Originally Published in the Kelowna Courier August 2015, by Blythe Nilson
Health Canada has finally realized that nosodes, homeopathic products “regulated” by the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD), present a danger to children. Apparently the danger to adults is not worth addressing but we can savour this victory as a good first step. Skeptics don’t get to celebrate very often. Nosodes are marketed and sold by naturopaths and homeopaths as alternatives to vaccines even though they contain no active ingredients and confer no health benefits. Shamefully, drug stores and supermarkets also sell them, right next to real medicines. Parents understandably assume the claims on nosode labels, approved by Health Canada, must be true and spend millions of dollars on them each year. According to the CBC about $2.4 billion is spent annually on registered natural health products, which is very, very big business. Natural health product promoters are deeply hypocritical when they criticize the monetary incentives of “big pharma”.
The folks at Bad Science Watch, a group of skeptical Canadians dedicated to consumer protection and science advocacy, began their “Stop Nosodes” campaign several years ago, culminating in a formal submission to the NNHPD in 2013. This led to a position statement by the Canadian Pediatric Society condemning the sale of nosodes and put pressure on Health Canada to at least address the issue. The coup de grace was delivered by Marketplace in a brilliantly executed exposé first aired November 2014.
As Marketplace demonstrated, in order to get a nosode registered by the NNHPD all you need to do is send a photocopy from any homeopathic book that mentions an ingredient you claim to use and fill in a short form. Host Erica Johnson got her fake medicine “Nighton” (it’s an anagram) registered without any research, testing or evidence. She submitted a photocopied page from a 1902 list of homeopathic ingredients and sent in the form. That’s all it took to get her fake product registered by Health Canada.
Pharmaceuticals are strictly regulated by Canadian Food and Drug Regulations. If a new drug passes the lengthy review it is given a DIN (Drug Identification Number) representing the manufacturer, product name, active ingredients, strengths of active ingredients, pharmaceutical form, route of administration and more. Homeopathic and “natural” products are instead regulated by the NNHPD, bypassing the legislation governing real drugs. They get a DIN-HM, indicating a homeopathic “medicine”, or a DIN-NP indicating a natural product, without having to submit any evidence whatsoever for efficacy or safety. Bad Science watch worked with Marketplace on this project and they both deserve kudos. After the episode aired Health Canada was flooded with messages from people and groups who, once they saw what a scam this is, demanded change. And they got it.
As of July 2016 all nosodes for children under the age of 12 must have this on the label: “ This product is neither a vaccine nor an alternative to vaccination. This product has not been proven to prevent infection. Health Canada does not recommend its use in children and advises that your child receive all routine vaccinations.” This will save lives and prevent illness in Canadian children but won’t protect teenagers and adults from homeopathic garbage. It’s been a while since I have written about homeopathy so a quick review of what it is (or is not) is probably in order. Homeopathy is based on the non-scientific idea that “like cures like”. Ridiculous as it sounds, homeopaths think that anything that causes a fever might be used to cure a fever. They “prove” ingredients by ingesting them and writing how they feel in journals for a few days. No need for double blind tests or scientific rigour here! Incredibly it gets worse. These ingredients are diluted over and over until there is just water left but since they think water “has a memory” they claim it’s still effective. This is probably good news for reality-based people, because the list of homeopathic ingredients includes vomit, pus, arsenic, black plague, fermented duck liver and “anthrax poison derived from an infected sheep”. Some of the ingredients, like X-rays and “a positively charged antimatter electron”, must be difficult to bottle. The vials of water are “succussed” by pounding them just so on leather pads, imparting some special magic. The product can be converted to tablet form by dropping some of the water onto a sugar pill. Currently there are over 175 nosode products approved by the NNHPD. At least 82 of them claim to prevent diseases like influenza, pertussis, measles, and polio, so you can imagine what they used to make them. Promoted by anti-vaccination groups, nosodes are sold as alternatives to vaccinations and fool parents into thinking their children are protected from childhood diseases. The recent whooping cough and measles epidemics are evidence that this strategy has not worked. Viruses and bacteria are notoriously oblivious to the placebo effect.
Thankfully it seems that the antivaxxers are losing ground and reason is beginning to prevail over nosodes. In the UK homeopathy has been dropping in popularity despite Prince Charles and, as of 2012, no publicly-funded British university may offer degrees in areas of “alternative medicine,” such as homeopathy, naturopathy or reflexology, to name a few. After a years-long review of hundreds of studies, Australia’s top medical research agency has concluded that homeopathy is essentially useless for treating any medical condition. Even the US Food and Drug Administration announced it is going to “look into” homoeopathy regulation. I’m so glad Canada has decided to join the coalition of the rational even if the first step is a tiny one. Kids are indeed important.
Image from the Bad Science Watch Stop Nosodes Campaign: http://www.stopnosodes.org/