The decline of homeopathy, the medicine that cures nothing

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In the more than 200 years since its invention, no one has been able to prove that homeopathy is actually capable of curing anything with its supposedly empty medicines. However, his reputation has changed a lot during that time. It was funded by public health services in countries such as France, although it stopped doing so in 2021. At the beginning of this century, its use was growing among those seeking alternative medicines, but years of scientific activism against this pseudoscience, as well as somewhat stricter regulation, contributed to the slump in sales.

To understand this phenomenon, EL PAS turned to some of its main promoters, such as the pharmaceutical company Boiron, leader in the sector; the Spanish Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists and the Spanish Society of Homeopathic Doctors. In the absence of a response from all three, explanations are provided by experts more critical of the discipline.

In general, it dates from the beginning of the last decade. A growing skeptical movement worked to denounce that the principle on which homeopathy is based not only had neither rhyme nor reason, but had never produced any concrete evidence of improvement in anything. This was reflected in an editorial titled The end of homeopathy which appeared in The Lancet magazine in 2005, which suggested that the company stop wasting time and money trying to prove the efficacy of a therapy that it hadn’t been able to do in two centuries. The more diluted the evidence for homeopathy becomes, the greater its popularity appears to be, the editorial wryly states.

The authors were referring to the very foundations of this pseudoscience, which posits that what produces the symptoms of something can cure that same thing if it is very diluted in water. For one thing, this hasn’t been proven (except, to some extent, for allergies). Furthermore, the preparations they sell are so diluted that they are equivalent to throwing a drop of a substance into all the oceans of the planet. There is simply no trace of active ingredients in homeopathic medicines.

Many people who used homeopathy weren’t even aware that this was the case. Fernando Fras, one of the activists who worked to undermine the discipline’s remaining prestige, recalls that people didn’t believe it when they were told compounds with diluted Berlin Wall were being sold to overcome feelings of oppression and anxiety. This was effectively marketed under the premise that like cures like: if the Berlin Wall oppressed, a piece of it diluted in water should remedy it. Many were under the impression that it was just a natural therapy and that we were making things up to attack it, says Fras. He and other popularizers took part in homeopathic suicides, which consisted of ingesting supposed sedatives in huge quantities without experiencing any effects.

Despite everything, the sale of homeopathic remedies is widespread. They can be found in pharmacies, health food stores, and online retailers. The law allows it. There has been much discussion about how to regulate an alleged drug whose only effect is, in fact, the placebo effect. In 2001 the European Parliament issued a directive which regulated its use in countries with a homeopathic tradition; sources explain that this happened due to the pressure exerted by both industries and governments of countries where pseudoscience is rooted, such as France (where Boiron is based) or Germany, where its consumption is much higher than in others, such as Spain.

In view of the peculiar characteristics of these homeopathic medicinal products, such as the very low content of active ingredients contained in them and the difficulty of applying to them the conventional statistical methods relating to clinical trials, it is desirable to provide for a special and simplified registration procedure for those homeopathic medicines placed on the market without therapeutic indications in pharmaceutical form and dosage which present no risk to the patient, according to the directive.

In its more than two centuries of history, it is not the first time that homeopathy has lost ground. And yet, warns Fras, it cannot be ruled out that sooner or later something will emerge that will bring it back into fashion. Look at the example of chemtrails [the condensation trails left by airplanes that some conspiracy theorists believe are a way of poisoning the population from the air]. It seemed like no one remembered them anymore, but now they’re back, he says. Fras quotes astrophysicist and popularizer Javier Armentia, who says that beliefs are like a rubber duck: no matter how much they sink, they always resurface. Especially if there’s money behind it, he adds.

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