Homeopathy and Serious Diseases in the Developing World: An Open Letter from Early Career Medics and Researchers


July 9, 2009

Mr A Etukudo
Division of AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (ATM)
WHO Africa

Dear Mr Etukudo:

We are calling on the WHO to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. Homeopathy does not protect people from, or treat, these diseases. Those of us working with the most rural and impoverished people of the world already struggle to deliver the medical help that is needed. When homeopathy stands in place of effective treatment, lives are lost.

Examples of homeopathy being promoted for these diseases include:

  • In Kenya, the largest homeopathic supplier, the Abha Light Foundation sells homeopathic medicines for malaria, diarrhoea and influenza. It now runs 20 health centres, 25 mobile clinics and five HIV/AIDS clinics.
  • In Tanzania, Jeremy Sherr and Sigsbert Rwegasira run three homeopathic clinics and claim to have government support to establish a school of homeopathy. Rwegasira claims to treat “no less than 100 malaria patients per day.” According to Sherr’s promotional material, “conventional medicine only supplies temporary relief, often at a great cost financially, and with many severe side effects”.
  • In Ethiopia, the Amma Resonance Healing Foundation, run by Peter Chappell, offers to treat AIDS patients with “resonance healing in the form of homeopathy”, as “an ideal alternative and complement for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in developing countries” because of “the very low costs of producing the remedy” and because it has “no side effects”.
  • In Ghana, the Senya/Tamale Homeopathy Project treats malaria patients with homeopathy.
  • In Botswana, the Maun Homeopathy Project offers homeopathic treatment in several locations and mobile clinics for HIV related complaints such as herpes and diarrhoea “for those people who are HIV+ but who are not taking anti-retroviral drugs”.

Many people in developing countries urgently need access to evidence-based medical information and to the most effective means of treating these dangerous diseases. The promotion of homeopathy as effective or cheaper makes this difficult task even harder. It puts lives at risk, undermines conventional medicine and spreads misinformation.

We are sure that you will recognise these dangers and ask that you issue a clear international communication condemning the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV. We are sure, too, that you will recognise the urgency of our request, and look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Julia Wilson
On behalf of the Voice of Young Science network
Sense About Science, London

Ms Marianne Baker
PhD Student
Molecular Pathology of Cancer Training Programme, Cancer Research UK

Harriet Ball
PhD Student
Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London

Dr Vitor Bernardes Pinheiro
Career development fellow
Medical Research Council UK

Julie Bristow
PhD Student
Working on control of the vector of trachoma, Durham University

Duncan Casey
PhD student
Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London

Dr Meera Cush
Toxicologist
The Health Protection Agency

Dr Oliver Fenwick
Research Associate
Department of Physics, University College London

Dr Melissa Friswell
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Deptartment of Clinical Gastroenterology, University of Liverpool.

Dr Melita Gordon
Senior Lecturer and Consultant in Gastroenterology
University of Liverpool Gastroenterology Unit
Previously Research Fellow, College of Medicine, Blantyre, Malawi

Dr Robert Hagan
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Biomolecular Scientist, University of St Andre

Evelyn Harvey
Biochemist and Medical Writer

Andrew Johnston
Neuroscientist and Geneticist

Dr Tina Kresfelder
Post-doctoral Fellow
Department Medical Virology
University of Pretoria, South Africa

Jennifer Lardge
PhD Student
Department of Physics, University College London

Dr Simnikiwe Mayaphi
MMed (Virology) student
Department of Medical Virology
University of Pretoria, South Afric

Dr Daniella Muallem
Postdoctoral researcher
Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, University College London

Dr Michael Ofori
Research Associate
Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, University of Ghana

Bobby Ramakant
Health and Development Networks Key Correspondent, India

Dr Blanka Sengerová
Postdoctoral researcher
Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford

Juliet Stevens
Medical Student, University of Oxford
Currently on placement at Somerset State Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa

Harriet Teare
DPhil Student
Organic Chemistry, University of Oxford

Dr. Marietjie Venter
Senior Lecturer
Department Medical Virology
University of Pretoria, South Africa

Tom Wells
PhD Student
Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London

Patrick Woodburn
PhD Student
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Formerly a medical statistician with the Medical Research Council in Uganda for three years. 

