Attacking alternative therapies like homeopathy is an unhealthy distraction from serious shortcomings in how drugs are regulatedby Jerome Burne / September 6, 2010 / Leave a comment
In a 1664 diary entry, Samuel Pepys noted that he was feeling in unusually good health and wondered why. Was it because he’d taken to wearing a hare’s foot around his neck? Or maybe it was the pill of turpentine he swallowed every morning?
Today we, theoretically, no longer have to wonder about such things. There is a vast clinical trials industry designed to test and prove the efficacy of pharmaceutical cures for our afflictions. Establishing an evidence base is now as central to medicine as democracy is to our politics or credit to banking.
But the fanatical application of any big idea can have destructive consequences. The past few years have seen increasingly vociferous attacks on non-drug remedies, usually lumped together as CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), on the grounds that they lack a proper evidence base. Of course, weeding out ineffective treatments makes sense, but the assault on CAM (particularly homeopathy) by the new puritans of evidence-based medicine has become a dangerous distraction from a much more serious problem: the failings in the regulation of drug-based medicine.
This was highlighted when two reports were published last February. One, from the Commons Science and Technology Committee, concluded after a few days of hearings that: “using money on homoeopathy’s highly diluted remedies could not be justified.” The other came from the finance committee of the US senate and followed a two-year investigation of the drug company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), makers of Avandia, a drug used to treat diabetes. It, too, reached a damning conclusion—not only about the drug’s safety, but the lengths the company had gone to conceal evidence that the drug raised the risk of heart disease. “GSK executives,” it said, “had attempted to intimidate independent physicians, and focused on strategies to minimise or misrepresent findings.” Yet while the homeopathy ruling made news across Britain, the Avandia story did not—despite the fact that over 550,000 prescriptions were written for it in England alone last year.
For an eye-opening view of the lengths to which a drug company will go keep unfavourable trials out of the public eye and possibly (GSK denies it) manipulate the data from a safety trial so it looks favourable, watch Panorama this evening—A Risk Worth Taking? BBC1, 8.30pm, Monday 6th September. Until we have a proper and effective drug regulatory system, getting worked up about homeopathy is like worrying about litter when there is a killer…