[Originally posted April 2010]
A subheading in The Australian in September 2009 read:
“BABY Gloria Thomas died an excruciating death after weeks of agony caused by the virulent eczema that eroded her skin, covered her body in wounds and retarded her development.”
The parents of this poor girl refused to seek professional medical care, instead relying solely on homeopathic treatments. This was despite the child’s clearly deteriorating condition and what must have been unimaginable suffering over a period of 5 months. Gloria Thomas died on the 8th of May, 2002 at 9 and half months of age, weighing just 2kg more than her birth weight, her hair having turned grey, her body malnourished, and her skin cracked open.
Unfortunately the preventable death of this infant is far from an isolated case with website http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html detailing a further 437 cases of harm due to the reliance on homeopathic concoctions.
So what is Homeopathy and what do these treatments consist of?
According to the Australasian College of Natural Therapies website:
Homoeopathy is a system of medicine that works by administering patients a dilute dose of a substance that in a crude form would cause symptoms similar to that which the patient is experiencing. Homeopathic medicines often contain active ingredients diluted to a beyond a measurable level.
Unfortunately for proponents of homeopathy and their customers the measurable amount is zero and the end product is nothing more than whatever liquid was used to dilute the original substance. In other words there is no active ingredient in homeopathic products at all, yet they are sold in pharmacies and supermarkets around Australia and the world.
Type homeopathy into a search engine and you will find countless sites promoting so called treatments as an alternative to conventional medicine; supplements and the like for all manner of ailments, most often in what can be considered by their users as authoritative health websites. These web sites often contain links to other claims that are scientifically dubious and often either untested or refuted in controlled conditions.
A 2002 position statement on Complimentary and Alternative medicine presented to the White House by the National Council Against Health Fraud contains the following excerpt from a New England Journal of Medicine editorial:
“There cannot be two kinds of medicine –conventional and alternative. There is only Medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted. But assertions, speculation and testimonials do not substitute for evidence. Alternative treatments should be subject to scientific testing no less rigorous than that required for conventional treatments.”
While Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the body responsible for the regulation of such treatments, advises us that:
“complimentary medicines may only carry indications and claims for the symptomatic relief of conditions (other than serious disease, disorders, or conditions), health maintenance, health enhancement and risk reduction.”
However as the case of Gloria Thomas shows us, even relatively mild conditions if left untreated long enough can be fatal. Even if the homeopathic preparations themselves are not harmful, their use in substitution of proven and scientifically validated treatments can have the direst of consequences.
As prominent Melbourne pharmacy and drug information consultant Ron Batagol is quoted as saying:
“You need to be quite careful that you’re not excluding the urgent need for medical treatment, because coughs and colds can lead to severe bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia and you really need to be looking after these things medically”
Listing with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), is conditional on evidence that
“…must be sufficient to substantiate that the indications and claims are true, valid and not misleading.”
Yet the scientific literature is littered with the results of many years research on the effectiveness and validity of homeopathic treatments and they are overwhelmingly inconsistent in terms of quality, yet consistent with one result, that homeopathic treatments do nothing more than elicit what is referred to as the ‘placebo effect’ in respondents.
Our minds can anticipate expected effects of perceived treatments, creating the often self fulfilling expectation that the respondent is feeling better, regardless of the effectiveness of treatment. It is an expected condition of medical trials that this placebo effect be accounted for and eliminated as a source of potential bias in a study in order to differentiate actual curative effects from this expectation driven subjective response. Unfortunately outside of laboratory conditions and particularly for the non-medically trained public, a placebo response can be seen as a positive health result, but in actuality the root cause of their complaint has not been addressed and may grow worse if effective treatment is not administered.
In 1993 the Council of the Faculty of Homeopathy, London issuing a statement advising
“The Council of the Faculty of Homeopathy, London, strongly supports the conventional vaccination program and has stated that vaccination should be carried out in the normal way, using the conventional tested and proved vaccines, in the absence of medical contraindications.”
