UK Roundup 23/2/2010

24 02 2010

It’s been rather a good start to the new year with some fresh shoots of sensibility starting to poke their heads above the murky soils of irrationality. In a follow-up to the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee meeting last year (see earlier article) to debate the value of investing taxpayers money into homeopathic treatments, the committee has quite clearly stated that they are a complete waste of time and that there was no scientific evidence that homeopathic remedies work.

Fresh shoots of sensibility at home yesterday

“There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing it is not efficacious,” the committee said. Committee members also said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic medicines to carry medical claims on their labels.

“We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers,” the committee’s report said. “The systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos,” One commentator (Edzard Ernst* in The Guardian) made a very good point regarding placebos “… placebo effects are unreliable and usually short-lived. Moreover, endorsing homeopathic placebos in this way would mean that people may use it for serious, treatable conditions. Furthermore, if we allow the homeopathic industry to sell placebos we should do the same for big pharmaceutical companies – and where would this take us? ”

Pretty damning stuff – it’s great to see such a strong response. It will be interesting to see what happens next in terms of funding but it’s not looking too good for those who wish to see UK taxpayers money spent on magic water – money that could instead be spent on treatments that are shown to be more effective than placebo. The response from the Homeopathic Establishment has been rather muted, probably because other than arguing based on anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect they haven’t really got a leg to stand on. A good result and hopefully one that will draw something of a line under the current debate. There’s a summary of various views here.

Another big issue has also recently seen some welcome resolution, and one that I hope will have some resonance with Kiwis (see Christiaan’s measles article below). Dr. Andrew Wakefield, author of a 1998 article in the Lancet medical journal which linked autism and bowel cancer with the MMR (measels, mumps rubella) vaccine, has been hauled over the coals by the General Medical Council in London which found that he acted irresponsibly and dishonestly in conducting his research. The paper has been withdrawn by the Lancet and Wakefield had also resigned from an autism centre he founded in Texas. The paper caused immeasurable harm as the numbers of children being immunised slumped and vaccinations in general became regarded with suspicion by many. That suspicion will take a long time to dispel but the dismissal of Wakefield’s paper is a huge boost.

So a very positive start to 2010 – now if we can only do something about the new series of Sensing Murder…

* in a not so good postscript, it seems Professor Ernst faces tough times and may have his complementary medicine unit at Exeter University shut down due to lack of funding. This is particularly bad news as he is, as far as I know, the only person who performs proper scientific tests on a range of alternative remedies and confirms or denies their efficacy as per his results, thus providing a very valuable service. More on this as things develop.

UK Roundup 26/11/09

26 11 2009

Looks like Ian (below) beat me to it…more on current UK Homeopathy inquiry.

It would seem that homeopathy in the UK is finally coming under some long-deserved scrutiny. Shockingly the taxpayer funded National Health Service (NHS) has spent around £12million on homeopathic remedies between 2005 and 2008, including funding more than one homeopathic hospital. However, in a move that is sure to shed light onto the treatments dubious claims of efficacy a Commons cross party select committee has been looking into whether the NHS is getting value for money.

Is it too much to ask??

Initial findings are very encouraging with many pointing out that the evidence for homeopathy working in any way better than a placebo just isn’t there. “If the NHS commitment to evidence-based medicine is more than a lip service, then money has to be spent on treatments that are evidence-based, and homeopathy isn’t,” said Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula medical school in Exeter.
It was further pointed out that administering medicines knowing them to be no better than placebo should be regarded as unethical, as you are fundamentally being dishonest with that patient. The best the homeopaths could come back with was the argument from a doctor at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital who said “I practise it because I think it works. I wouldn’t use it … if I thought I was conning the patient,” which is at best pretty weak. In another blow the standards director for major high street pharmacy chain Boots, a major supplier of homeopathic remedies has stated that the chain had no reason to assume the products actually did anything. ‘We just sell them because people want them” he said.
The one sour note in this otherwise positive tale is that the UK government’s recent track record on actually listening to experts in the scientific field is appalling – the last person who told them something they didn’t want to know (after being hired to do just that) got the sack. Dr. David Nutt, a very well respected scientist, publicised his opinion that drug classifications should be rated according to actual harm – lowering cannabis, ecstasy and LSD on the scale and raising alcohol, and was fired by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson. So it would seem that no matter what the experts think the outcome of the debate on homeopathy will depend on political whim. Watch this space for further developments.

In other news there has been a bizarre trend suddenly appearing in the world of Premiership football. Now while the top echelons of the Premier League are no stranger to 19 yr olds crashing their new Maseratis or stumbling out of clubs with their trousers around their ankles, this is something new. Several players who have succumbed to muscle strains or similar injuries have been jetting off to Serbia in the last week to see housewife who claims to cure people with horse placenta. However it seems Marijana Kovacevic’s treatment is not without controversy as now some claim that she uses human placenta that is massaged onto the affected area. The Serbian authorities are not quite so taken with the claims and would very much like to talk to Ms Kovacevic about various tax and licensing issues. Let’s hope it works because as an Arsenal supporter I’d very much like to see our striker Robin Van Persie, one of the Serbian travellers, back asap. However I am not holding my breath.
**Update** great, well now it looks like he’s out for the rest of the season. bah!