Our call for a communication is also supported by the following experts and organisations:

The AIDS Care Watch campaign (ACW)
www.aidscarewatch.org  – a civil society partnership of over 400 organizations

Dr NJ Beeching
Senior Lecturer and Clinical Lead in Infectious Diseases
Tropical and Infectious Disease Unit
Royal Liverpool University Hospital

Dr Peter Flegg  MD, FRCP, DTM&H
Consultant Physician
Department of Infectious Diseases
Victoria Hospital

Stephen Graham
Associate Professor
Centre for International Child Health
University of Melbourne

Marianne Johnson
Director
AidCamps International

Celina Menezes
President – World Care Council Asia
President – Delhi Mahila Samiti (a women forum of Delhi Network of Positive People)

Dr Alastair Miller MA FRCP DTM&H
Consultant Physician
Tropical & Infectious Disease Unit
Royal Liverpool University Hospital

Beri Gisela Ntam
Strategic Humanitarian Services in Cameroon

Billian Nyuykighan
Program Co-ordinator
Strategic Humanitarian Services in Cameroon

Ndzerem Stephen
Director and Development Analyst
Strategic Humanitarian Services in Cameroon

Signatories are on an individual basis unless otherwise stated.

COMMENTS FROM EARLY CAREER RESEARCHERS:

  • Juliet Stevens, Medical Student, University of Oxford (on placement at Somerset State Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa): “Despite awareness in Britain of the medical burden in South Africa, little can prepare you for seeing this first hand. On the Paediatric wards infants are diagnosed with stage 3 HIV/AIDS on a daily basis, and TB meningitis is rife. The minimal cost of state healthcare is prohibitive for some, and denial regarding HIV diagnoses is still common, making the population here a vulnerable target for unproven therapies.”
  • Tom Wells, PhD student, Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London: “Treatments, developed through rigorous, clinical testing are powerful tools with which to save lives. To undermine their application by promoting alternatives, without evidence of efficacy, is irresponsible and dangerous. All people suffering with TB, malaria, influenza and the ravages of HIV deserve proven treatments, not false hope.”
  • Dr Daniella Muallem, Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, UCL: “When medicines exist which have been proven to be highly effective at treating life threatening diseases such as HIV and malaria I believe it is highly unethical to advocate treatments for which there is no good evidence as an alternative for poor people.”
  • Evelyn Harvey, Biochemist and Medical Writer: “The aggressive stance some homeopathic practitioners take towards life-saving drugs for HIV, TB, malaria and other diseases that ravage the developing world is irresponsible, patronising and unnecessary. We should not deny people in developing countries access to the full facts and to high-quality scientific evidence.”
  • Duncan Casey, PhD student, Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London: “This isn’t the difference between two schools of medicine; this is like comparing a 747 to a magic carpet. The magic carpet is a lovely idea – but at the end of the day, which would you rather trust with your life?”

COMMENTS FROM SENIOR SCIENTISTS AND MEDICS:

