Ebola is a virus that causes a dangerous hemorrhagic fever disease with a high mortality rate. Right now, there have been at least 9000 cases of Ebola viral disease and ~4500 documented deaths. It has spread to seven different countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain and the United States, although according to the October 17th update from the World Health Organization (WHO) the outbreak seems to have ended in Senegal.
In the wake of this human tragedy, pseudoscientific “treatments” against Ebola have cropped up like weeds around the Internet. Various websites suggest antioxidants, selenium, vitamin C, Vitamin D, iodine, magnesium, estradiol, infrared radiation, sodium bicarbonate, cannabis, coffee, fermented soy, silver and salty drinking water. Natural News, the largest website promoting quack treatments in the world, even posted an article recommending homeopathy and describing how to prepare remedies. However, this was pulled after a couple of days as apparently homeopathy for Ebola was a too deranged idea even for Natural News.
Recently, Fran Sheffield (the director of Homeopathy Plus Australia) put up a petition (webcite) at Change.org urging the WHO to “test and distribute homeopathy as quickly as possible” to contain outbreaks of Ebola. This petition, together with 2000 signatures, were sent to Director General Dr Margaret Chan at the WHO in early October. Unfortunately, it contains numerous scientific, medical and logical errors that will be discussed in this article. The irrational peculiarities of the messages left from supporters of homeopathy for Ebola will also be explored.
Homeopathy is not effective for any medical condition
Homeopathy has a proven track record of treating and preventing serious epidemic diseases.
High-quality scientific studies show that homeopathy does not work for any particular medical condition. This position is even held by the National Center of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organization that has been given substantial criticism for being too friendly to quack treatments. Not only that, homeopathy is incompatible with core principles of chemistry and biology: the preparations are diluted to such a degree that there are, statistically speaking, no active molecule of the diluted substance whatsoever. In other words, treating Ebola virus disease with homeopathy is equivalent to treating it with water or sugar pills.
Science, not government politics, determines efficacy
It’s used by governments for dengue fever, leptospirosis, epidemic fever, malaria, and Japanese encephalitis epidemics, and, historically, for other serious contagious diseases.
In reality, it is the result of scientific studies that determines whether or not we can conclude that a given treatment has any clinically meaningful effect. What governments think and decide is often influenced by personal belief and political ideology, which means that they are not valid scientific authorities. The governments cited in the petition (India, Cuba, Brazil, Thailand and Colombo) are also not known for stringent scientific evaluations of medical claims, so the default position should be skepticism. Even if we accept the notion that government positions were valid scientific arguments, we should note that a lot of governments have rejected homeopathy for infectious diseases and that list is considerably longer than the five countries listed by Sheffield.
Why should we think that homeopathy is effective against Ebola?
The appropriate homeopathic medicine (remedy) is likely to be just as effective against the Ebola virus.
Assume that homeopathy was effective for some infectious diseases (it is not). This does not mean that it would work against Ebola. There need to be independent scientific evidence for that claim. It is common for proponents of quack treatments to believe that their treatment works for everything, but this belief does not have any foundation. This kind of argument cannot even be made for specific kinds of antibiotics, as different antibiotics have different mechanisms of action and thus may not work on all pathogenic bacteria.
Being cheap is not an argument for quack treatments
Homeopathic remedies are quick to produce in large quantities, inexpensive, easily distributed, and have an excellent safety profile.
Since homeopathy is just water it is obvious that it is easy to product in large quantities. This is not a valid argument for a quack treatment that we know does not work. It is easy and cheap to produce water contaminated by industrial waste (it would even save money from not having to handle it properly), but that does not mean that it would successfully treat Ebola.
Saying that homeopathy has an “excellent safety profile” is misleading and disingenuous. Giving deadly sick patients quack treatments is dangerous because it redirects attention and resources away from providing patients with real treatments and proper handling. Homeopathy is also associated with nocebo effects, which are the negative expectancy-based side-effects from getting an ineffective treatment.
Homeopathy is an experimental treatment
Homeopathy has a validated principle of prescribing, and with over 200 years of treatment and prophylactic use, its remedies are no longer considered ‘experimental’.
This would qualify as the fallacy of appeal to tradition. Just because homeopathy has a long tradition does not mean that it is effective or that it has received proper or sufficient medical efficacy testing. The experimental status of a treatment comes from it not having been sufficiently tested. It is not about the length of tradition.
Preventative effects are in place from the first dose of a prophylactic remedy – there is no need to wait for an antibody response.
This is a tacit admission by Sheffield that homeopathic treatments have nothing to do with the adaptive immune response in terms of antibody production. It is also evidence that homeopathy for Ebola is merely a placebo effect as no prophylactic treatment works so fast. Perhaps Sheffield can explain exactly how homeopathic prophylactic for Ebola works? What is the mechanism? We should not hold our breath.
Homeopathic delusions are incompatible with basic medical ethics
Testing is simple and quick; treatment results will be known within 1 to 3 days, and prophylactic results at the end of incubation periods. Pre-emptive mass dosing is also possible during the testing phase.