Closer to home, the Executive Director of the Australian Natural Therapies Association is on public record as having said that no properly qualified natural therapist would recommend homeopathic ‘immunisation’ as an alternative to conventional immunisation. Yet despite these assertions, UK science written Simon Singh has described the findings of of Edzard Ernst and Katja Schmidt at Exeter University who conducted a survey among UK homeopaths. Emails were sent by the pair to168 homeopaths in which they effectively pretended to be a mother asking for advice about whether or not to vaccinate her one-year-old child against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). Singh advises that of the 77 respondents, only two advised the mother to immunize.
In 2009, Dr Ken Harvey, a physician at La Trobe University’s school of public health complained to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s complaints panel about a group called Homeopathy Plus! for allegedly promoting immunisations for a range of diseases when there is no scientific evidence to back it up.
When asked what he expected to come of the complaint, Dr Harvey said he was not confident the TGA would take any meaningful action was quoted as saying
“It’s a complaint-driven system that doesn’t do anything,”.
Action was taken against the offending websites however in early 2010 which as a consequence of the TGA finding numerous breaches of the advertising code, the investigating Panel ruled for Homeopathy Plus! and http://www.d-n-h.org to remove the misleading material and issue the following retraction on their websites which is to remain for 90 days.
In spite of this finding by the peak regulatory body in Australia, the websites in question still contain the same misinformation that led to this ruling in the first place and the retraction seen above is not to be found.
Just as the situation seems hopeless however, in February 2010, The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee of the United Kingdom, having taken submissions from scientists and homeopaths to determine if homeopathy was effective, and therefore deserving of government funding, released their findings. They advised:
“In our view, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that
homeopathic products perform no better than placebos”.
“We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect… When doctors prescribe placebos, they risk damaging the trust that exists between them and their patients”. 
The report advises the UK government that the National Health Service should cease funding homeopathy as evidence shows homeopathy doesn’t work and that explanations for why homeopathy works are “scientifically implausible.”
Just weeks prior to this announcement, The New Zealand Skeptics, in conjunction with 10:23, Skeptics in the Pub, The Australian Skeptics and others globally, held a mass overdose of homeopathic concoctions. Predictably all survived the stunt, however in response to the widely televised event New Zealand Council of Homeopaths spokesperson Mary Glaisyer admitted publicly that
“there’s not one molecule of the original substance remaining”
in homeopathic treatments, a fact not commonly shared by the homeopathic establishment.
Public pressure and less than flattering media coverage of the real evidence of homeopathic treatments is on the rise and if maintained, could very well lead to homeopathy going the way of phrenology, relegated to the dustbin of science, or at best a medical curiosity that our grandchildren will read about and laugh. However as Dr Ken Harvey pointed out, the TGA here in Australia is a complaint driven process. With that in mind I encourage everyone who reads this to explore the literature, speak to your Doctors and health professionals, and please forward a complaint to this http://www.tga.gov.au/contact.htm”>link:
The ball is rolling and I believe that this push against non-evidence based treatments can be brought into the public consciousness in such a way that little Gloria Thomas death may help other children and adults alike avoid her fate. The following are just some links to Australian media outlets that could be great public forums for this issue to gain the exposure it needs, the list provided here is by no means exhaustive and local newspapers are always hungry for stories:
and this great site for contact details of local members of parliament:
If you are not within Australia then simply utilising your preferred search engine will lead you to applicable media in your locale. If we all tell our friends, neighbours, relatives, local media and local, state and federal politicians and anyone who’ll listen, the word will get out. I can’t help but think, wouldn’t it be great if this was the last Homeopathy Awareness Week.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and as always please feel free to provide feedback.
Jayson D Cooke
To make a complaint to the TGA http://www.tga.gov.au/contact.htm
 Angell M, Kassirer J. Alternative Medicine—The risks of untested and unregulated remedies. New England Journal of Medicine 339:839-841, 1998. http://kitsrus.com/pdf/nejm_998.pdf