Even as homeopathy gains popularity in India, it is coming under pressure in Britain, with a proposed seminar on its role in the treatment of HIV/AIDS sparking protests.
The seminar, organised by the Society of Homeopaths and scheduled to be held here on Dec 1, has invited criticism from Michael Baum, professor emeritus of surgery at the University College London (UCL), according to the medical journal The Lancet.
The Lancet has also slammed the growing popularity of homeopathy in India. "People say homoeopathy cannot do any harm but when it is being promoted for HIV then there is a serious problem," Baum is quoted as saying in a two-part special report in the medical journal.
Baum and others had sent a letter last May to all primary care trusts in Britain to voice concern about homoeopathy treatment through the National Health Service (NHS).
Seemingly in response, one trust stopped NHS funding for the Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital, one of five that provide homoeopathy treatment on the NHS.
Despite this, says the report, homoeopathy remains popular with the public, with the 2007 market estimated to be worth 38 million pounds ($78 million). This figure is expected to rise to 46 million pounds in 2012.
Baum believes the public backs homeopathy in the belief that it is herbal medicine. "Although many herbal medicines are unproven, they, unlike homoeopathic remedies, have scientific plausibility," he said. Several studies, including one by The Lancet, have shown that the clinical effects of homoeopathic remedies are placebo effects.
The report also focuses on the thriving homoeopathy industry in India, where an estimated 100 million people depend solely on this form of therapy for their health care. It refers to the case of a man who sold his tractor to pay the Rs.150,000 to pay for a miracle homoeopathic cure for HIV, which had no effect.
The report quotes S.P. Singh, the Indian ministry of health and family welfare's advisor on homoeopathy, as saying homoeopathy has no given side effects. "Homoeopathy has a biological effect, and all homoeopathic medicines are therapeutically proven," he said.
The report notes that India is "arguably unique" for the extent to which it has recognised homoeopathy as a legitimate system of medicine, adding that the boom is being driven by wealthy Indians who see it as a route to well being.
In a related comment, Ben Goldacre of the Guardian newspaper, a medical doctor, said homeopathy raises serious ethical issues. "When a health-care practitioner of any description prescribes a pill which they know is no more effective than placebo-without disclosing that fact to their patient-then they disregard both informed consent and their patients' autonomy," he wrote.
He said homoeopaths irresponsibly undermine evidence based medical interventions to promote their own remedies, and points to evidence of homeopaths undermining public health campaigns. Goldacre added that alternative therapy journals hardly ever publish negative studies. "An observational study which amounts to little more than a customer satisfaction survey is promoted as if it trumps a string of randomised trials," he said.
Despite all this, Goldacre concluded that "to ban homoeopathy would be an over-reaction, as placebos could have a clinical role". "However, whether the placebo effect is best harnessed by homoeopaths will remain questionable until these ethical issues and side-effects have been addressed," he said.