines causing autism come from? Why the backlash? It can all be traced back to research by Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published Wakefield’s study, in which he linked autism to the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. After certain evidence came to light, the journal retracted the study. It turned out that Wakefield was being paid to advise solicitors hired by parents who believed that the MMR vaccine had harmed their children. Furthermore, the study was based on a sample of just 12 children, with no control group. His “research” was comprised of highly unscientific methods (such as collecting blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party) and using parental anecdotes and beliefs as data.

It seems that even the parents of the children were kept in the dark about what was really going on. In an interview after the study was published, the father of one child noted “Please let me know if Andrew W has his doctor’s license revoked. His misrepresentation of my son in his research paper is inexcusable. His motives for this I may never know.” After investigation, Wakefield was charged with research fraud and unethical treatment of children. He was given multiple chances to replicate his results, but always refused. He has since been struck off the medical register, thereby banning him from practicing medicine in his native UK. Multiple studies by other researchers were unsuccessful in replicating Wakefield’s results. In fact, no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autistic disorders has ever been found.

But the damage was done and anti-vaccine hysteria took off. In the UK, MMR vaccination rates were above 90% until 1998, when they started dropping, and were down to 79% by 2003. Not surprisingly, measles, a disease with no local transmission in the UK in 1994, came back with a vengeance, becoming endemic again in 2008. Due to a decade of MMR vaccine fear, there were now a sufficient number of children susceptible to measles to support the continuous spread of the disease. By the time Wakefield’s paper was finally retracted in 2010, 30 367 cases of measles were reported across Europe and the UK – all for a vaccine-preventable disease. Measles is no joke – it can cause eye disorders, deafness or brain damage, and kills 200 000 people around the world each year, many of them are children.

Because people can now easily travel great distances, so can diseases. In 2011, a group of unvaccinated Canadian travellers brought back measles after visiting France, causing the biggest outbreak in Canada since the disease had been essentially eradicated in the 1990s.

And it’s not just measles – other diseases that were made rare thanks to vaccination are making a comeback as the anti-vaccine movement gains popularity in Canada. In 2012, there were pertussis (whooping cough) outbreaks in British-Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. One month-old Harper Whitehead from Lethbridge Alberta tragically died as a result, since he was too young to have received his vaccine.

In addition to the autism fear, some parents choose not to vaccinate because they believe vaccines cause SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Unfortunately, babies are especially at risk for SIDS around the age vaccines are usually administered, so the two events appear to be linked even though there is no evidence of this – unvaccinated babies can just as easily die of SIDS.

Another ill-founded parental concern is that a baby’s immune system can become “overloaded” when too many vaccines are administered. The truth is, a baby is exposed to more antigens with a common cold than with a vaccine.

Vaccines are one of the safest medical products available – they are all rigorously tested and continue to be monitored even when on the market. Every single batch of vaccine released for public use in Canada has to conform to strict standards to ensure its safety. Most adverse reactions to vaccines are minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or minor fever. In contrast, the diseases they offer protection against can cause permanent damage or even death. Those who choose not to vaccinate are putting not only themselves or their own children at risk, but also those who cannot get vaccinated, such as people with auto-immune diseases, allergies to vaccine components or newborn babies (vaccines are usually administered a few months after birth).

Vaccinations protect you, and also those around you. For a healthy adult, whooping cough is mostly a nuisance. For your newborn baby, it can be fatal. A little jab is a small price to pay to potentially save your baby’s life, wouldn’t you say? Please, vaccinate your kids. Stop the insanity.

*”Hold on a minute, The Hedgehog. Aren’t you just another blogger? Why should we trust you?” Ah, excellent point! In the immortal words of Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow: “You don’t have to take my word for it”: WHO vaccine myths  Mayo Clinic vaccine myths .

For a full list of references used, click here.

Apparently, I am no fun.

I have something to admit: I am a skeptic.

I feel the need to “out” myself because the word skeptic often conjures up images of crusty old farts, closed off to any new ideas.

But being skeptical does not mean being cynical. The Skeptic Society‘s website puts it best:

Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.

I’ve been a skeptic as long as I can remember – apparently, I informed my parents that Santa wasn’t real when I was two years old.

This kind of approach to life often makes you unpopular. When I was 8 years old or so, my classmates were all exchanging stories about hearing Santa on their roof. I chimed in and claimed to have heard him too, just so I could fit in. Whenever something like this happened, my rational brain screamed in agony.

Looking at life through a skeptical lens has led to conversations like this a few times over the years:

So you don’t believe in X??

No.

But X happened to/worked for/is endorsed by my aunt/my boss/this celebrity!

While that may make for a good story at parties, I’m afraid that’s not proof.

So you don’t believe *anything*?

Well, no – that wouldn’t be very productive, would it? I believe in things that have compelling evidence.

But how can you prove that our whole existence is not more than a dream?

Ok, I’ll leave that one to the philosophers.

Do you believe Y?

No…

You’re really closed-minded.

Well I don’t believe Y because there’s no convincing evidence. I’m not saying Y is impossible – all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge. If there’s enough compelling evidence for Y, come back and talk to me about it then. And actually, I think searching for the true cause of Y instead of believing mythology is pretty open-minded. The real explanation for things often turns out to be a lot more fascinating than the myth!

Well, how about Z? How do you explain that? Your precious science doesn’t know!

You’re right! I have no idea how to explain Z. However, unexplained doesn’t mean unexplainable. Just because we don’t have an answer now doesn’t mean we never will. Unlocking these mysteries is what make life interesting!

You’re no fun.

Thanks…?

*End scene*