  • Dr Peter Flegg MD, FRCP, DTM&H, Consultant Physician, Department of Infectious Diseases, Victoria Hospital: “As a physician who has had first hand experience of the devastating effects of these life-threatening infections in Africa, I am frankly appalled that anyone would consider treating them with totally irrational, ineffective and unproven therapies. These infections all have effective conventional treatments available, and to use homeopathy for them is highly unethical and morally repugnant.”
    Professor Raymond Tallis, Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine, University of Manchester: “The catastrophic consequences of promoting irrational and ineffective treatments for serious illnesses have been demonstrated in South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki’s policies have led to an estimated 365,000 unnecessary premature deaths. The prospect of replicating this reckless behaviour elsewhere in developing countries by advocating homoeopathic treatments for AIDs and other potentially lethal conditions is appalling. I hope that the timely intervention by the Voice of Young Science Network will help to pre-empt a public health disaster. It illustrates the importance of young scientists, torchbearers for a better future, taking a stand and speaking out.”
  • Dr Alastair Miller MA FRCP DTM&H, Consultant Physician, Tropical & Infectious Disease Unit, Royal Liverpool University Hospital: “We frequently see patients in our unit from developing countries who have been advised to take inappropriate and unproven therapies for their HIV and not to take the very well established and effective anti viral agents. This leads to tragic and inevitable breakdown of the immune system and very adverse outcomes for our patients.”
  • Dr NJ Beeching, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Lead in Infectious Diseases, Tropical and Infectious Disease Unit, Royal Liverpool University Hospital: “Infections such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis all have a high mortality rate but can usually be controlled or cured by a variety of proven treatments, for which there is ample experience and scientific trial data. There is no objective evidence that homeopathy has any effect on these infections, and I think it is irresponsible for a health care worker to promote the use of homeopathy in place of proven treatment for any life-threatening illness. New treatments, whether conventional or homeopathic, should not replace current therapy unless they have been shown to be at least as effective in carefully monitored clinical trials.”
  • Dr David Misselbrook MSc MA FRCGP, Dean, Royal Society of Medicine: “I offer my personal support to the stand taken by Sense about Science and the Voice of Young Science in their letter to the WHO expressing their concern about the use of homeopathy to treat serious disease in the developing world. Homeopathy is valued by patients in wealthy countries as a complementary therapy that may help them to feel better during periods of illness. However there is no good quality scientific evidence that homeopathy is effective against serious diseases such as TB, malaria or AIDS. It seems quite wrong to encourage Western complementary therapies in the developing world when they stand in such acute need of the basics that we take for granted such as clean water, sanitation and access to proven medical treatments for serious disease.”
  • Professor Tom Welton FRSC, Professor in Sustainable Chemistry, Head of the Department of Chemistry, Member of advisory panel for the Pan African Chemistry Network: “It is with shock that I read that homeopathy is being proposed as an alternative to scientifically proven treatments for life-threatening diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. Homeopathy proposes that diseases can be cured by tinctures that contain no active ingredient. There is, of course, no systematic evidence that shows that these work. To propose that a therapy for which there is no evidence for its efficacy as a substitute for treatments that have been shown to work is reckless and frankly wicked. If this is not prevented, lives will be lost. I remember the days before the introduction of antiviral therapies for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, when the only hope that my sick friends had to cling to was treatments such as homeopathy. They died in appalling numbers. The advent of effective anti-viral drugs has turned this situation around completely and I have not lost another friend since. It is imperative that these drugs are made available to all who can benefit from their use, not that they are replaced with so-called treatments that don’t work.”
  • Professor Nicholas White OBR FRS, Tropical Medicine, University of Oxford; Chair, Wellcome Trust SE Asian Units and of the WHO Antimalarial Treatment Guidelines Committee: “We still rely heavily on natural products for the treatment of malaria (Cinchona alkaloids, artemisinin derivatives), but we use quality assured products at doses shown conclusively to be effective. Malaria is a potentially lethal infection. Treating with inadequate doses or ineffective products diverts the patient from receiving effective medicines and may result in their death.”
  • Dr Ron Behrens, Director, Hospital for Tropical Diseases: “I would strongly support this letter. There is an important role for anti-malarial compounds extracted from local plants for the treatment of malaria, which are being, and have been identified through careful research in a number of developing countries. However their clinical use should follow the same rigorous scientific evaluation and testing as all drugs for human.”
  • Professor JM Ryan, Emeritus Professor of Conflict Recovery, St George’s Hospital University of London: “Those who practice conventional medicine live in a world constrained by the need to consider best evidence when recommending therapies and this is absolutely the correct approach.”

This page was posted on July 9, 2009.