Good news for Canadian consumers came out of Toronto this summer. Bad Science Watch is a new non-profit science advocacy group dedicated to “a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Canada where critical thinking and sound science are paramount in the making of important societal decisions,” according to its mission statement.
First up on the organization’s pseudoscientific hit list is pressuring Health Canada to de-register homeopathic “vaccines.”
For the uninitiated, homeopathy is a form of so-called “alternative medicine” predicated on the idea that a substance that causes disease in healthy people—for example, blood, pus or saliva—will cure it in sick people if it is diluted virtually out of existence.
The concept that over-dilution would somehow increase efficacy of the “remedy” must have seemed counter-intuitive and implausible even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Samuel Hahnemann developed the process. Today, numerous clinical trials and systematic reviews have proven homeopathic “cures” are no more effective than placebo. Homeopathy is, at best, magical thinking and, at worst, downright dangerous.
Of course, one might ask, “What is the harm if individual persons want to put their trust in quackery rather than evidence-based medicine?” After all, our right to believe in virtually anything we want is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, isn’t it?
The problem, particularly with pseudo-vaccines, is that they don’t just endanger the individuals who choose to believe in them, but all of society, especially children who have to rely on their parents to make the right choice for them.
The key vaccinations people receive in their lives are administered in childhood (measles, mumps, diphtheria, pertussis, polio, tetanus etc.). And they work. Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, was all but eradicated in North America after large-scale vaccinations began in the 1940s.
Recently it has been making a comeback, though, prompting Health Canada to renew its commitment to promoting vaccinations. Children require five doses of the pertussis vaccine from the age of two months to six years, followed by a booster in Grade 9 and every 10 years in adulthood.
Almost all the recent whooping cough outbreaks can be correlated with low or waning vaccination rates. For example, in 2007, two outbreaks in southeastern Quebec affected 95 people, 90 per cent of whom had not been vaccinated or had only been partly vaccinated.
Waning vaccination rates can be at least partially attributed to the anti-vaccination movement, but that is an issue for another column.
Health Canada correctly cites collective (or “herd”) immunity for renewed efforts to make sure as many people as possible have up-to date immunizations. The higher the vaccination rate, the less opportunity this disease has to spread, specifically to infants under two months of age, who cannot yet be immunized.
Bravo Health Canada. Yet this is the same organization that regulates homeopathic “vaccines.” It is irresponsible, in my opinion, for an evidence-based government authority to legitimize pseudoscience in this way. Granted, these products are registered as “natural health products” not medicine, but that is a distinction which is lost on a great number of people.
The word “natural,” of course, is very attractive to people. Homeopathic preparations certainly qualify as natural being virtually 100 per cent (very expensive) H2O. As far as qualifying as a health product, however, about the only legitimate claim that might be made is they may prevent dehydration if taken in large enough quantities.
Proponents of homeopathic “medicine” frequently use an argument from antiquity to sell their snake oil. The argument that because something has been around for a long time it must be effective is never more suspect than when it comes to medicine.
When Hahnemann first proposed homeopathy, many people still believed demons caused disease. Germ theory was still a half-century away from being confirmed by evidence-based science. Most doctors still didn’t even wash their hands before delivering babies contributing to a death rate of up to 25 per cent for women who gave birth in hospital.
In short, we simply know better now. The mere fact that homeopathic products are legal in Canada suggests they are an effective alternative to real medicine. If you want to help Health Canada get on the right track, you can support Bad Science Watch at www.badsciencewatch.ca.