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This is a tiny slice of the alternative medicine phenomenon, but it displays many of the problems with where we are today. The CBC reports:

Since 2015, Quebec-based Terre Sans Frontières (TSF) has been spending $70,000 annually in aid money from Global Affairs Canada to dispatch more than a dozen volunteer homeopaths to Honduras.

These homeopaths are mixed in with real doctors delivering real medicine. They are telling the vulnerable population they were sent to help that the magic water they provide will protect them from serious infectious diseases, like Chagas disease – which is potentially fatal. They are doing this with the imprimatur of the Canadian government.

This is obviously a scandal. For those readers who may be new to SBM and not fully understand what a scam homeopathy is, you can start here. Here is a more in-depth treatment. But the quick version is that homeopathy is a pre-scientific system of magic potions. Many people incorrectly think that homeopathy is herbalism or natural medicine, but it isn’t. Homeopathic concoctions begin with nonsensical ingredients that have no plausible connection to the illness they claim to treat, and then those ingredients are diluted to extreme degrees, usually out of existence. What is left is – magic water. Homeopaths claim this magic water retains the “essence” of what was previously diluted in it.

Unsurprisingly, when homeopathic magic water is tested in controlled clinical trials, it doesn’t work. Multiple systematic reviews of multiple clinical trials of homeopathy have adequately demonstrated that homeopathic potions work for nothing. They can’t work, and they don’t work. In a rational world homeopathy would be tossed on the trash heap of bad ideas, a victim of the advance of science and reason (somewhere between bloodletting and phrenology). But we do not live in a rational world, at least not one rational enough to take this obvious step.

So scientists find themselves in the position (when they take the time to understand what homeopathy is themselves) of explaining that magic potions are not effective medicine and it is unethical to use them and to claim that they can treat serious diseases, especially to vulnerable populations. Worse, they often get push back or dismissed with some hand-waving nonsensical defense. This case is no exception.

What essentially happened was that the charlatans managed to develop a sales pitch and a strategy that allowed them to rebrand health fraud as “alternative”. This case represents the fruit of that rebranding. As the CBC reports:

Under the Honduran Health Code of 1966, homeopathy, naturopathy and “other occupations considered to be harmful or useless” were banned until the code was rewritten in 1994.

Homeopathy was appropriately banned as worthless, but in the 1990s was rebranded as “alternative medicine” (or one of the many re-rebrandings – complementary, integrative, holistic, or whatever). Another feature of this rebranding which has occurred is that entire professions dedicated to unscientific medical nonsense have been legitimized. In this case a naturopath has been the one promoting homeopathy in Honduras.

The Montreal naturopath who leads the Honduran missions, Carla Marcelis, referred to homeopathy as “a beautiful way to use the body’s own healing system to come to healing” in a promotional video about the Honduras missions.

That is standard alternative medicine propaganda, a retconning of the superstition-based medicine of the past – it’s now all about making the body heal itself. This sounds nice, but actually means nothing, and is based on nothing. Meanwhile naturopaths try to present themselves as legitimate health care professionals who just specialize in natural medicine, but the core of what they do is pseudoscience. They have no science-based standard of care, they lack adequate scientific training, and much of what they do is nonsense like homeopathy. But because they are licensed, the government is essentially in the position of endorsing whatever nonsense they do. This also puts them in a position where they can promote their quackery, and even infiltrate academic institutions and government programs. They have become a self-sustaining phenomenon.

This infiltration goes all the way to the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a valuable and excellent institution, but has its weaknesses, mainly deriving from the fact that it is embedded in international politics. In this case the CBC reports:

CBC News contacted the office of the federal minister responsible for international development for an interview but was denied.

Instead spokesperson Maegan Graveline reaffirmed Global Affairs’s support for the homeopaths in an email, “The World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization in its 2014–2023 strategy encourage the integration of traditional medicine and complementary medicine, including homeopathy, into national health systems”.

Here we see yet another feature of the alternative medicine phenomenon – they exploit legitimate issues about colonialism and oppression and use that to further exploit vulnerable populations. They do this by arguing that fake medicine is OK if it can be portrayed as “traditional” or indigenous. We cannot foist effective science-based medicine on native populations, but rather should encourage them to continue using the worthless magic potions that their culture happened to develop. In fact this then justifies culturally appropriating those magic potions, and selling them in spas to rich but clueless Westerners. As long as at the end of the day you get to justify and legitimize a multi-billion dollar industry of magic potions.

I have no problem studying indigenous medicine. There may, in fact, be some genuine natural remedies that get discovered in the process. I also have no problem incorporating cultural sensitivity in the delivery of medicine to native populations, even working with native healers when appropriate. But the goal should be to facilitate the delivery and acceptance of effective medicine. However, these legitimate concerns have been hijacked as yet another way to promote quackery – and the WHO, to their shame, bought it. They were conned, and now their endorsement of medical nonsense is used to promote that nonsense around the world. It’s the go-to defense whenever anyone is called out on promoting quackery to vulnerable populations. The WHO essentially has their back.

It’s also worth pointing out that homeopathy is not “traditional” medicine, in Honduras or anywhere else (except perhaps Austria where it was invented). Not that it ultimately matters – all that matters is that homeopathy is worthless nonsense. But promoting homeopathy as “traditional” in Honduras is ridiculous. It’s just another form of European colonialism, promoting one form of medicine instead of or alongside another. In this case, it’s promoting one that doesn’t work – so it’s pure colonialism. You can’t even justify it by saying that it works and will prevent disease. In fact, it will cause harm if anything by giving people a false sense of security.

This is something the WHO needs to realize. Delivering medicine, or any other benefit, to a poor country is not colonialism or exploitation when that benefit is science-based and everyone can agree, based upon objective evidence and review, that it’s a good idea. Then we are just sharing the fruits of more wealthy countries with poorer countries. What is exploitation and colonialism is foisting on other cultures our own magical belief systems. Homeopathy falls into that category. It is a belief system, one without evidence or even basic scientific logic.

The Canadian government made a mistake. They were hoodwinked by charlatans because they clearly did not do their due diligence. This one slipped below the radar. They should just admit fault and immediately make a correction. Instead they are ducking, doubling down, and hiding under the skirts of the WHO. They should be appropriately ashamed.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.