And finally great news! All late night TV viewers will remember the truly frightening series of advertisements featuring Aussie spin bowler and serial texter Shane ‘Warnie’ Warne banging on about how Advanced Hair Studio saved his barnet and filled him with youthful vigour. Well not any more because it has been banned in the UK for being misleading.

UK Homeopathy Evidence Check

26 11 2009

Check out the link below for a fascinating discussion about homeopathy featuring Ben Goldcare and Edzard Ernst plus quite a few others.  This discussion is from the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee relating to government expenditure on homeopathy.

It takes the form of a grilling by a committee of two panels of experts.  The wriggling by the proponents of homeopathy is fascinating.

It is ~2 hours long and available streaming here:

There is a transcript here:

UK Roundup 6/08/09

6 08 2009

London homeopathy purveyors Ainsworths have incurred the wrath of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for selling a remedy known as ‘Swine Flu Formula’. The company claims their pills ‘override the symptoms’ of Swine Flu. This is compounded by the fact that the company has a royal warrant, which means it apparently sells its goods to members of the royal family – no prizes for guessing which ones. The MHRA is investigating the company and I could find no mention of the product on their website, which is well worth looking at. What did disturb me was that you can quite happily order whichever remedy you want on their site without any sort of check, which would seem incredibly dangerous (presuming that they actually contained something other than water of course).

In light of the recent furore over the research by the Food Standards Agency stating that organic food has no better nutritional content than ‘normal’ food (see article below) the head of the Whole Foods chain here has said indeed the shops sell ‘ a bunch of junk’ (he’s American). What effect this has on sales remains to be seen.

A Degree - Why earn one when you can just make your own?

A Degree - Why earn one when you can just make your own?

And in a shock revelation that will surprise pretty much no-one, it has been revealed that L Ron Hubbard’s claim to have been awarded a PhD was a complete fabrication. The British consulate investigated Hubbard in the 1970’s because they were concerned about the possibility of a libel case after they banned Scientologists from entering the country in 1968. Subsequent investigations found Hubbard and his cronies had created a fake entity, Sequoia University, and promptly awarded each other degrees. The ‘university’ had never been accredited by the state and it fact didn’t even have any premises. The story has made the papers now as the Times have managed to obtain classified Health Department documents under the Freedom of Information Act. No response from Tom Cruise as yet.

New Zealand’s Best Known Homeopath is Interviewed

25 02 2009

Recently “New Zealand’s best known homeopath” (I have never heard of her – perhaps I don’t watch enough television), Gwyneth Evans featured on Breakfast on TV One to respond to the criticisms made by Dr Shaun Holt that homeopathy only operates due to the placebo effect.

I would hope that the average New Zealander would watch this clip and not require a deep understanding of science or the scientific method to see homeopathy for what it is – wishful thinking.

While briefly explaining the underpinning framework for homeopathy, Mrs Evans says that it has been around for 200 years. The only comment I have in response to this is that I am pleased that due to modern medicines reliance on the scientific method, it has done away with bloodletting, the theory of four humours, and astrological influences on medicine.

However, rather than presenting a general critique of homeopathy (if you are interested then have a read of Dr Stephen Barrett’s article) I want to touch upon some of the things raised by Mrs Evans.

When asked about the efficacy of homeopathy, her reply is that rather than relying upon a crude physiological drug, there is a homeopathic energy or vibration that is retained in the substance that triggers the bodies own innate healing power.

As with most woo, once again ‘energy’ is presented as some kind of magical field or property (for which there is no scientific evidence of). To borrow the term used by Brian Dunning, energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work. It is not some all encompassing field that impacts upon vials of water sold as medicine or people, in this respect there is a distinct common misunderstanding about what ‘energy’ actually is.

Consider Einstein’s well known and little understood equation of E=MC2, mass can be expressed in grams and speed in metres per second. So simply put an objects energy equals the amount of work it takes to move a few grams a few metres in a few seconds. Energy is a measurement of work, not some bizarre made up energy field akin to the Force from Starwars.

With this in mind, it simply does not make any logical sense to say that the water retains the energy or the vibrations of original substance it contained and that it somehow interacts with the body’s ‘energy’.

Furthermore, if it did indeed trigger the body’s innate healing power, then this should be something that can be scientifically observed and I am still waiting on the evidence for this and the underlying theory about its mechanism.

While I am on this subject, further on into the interview Mrs Evans is asked about the scientific evidence for homeopathy, and she pulls out the old “it’s a different paradigm” card. What she means is that the homeopathic community has decided that the rigorous testing that science demands no longer applies to them as it has a different understanding of disease and health when compared to evidence based practises.

I would hazard a guess that the reason for such an attitude is because there is very little scientific evidence for her discipline, if the scientific evidence supported homeopathy, do you think that homeopaths would be saying that the positive results did not apply to them as their paradigm cannot be measured by science? On the contrary they would be quick to trumpet the results.

It is quite simple, there is no paradigm shift, homeopathy claims to cure people of illness and therefore its effects are measurable. Homeopathy claims to trigger an innate healing ability and therefore there is a physiological response, which requires a mechanism.