Is Sheffield actually proposing that we give homeopathy to sick people with Ebola instead of the current best practices just to “test” the implausible hypothesis that it can successfully treat patients? That we give people Ebola as prophylaxis and give them the false impression that they are now safe from Ebola infection? That would be incompatible with basic medical ethics, such as the principles of Nonmaleficence and Beneficence. Medical personnel should not cause needless harm to people and not provide them with quack treatments that have no chance of working.
Preparing homeopathic remedies from Ebola samples is dangerous
Other remedies prepared from disease pathogens and discharges currently provide prophylaxis for those at risk from the related disease; a remedy prepared from the Ebola virus is likely to do the same.
Is Sheffield really suggesting that homeopaths, who are generally ignorant and unaware of proper safety procedures, should handle Ebola samples in order to create homeopathic remedies? That would undoubtedly be an invitation to spreading Ebola, not preventing or treating it. The recipe for homeopathic remedies for Ebola posted on Natural News suggested that the leftover solution from each step is poured out in the sink, which would be a really bad idea. How does Sheffield suggest that homeopathic remedies be prepared? If she suggests that real medical personnel do it, then that will take time and resources from real issues.
The process of preparing a remedy from the Ebola virus is relatively simple and a substantial quantity – enough to medicate a large village – could be made within the hour.
No, it is not “relatively simple” to make such remedies. You are dealing with a risk group 4 pathogen that requires a biosafety level 4 lab to work with. Unless handled very carefully, you risk spreading it around.
Vaccines are not based on homeopathy
This homeopathic principle is employed in the manufacture of vaccines which lack the speed, safety and cost-effectiveness of the homeopathically-prepared remedy.
Vaccines are not based on homeopathy. Vaccines are usually made from weakened or inactive portions of pathogens. This is to ensure that the body get exposed to sufficient quantities of pathogen components, but that the pathogen should not be able to reproduce in the body. This is done to stimulate an adaptive immune response to clear the infection more easily at future exposure to the pathogen. Homeopathy is based on diluting a substance far beyond the point at which there are no molecules of active ingredient left. According to Sheffield, homeopathy is not related to the adaptive immune response at all. This is a classic debating tactic of cranks: they try to liken their quackery to actual medical products and principles in order to parasitism on their intellectual and scientific credibility. It pretends to be science, but it really is not.
Homeopathic remedies easy to transport because it is useless
The remedies are dispensed as oral doses of small pills or drops of liquid. They don’t require complicated packaging, needles, syringes, highly-trained personnel, or a ‘cold chain’.
They can be easily distributed with simple instructions from person to person, at makeshift clinics or established hospitals, from the shelves of retail outlets or off the back of trucks. They can even be air-dropped into affected areas if needed.
Strict dosing supervision is not essential as homeopathically prepared remedies are free of toxic effects, even when taken in excess, making self or family medication a safe and logical option.
This is also a tacit admission by Sheffield that homeopathic treatments are ineffective. Real medical products require proper handling and transport to ensure that they do not become unstable or contaminated. Just transporting water does not require “complicated packaging” or “highly trained personnel”. Real medical products require knowledge and supervision of dosages. This is because the dose makes the position and wrong dosage could be dangerous. The only way homeopathy can be safe regardless of the dosage is if homeopathy is just water and ineffective as a biological agent against infectious diseases.
Homeopathic alarmism about Ebola
The current Ebola outbreak is a health crisis unparalleled in modern times
Not really. It is the largest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history, but it is not a health crisis that lacks parallels in modern times. Pandemic influenza, HIV, malaria and TB are all worse health crises than the current Ebola outbreak.
It has already outstripped our human and medical resources and the number of those infected continues to grow exponentially.
No, there are plenty of human and medical resources that can be leveraged against this outbreak. The issue is with governments not willing to invest those resources yet. However, it is important to devote those resources early, as the problem will continue to grow.
At the end, Sheffield asks the WHO to “please end the suffering of those in the Ebola crisis by using the tried and proven homeopathic option.” To that, we should respond that the international medical community is better of trying to convince governments to spend more resources on the current outbreak, both in trying to reduce the spread and doing research into treatments that might actually work, such as antibody therapy or vaccines.
A look at the justifications offered by supporters
The petition has a section where supporters can leave messages explaining why they think that it is worthwhile to support a given petition. Let us look at some of the reasons provided. A lot of comments are left by people who rightly call this venture scientifically flawed and ethically highly irresponsible, bu this section focuses on the true believers.
Merely having a conviction that a treatment works is not by itself evidence that it does, in fact, work. Do you have any real scientific evidence?
“I did the research” is quack-speak for “I did a Google search and read some crank websites”. Doing real research means reading textbooks and scientific papers, not alternative medicine blogs. Being a registered nurse mans that you have a professional responsibility to not harm patients needlessly. Promoting homeopathy causes harm.
Cause studies cannot show efficacy because of placebo effects such as expectancy effects and regression to the mean. A control group given placebo and randomization is required to make justified claims about efficacy.
All credible avenues should be explored. However, spending money, personnel and other resources on treatments that we either know will not work or have an extremely low probability of working is a waste of those resources and risks distracting from treatments that work.
This is, yet again, anecdotal stories, not scientific evidence. Falkenburg speaks of a “spiritual vital force”, which is a clear sign of pseudoscientific quackery. The fact that this individual states that remedy selection is based on this fictional force shows that homeopathy for Ebola (or any infectious disease) has no scientific merits.