April 10th to 16th each year sees the annual event that is known as 'Homeopathy Awareness Week'. Normally awareness promotion campaigns are done in order to benefit the public in some way. e.g. promoting awareness of symptoms of breast or testicular cancer. However, this awareness campaign is run by homeopaths for the benefit of, well, homeopaths. This 'awareness week' is really nothing more than an advertising campaign.
However, it is worth the general public becoming more aware of homeopathy and the reality behind the claims homeopaths make. After all, homeopathy is being sold as medicine.
What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine that was invented over two centuries ago. A German physician called Samuel Hahnemann believed that he had found a new way to treat illness. Instead of treating an illness by trying to reverse its symptoms, such as trying to cool down someone with a fever, Hahnemann treated patients with remedies that caused the same symptoms as the disease; so something that causes a high temperature, shaking etc., would be used to treat a fever.
Many remedies Hahnemann used were poisonous and could kill patients; so he started diluting his remedies to reduce their toxicity. This is where he believed that he'd made another new discovery: succussion. Between each dilution of his remedy, which would of course make it weaker, he banged it ten times against a leather-bound bible. He believed that this banging of the remedy (succussing it) transferred more of the healing properties of the remedy to the water. In other words, the more dilute it became, the stronger the remedy became!
What Hahnemann didn't know at that time, this was in the days of pre-scientific medicine, was that you can only dilute a substance a certain number of times before there is none of the starting material left. Hahnemann went way, way beyond the dilution limit with his remedies and, although he didn't know it, all his remedies ended up consisting of was water. After all the effort of testing and choosing remedies and then going through the dilution process, all he was treating his patients with was water!
We know better than this today. Neither choosing remedies based on matching symptoms nor diluting the remedy out of existence is a valid way of producing an effective remedy. Even if you did randomly pick something that could work, by the time you've diluted it to the point where only water remains you're not going to cure anything with it - except dehydration perhaps.
How does modern homeopathy differ from the original?
It doesn't! Despite all of the scientific advances in understanding over the last two centuries, modern homeopathy is based on exactly the principles laid down by Hahnemann. Hay fever causes a runny nose and irritation to the eyes; onions cause a runny nose and irritation to the eyes; therefore, the 'remedy' for hay fever is onion. Of course, the extract of onion is diluted until there's no more onion at all left in the remedy...
Most modern homeopathic remedies, no matter what they're meant to be for, contain no ingredients. The resulting water from the remedy is sprayed onto sugar pills and allowed to dry. The process is claimed to go something like: the healing properties of the remedy that was chosen for the wrong reason, were thumped into the water between dilutions. The now remedy-free water is sprayed on to sugar pills and allowed to evaporate which supposedly transfers the healing properties of the non-existent remedy onto the sugar pills...
... and... (yes, it gets even sillier)... if you place one of these homeopathic pills in a jar with stock sugar pills and leave it a while, the healing powers of the homeopathic sugar pill somehow transfer to all of the other sugar pills in the jar as well (a process they call 'grafting').
Homeopathy: did you know?
Has homeopathy been properly tested?
Yes it has. Good quality clinical trials show that it works at the same level as dummy placebo pills (i.e. it doesn't work); poorer quality trials usually show it works to some degree - but this is because of the poor trial quality (See the links below for more detail).
The James Randi Educational Foundation offers $1,000,000 to anyone who can show that homeopathy works (under properly controlled conditions, of course). A test could be as simple as a homeopath being able to tell the difference, by any means, between stock sugar pills and homeopathically treated sugar pills. Randi actually put his $1 million on the line in an investigation carried out by the BBC's Horizon programme. The test failed and Randi kept the money (link)
Homeopathy awareness week is simply homeopaths trying to advertise their industry to drum up more business. It's not something that's meant to benefit the consumer.
It is often argued that homeopathy is a dangerous menace as it's nothing but pre-scientific quackery; others respond that it's essentially harmless even if it doesn't work so it's not worth getting too concerned about. However, from a consumer's point of view, it is simply another rip-off. Homeopathy is nothing more than ingredient-free 'remedies' being sold as if they're medicine - for a very good mark up.
There is nothing illegal about homeopathy. They are allowed, by the MHRA (of all organizations!) to market this stuff with claims that it can be 'used to treat' self-limiting ailments. Homeopaths have the right to advertise and promote their products (within limits) so consumers need to be more savvy about accepting their claims.
An overview of homeopathy
Homeopathic dilutions - how we know there are no ingredients in homeopathic remedies
Homeopathic potentisation - the superstition behind homeopathy
A huge information resource - EBM First
Mitchell and Webb's: homeopathic A&E