Homeopathy for allergies

Ah, Texas. I’ve been to Texas. Have you ever been to Texas? Texas is special in so many ways. Talk about a place where people hold on to their guns and bibles. This story comes out of Houston where:

““Spring in Houston starts in January,” said Dr. Frank Orson, with Baylor Medical Center. He said some of his clients are ditching over-the-counter medicines. “We get a lot of our clients who have been through the Claritin and other allopathic approaches and when they are not getting the result there, they come to us,” said Philip Lanham  with the Homeopathy Center of Houston.

Lanham says diluting what you’re allergic to and drinking the potion, helps your body build up a resistance. “It helps the body identify it, and how to work with it, or fight it,” he said. Lanham said there are no side effects.”

That last part, the “no side effects” part seems to be the selling point of homeopathy. For $20, they’ll give you a bottle of a solution with extremely diluted amounts of the things that you’re allergic to. In a true medical setting, the allergist would also dilute what you’re allergic to, but he or she wouldn’t dilute it to the point where you need a sphere of water the size of the solar system to find just one molecule of the allergen being diluted. It would be diluted enough to give you a mild reaction. The allergist would then keep you in the office for a little bit to make sure you don’t have a severe reaction. Over time, the allergist increases the dose. This builds up your tolerance. For your body to get through the allergies, you have to have that reaction. You have to have side-effects.

Supporters of homeopathy will probably say that their allergies went away with the “potions,” but I propose a simpler explanation. I propose that their allergies went away with the allergy season going away. After all, most allergies are seasonal… And homeopathy is a sham.

In that news article, one of the commenters mentioned this study. I found a PDF of the study in a homeopathic website, so I had a chance to read it all. You don’t have to read the whole thing to find the significant part of the conclusion. You can read the PubMed entry:

“CONCLUSION: The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.”

Read that last part again, the one I’ve highlighted in bold. And remember what I said about side-effects? This is from the results section of the PubMed entry:

“No side effects were reported during treatment.”

Of course! Why would something so diluted give you side-effects?

You might be thinking right now that I just don’t want to listen to the evidence. Oh, but I am. See, this is what they did (from the methods section of the actual paper):

“During the first exam [E1], the treating physician assessed the minimum duration it would take for the current allergic symptoms to resolve without treatment. Then, before starting treatment, the patient was asked to complete the first questionnaire.

All subjects were asked to be present at the practice for completing the second questionnaire within their period of allergic reaction, no earlier than two weeks and no later than 16 weeks after commencement (the second exam [E2] took place at the end of the follow-up period). Intermediate consultations and individual therapy modifications resulted from the course of treatment. The follow-up/treatment period of 2 to 16 weeks was based on a minimum duration of treatment necessary for allowing assessment and a maximum tolerable duration in case of treatment failure. Participation in the trial terminated after the patients had completed the second questionnaire.”

So they asked patients to complete a questionnaire about their symptoms, take the homeopathy, then report back in 2 to 16 weeks from their initial assessment to see if they had a diminishing in symptoms, if they reduced the dose of their allopathic (real) medicine, and to see if there were any side-effects to the homeopathy. Well, you can go read the paper for yourself. I did. But I was strongly encouraged to quit reading when I read that one of the medications these folks were assessed for discontinuation were antibiotics.

I’m not joking.

If they reduced their consumption of antibiotics in 2 to 16 weeks, then that was a positive endpoint. Let me just tell you this: Not a lot of people take antibiotics for more than two weeks. Only the serious things like TB and drug-resistant bugs require antibiotics for months.

Another drug they looked at was steroids. Again, you don’t use those for weeks. You’re not typically supposed to. Yet, the authors use it as a positive sign of homeopathic use that people on homeopathy discontinued the use of steroids. Sure, they write in the discussion that the benefits of homeopathy may be from the natural course of the disease, from the use of the prescribed medications, or from the seasonality of the allergies… But they go back to the whole “no side effects” part.

Listen, I wish that all medications used to treat all diseases had zero side-effects. I wish people could get rid of cancer without losing their hair or being susceptible to serious infections. I really do wish for all that. But that’s not the world we live in. Maybe in the future, but not now. Even aspirin has side-effects. Heck, the cranberry juice you might take for your urinary tract infection will have side-effects (especially if you’re diabetic). The absence of side-effects doesn’t make something “good” or “better.” Working and being proven to work under controlled situations is what makes something worth using.

But you don’t have to take my word for it…

Faith in what hasn’t been shown to work

Most religions, and certainly the major ones (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) require that you take certain things on faith. Many of them offer no hard evidence of their tennets. Yes, there is plenty of historical evidence for many of the events that happened in the narratives of these religions, but there is no hard evidence of the existence of a God beyond what is taken by faith alone.

But this blog is not about religion. It’s about science. In the world of science, we scientists require that claims be backed up by evidence. If someone comes to me and says that they can cure cancer, then I require certain proofs. I require that the treatment be shown to be biologically plausible. That is, I require that what the treatment claims to do is something that can happen in the real world, not the back of a napkin or a drawing on a blackboard. I also require the results of a well-conducted clinical trial where people with cancer are healed or live longer than people who do not receive the treatment. Finally, I require that the study that shows the treatment as effective be replicated by other studies by investigators who have no stake in the success of the treatment. That’s all I ask. It’s not a lot to ask for is it?

Apparently, it is a lot to ask for a clinic in Texas that claims to be able to cure cancer by using what it calls “antineoplastons”, a treatment of their own making. That treatment has not been shown to work. There have been no randomized, controlled clinical studies. There have been no follow-up randomized, controlled clinical studies. And even the biological mechanism by which the antineoplastons are supposed to work is, well, questionable. In short, there is no credible evidence that the treatment works.

That is unless you believe the testimonials. There are plenty of people who give testimonies about the treatment. Unfortunately, many of these testimonies are from the friends or relatives of the people who tried the antineoplastons as a last resort, albeit with a promise of a cure and at a great expense. I mean, it’s expensive:

“Antineoplastons are given orally or by injection into a vein. The duration of treatment usually ranges from eight to twelve months. A year of treatment can cost from $30,000 to $60,000, depending on the type of treatment, number of consultations, and the need for surgery to implant a catheter for drug delivery.”

But you wouldn’t know that this whole thing was expensive, unproven, and that the Food and Drug Administration is keeping an eye on it all from what you read in the testimonials. In those testimonials you have people who believe in the therapy with what can only be described as a religious devotion. One after another, the patients describe miraculous recovery from cancer. Others have family members describing an extra amount of time bought by the antineoplaston treatment. But, again, there are no studies published. There is no extraordinary evidence.

In fact, something that is missing from the testimonials website is the story of this young lady. She died. Also missing is this story. That little girl died, but not before her parents and friends had to raise a lot of money to try and get her to the clinic and into the clinical trials. They also don’t mention these stories. Or these.

The list goes on, and there will probably be names added to it because the clinic is still open, still charging patients thousands of dollars for unproven treatments that insurance won’t pay, and still being warned by the FDA for its activities.

A lot of people I know keep harking on the dangers of religion and how religion drives us to do some things that are insane. I tend to agree. However, part of me believes that it’s the human being inside of us that is to blame. We are the ones that forgo true, proven medicine for something that hasn’t been shown to work. For what? Hope that we may live a little longer? Hope that this maverick clinic in Texas has figured out the cure to the plague of the twentieth century?