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I’m here to rant about homeopathy.
“Oh no, not another report about homeopathy” you cry.
Don’t worry. I have a new angle to report on.
DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recently published an article on their website titled: “Alternative pet remedies: Government clampdown”
The article discusses how alternative remedies are being targeted by the Government in a drive to improve animal health and welfare. It goes on to point out that some herbal and homeopathic products are claiming medicinal benefits without scientific proof and that these remedies may be leaving pets at risk.
The article quotes John FitzGerald, Director of Operations at the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. He states:
“Animal owners have a right to know if a product does what it claims. The products claim to treat diseases which can cause serious welfare problems and in some circumstances kill animals if not properly treated. So in some cases owners are giving remedies to their pets which don’t treat the problem.”
The specific homeopathic remedies mentioned in the article are homeopathic ‘nosodes’. These are created by using diseased animal tissues, in the belief that they act as a vaccination. The Directorate are planning to contact manufacturers to ask for proof that their medicines do what they claim.
This is great news. A government body is actually planning to use evidence to determine policy. It is going to insist that pets are only treated with medicine that can be backed by evidence.
Now, let’s remind ourselves how a different Government department dealt with homeopathy treatments for another type of animal: namely, humans. How did the Department of Health respond to the Science and Technology Committee’s ‘Evidence Check’ report on Homeopathy [PDF].
The Science and Technology Committee concluded that homeopathy has no place on the NHS and should not be funded by tax payers. The government stated that they “welcomed the report” and that, of course, medicine should be “evidence based”… but then came some “howevers”. They started undermining the report with phrases such as “long tradition” and “patient choice”. They decided to ignore the evidence, and the recommendations, and instead let local NHS choose to fund homeopathy or not.
Basically, they passed the buck.
Even though local PCTs around the country, such as Nottinghamshire and Greater Manchester, subsequently announced that they would not be funding homeopathy, homeopaths claimed a victory: the Government had decided that homeopathy would not be banned on the NHS.
So, here we have a tale of two government departments. DEFRA appear to be in the process of using evidence to ban homeopathy for the treatment of animals. Meanwhile, the Department of Health say it is okay if humans continue with such treatment.
This decision, I assume, is based on one reason: the placebo effect works on humans, it doesn’t work on animals.
Homeopaths often use this as an argument in favour of homeopathy: how can homeopathy work by the placebo effect only? “My cat/dog/fish/komodo dragon got better after I gave it homeopathy”. Often, though, it is just the owner perceiving an improvement in the animal’s health, or perhaps the animal just got better by itself. The scientific understanding remains: the placebo effect does not work on animals as this would require the animal to recognize that it is being treated.
Now, my question is this: will the Department of Health follow DEFRA’s lead and protect another at-risk group that cannot get better due to the placebo effect alone? Will they ban it for use on babies? The Society of Homeopaths happily promotes homeopathic remedies for the treatment of teething, nappy rash, colic and even fevers. They point out how safe the remedies are. Well, of course they are safe – medicine made of just water and sugar is going to be pretty risk free.
There is very little government advice to be found in this area. I could only find one statement that advised parents to not replace vaccinations with homeopathic treatments.
I find it is difficult to comprehend that animals appear to be better protected from bogus treatments than humans. Unfortunately, this seems to be our reality.
This is Kash Farooq, getting wound up about homeopathy, for the Pod Delusion.
You can find me on Twitter @kashfarooq.