Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Homeopathy: just a spoonful of sugar

World Homeopathy Awareness Week may have been last week, but figuring that it's never too late to learn about this field of 'science' that is now, with staggering audacity, claiming to be able to cure infertility, I dived head-first into the website of the World Homeopathy Awareness Organisation.

It lists ten good reasons to use homeopathy. These are: having no harmful side-effects; being gentle, holistic, inexpensive, preventative; not having been tested on animals; easy to take; involving the patient; invaluable for first aid; and - this one is quite the claim - being 'the medicine of the future. 

You don't need to be eagle-eyed to spot the missing word: effective. Nowhere in its manifesto, does the organisation feel obliged to say that the treatment actually works. Undeterred, I ploughed through a 30-page lime-green powerpoint report on why homeopathy should be used for infertility. There too, they seem breezily unconcerned about whether the remedies might actually do what they claim. Under the heading "Does homeopathy always work", they say "A lot can be achieved, but there can be circumstances that influence the treatment negatively, such as: wrong diet, environment, medication, irreversible damage." 

Sure, there are contraindications with many conventional medications too, but these are clearly laid out when a doctor prescribes them to a patient. They're not used as a get-out clause to explain why 'sugar pills with water memory' (is it just me who thinks these sound like words from Star Trek?) don't work. In a final whammy, the report says that when taking homeopathic medicine, old symptoms may return, and what's more, your symptoms may actually be aggravated. That doesn't sound much like a cure to me. 

If all of this sounds like an angry, bitter rant... it is. Homeopathy isn't harmless. Pro-homeopaths would argue that I don't have to use if I don't want to, and I should just other people do what they want. But false remedies are insidious and often become harmful very quickly. I've met people all over India who use homeopathy for illnesses ranging from diabetes to heart disease to asthma. These aren't trivial conditions and the consequences for ignoring care can be dire. 

Perhaps the most heart-rending example I heard was from a cancer surgeon in Assam, north-east India. He told me that because patients try homeopathy and other remedies first, they may not see a doctor for a lump in their breast until it's too late. When homeopathy stands between a person living or dying, homeopaths really do need to examine their conscience. Better still, governments should step in and better regulate healthcare.  

Women aren't just baby-making machines

The summer of 1984 saw a landmark conference on women’s health in Cairo, Egypt. The conference wasn’t billed as such – it was called the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) – but its recommendations were radical in its message: that women’s sexual and reproductive rights are central to family planning and population development.
Riding high on the waves of feminism from the 1960s and 1970s, this was a promising step in the right direction. But though it did change the way the world thought of women’s health, its promise was cut short by several factors. 
For instance, the AIDS epidemic burst onto the global health agenda at around the same time, and most health dollars were being funnelled into fighting this disease ravaging the world. And so, women’s rights slipped out of sight, and out of mind.
The past few years has seen an upsurge in interest in women’s health again, partly because maternal health got a mention on the Millennium Development Goals. But therein lies the rub. Suddenly, women’s health became all about maternal health. It’s true that pregnancy, in the developing world especially, is a time in a women’s life when her health is most vulnerable. And her poor health could also threaten the health of her baby.
But a woman isn’t just a baby-making machine. Women’s sexual and reproductive health encompasses far more than maternal health – it includes sexual rights, sexual health (in terms of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases), and the menopause. These areas outside of maternal health are badly neglected because they don’t fit with the current agenda.
Now, scientists and policymakers are starting to re-frame women’s health in an economic context. Women are the glue that holds society together, and studies show that when women’s health is focused on, the whole family, and therefore the whole nation, benefits. This seems hard to argue with, but it’s a poor reason to advocate for women’s health. Women have the right to good health for their own sake, not just because they’re a useful cog in a country’s economic wheel. The ICPD in Cairo already showed us that rights needs to be at the heart of women’s health, but we may need another revolution to remind of us that.
This post originally appeared on the website of COHRED/Global Forum for Health Research for its 2012 forum in Cape Town