Homeopathy is witchcraft. From a scientific point of view it is no more valid than brewing magic potions with eye of newt and lizard tails. Homeopaths, however, continue to stubbornly promote their potions as if they were real medical treatments.

Increased attention to the unscientific nature of homeopathy has caused somewhat of a backlash, but not enough to fully dislodge the entrenched interests of homeopathy. Still, it is good to hear of regulatory bodies taking their missions seriously and applying them to homeopathic fraud.

Australian agencies, for example, recently has set their sites on a homeopathy website claiming to treat whooping cough, which is currently en epidemic in that country. They have the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which is the equivalent of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US. Their job is to make sure that companies do not commit commercial fraud by lying to consumers. They also have the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which is their equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The respective agencies, however, operate with different sets of powers and restrictions, even though their broad missions are similar.

Recently the two organizations have taken on an Australian homeopathy website called Homeopathy Plus!. The Australian reports:   

In a statement, ACCC chairman Rod Sims yesterday said the "combination of claims that the vaccine was ineffective and that the homeopathic remedies listed on the page were an alternative prevention and treatment regime elevated this matter to one of extreme concern". 

The ACCC was following on a previous order from the TGA to remove claims from the website that were, "misleading and deceptive and ... could lead to serious health risks for consumers." Homeopathy Plus apparently ignored the prior "order' from the TGA, which does not seem to have the authority to actually enforce such orders.  

The ACCC and TGA are concerned that the Homeopathy Plus website was making claims that the whooping cough vaccine is not safe - typical crank fear mongering about vaccines. But then they were exploiting the fear they were trying to create by then offering homeopathic potions as an alternative preventive and treatment for whooping cough.  

This, of course, got the attention of these agencies because Australia is in the midst of a whooping cough epidemic - an epidemic aided by their local anti-vaccine cranks.  

Homeopathy Plus has voluntarily taken down the whooping cough claims, but they remain unrepentant. Their director, Fran Sheffield, has said that the claims could go back up. They are conducting their own review to make sure the claims are in, "compliance with ACCC regulations." They don't appear to be interested in whether or not the claims are medically valid or not, as long as they can get the regulatory agencies off their back. 

I say this because of the other claims on the Homeopathy Plus website, which shows an appalling disregard for intellectual honesty. The homepage begins with this howler: 

Far from being a “new age” medicine, Hippocratic writings show that Homeopathy’s effects were known at least 2,000 years ago.  

They fail to cite which Hippocratic writings refer to homeopathic effects or principles in any way. I could not find them. I suspect they are distorting the thinnest of conceptual connections that really have nothing to do with homeopathy. Somehow a bogus connection to Hippocrates is supposed to save homeopathy from being anything other than the complete invention of Samuel Hahnemann 200 years ago.  

The site is also a good example of one major strategy of medical quacks - when trying to gain a foothold in hospitals, regulations, academia, and public acceptance, they present themselves as a benign treatment for everyday symptoms. This is to put academics, doctors, and politicians at their ease and give them a "what's the harm" reaction. This is what David Gorski has called the "Trojan horse" approach. Once they're in, the dark underbelly of homeopathy opens up and all kinds of harmful nonsense slithers out.  

On the Homeopathy Plus website, for example, they have an entire section on the homeopathic treatment of autism. In a case report they write:  

"Sulphur was chosen because Alex avoided dirty or contaminating things and wanted his hands washed frequently. The fact that he separated easily from his parents (he would run away from them) and was not clinging or under-confident as would be expected with a Calcarea carbonica child also supported a Sulphur prescription. Sulphur was given in a liquid 30C potency. Following a test dose to assess his sensitivity to the remedy, it was prescribed three times a week."  

They gave Sulphur because Alex avoided dirt. This is witchcraft and magic potions. Their fanciful notions of "miasms" and sympathetic magic indicates that Alex's brain function would be improved by sulphur. Or, as Randi humorously says, they also followed the second law of Homeopathy which is to not do that - they diluted the suphur in a 30C potency, which means that not a single molecule of sulphur would remain.  

This is pseudoscience on top of pseudoscience on top of magic. What is the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathic potions in treating autism? - zilch.  

It is good to see that regulatory agencies are starting to notice that homeopathy is dangerous fraud, but they are just scratching the surface. They also largely lack the authority to really take down homeopathy. In the US homeopathic potions effectively have pre-approval by the FDA - they do not need to provide any evidence of safety or effectiveness. This law needs to be repealed, hopefully before we have our own whooping cough epidemic, which is already brewing.  

Notes - thanks to Richard Saunders for sending me this news item from down under.


Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.

Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society and the host and producer of the popular weekly science show, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He also authors the NeuroLogica Blog.