I-SIS miniseries "Water, Water, Everywhere"
Sam Burcher reports on some recent findings that bear on a centuries-old controversy.
Chemists in Korea discovered how molecules clump together on dilution in water (see "Molecules Clump on Dilution", this issue). Their report triggered off speculations on how that might explain homeopathy. But does homeopathy really work? According to the medical establishment, the answer is no, there is no known mechanism whereby it could conceivably work .
But on 30 April 2002, the Royal Homeopathic Hospital became a member of University College London Hospital. This marks a decisive change in attitude of the medical establishment towards homeopathy.
The most recent controversy regarding homeopathy erupted around distinguished French research scientist, Dr. Jacques Benveniste, well-known for his discovery, in 1971, of PAF (Platelet Activating Factor) a mediator implicated in allergies and inflammations e.g. asthma.
In 1984, Benveniste made another remarkable discovery: water is capable of carrying molecular information or biological messages. This "imprinting" is activated when a substance is dissolved in water and then diluted repeatedly until not a single molecule of the substance could remain .
Benveniste's dilutions went way beyond the level investigated by the Korean chemists Samal and Geckeler. The highest dilutions could have contained nothing but water molecules. Yet, these gave effects just as if the drug molecules were still present. The water appears to "remember" the original molecules dissolved in it.
Benveniste does not think the new phenomenon can explain his findings. Fred Pearce of University College Hospital London, who repeated Benveniste's experiments agrees, but thinks it could explain the effects of low-dilution homeopathic remedies.
The debate over the effects of homeopathy has certain similarities with that over the harmful effects of mobile phones and other electrical installations in the environment. Both are connected with the sensitivity of organisms to extremely weak electromagnetic fields, for which there is no explanation accepted by the scientific establishment .
Homeopathy has a long history with notable successes (see box 1). For centuries, practitioners of homeopathy have successively diluted extracts of organic substances by either a factor of 10, the decimal scale, designated d or by 100, the centisimal scale, designated c. Between each dilution, remedies are shaken energetically to "potentise" and remove impurities. Higher potency (more dilute) remedies are used for acute symptoms while the lower potency (less dilute) for milder symptoms . The level of dilution tested by Samal and Geckeler is comparable to a six-fold dilution, classified as low-potency in homeopathic remedies.
Dr Peter Fisher, Director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in London comments "The whole idea of high dilution homeopathy hangs on the idea that water has properties which are not understood". Clusters and aggregates "happen with a variety of substances suggesting it's the solvent that's responsible." He concludes "It doesn't prove homeopathy, but it's congruent with what we think and is very encouraging." (See "Crystal clear", this series).
History of homeopathy
Homeopathy has been around for as long as medicine has existed, from the Greek homoios meaning like or similar and pathos meaning suffering. Hipprocrates (460-370BC), to whom physicians to the present day swear an oath of good medical practise, embraced the idea of "like being able to cure like" and documented many remedies . But it was Samuel Hahnemann who became the modern founding father of homeopathy in the early 19th century .
Hahnemann found that a treatment for malaria, based on an extract of the Chinona bark (quinine), produced symptoms of the disease when taken in a small dose by a healthy person. So, he thought that giving the same small dose to an ill person would help them get well. He conducted numerous trials (called provings) on healthy people using natural substances and was able to start treating the sick. Hahnemann's career as a teacher of homeopathy at the University of Leipzig enabled his practices and principals to be widely adopted. He published many important papers including The Organon in 1810. Public recognition came in 1831 when a cholera epidemic raged throughout Europe and many lives were saved by a treatment based on camphor that he recommended.
Among those cured of cholera was Dr Frederick Quin, who established the first homeopathic hospital in London in 1849, which still exists today. A further cholera outbreak in London proved the effectiveness of the camphor treatment. The number of lives saved at the London Homeopathic Hospital far surpassed those in other hospitals. The death rate among those treated with homeopathy was approximately one fifth of those treated conventionally. An outbreak of typhoid fever hit Napoleons' retreating army after the battle of Leipzig. Of the 180 cases treated with homeopathy, only one died .
A similar picture was reported by American homeopaths during the 1849 cholera epidemic. So successful were their treatments that they published the names and addresses of those cured in the newspapers. Of those who were treated, only 3% died. Later in 1878, a yellow fever epidemic in the south enabled homeopaths to cure many more. This all took place against a backdrop of bloodletting and the application of leeches which were still being prescribed by doctors for the treatment of chronic illnesses .
In 1974, an outbreak of Menningococcinus meningitis occurred in Brazil. A total of 18 640 were treated with a single dose of Menningococcin 10c as prophylaxis (prevention) while 6,430 received no treatment at all. The prevention group had only four cases of meningitis, while 32 cases were reported in the untreated group 
The world is experiencing rising tides of cholera, malaria, yellow fever and typhoid epidemics as the result of de-forestation and flooding associated with global warming  and current medical practices exacerbate the problems. Forestry disturbs natural habitats, and swamps that are breeding grounds for infectious diseases become exposed. This contributes to outbreaks of malaria and other diseases. Over-use of prophylactics and drugs have created quinine resistant strains of the parasitic protozoa causing malarial disease transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes found in tropical and subtropical countries. The need for reliable treatments and prevention for malaria and other diseases is becoming acute.
In recent years homeopathic research has centred on alternative prevention and treatments of malaria using the alkaloid Artemisin and extracts of the shrub Artemisia annua. There are 25 different plant sub-species of Artemisia (Compositae) of which Artemisia abrotanum (Abrotanum), A. maritima (Cina), A. absinthium (Absinthium) are fully proven homeopathic remedies. (See "Two Takes on Malaria" Science in Society issue 13/14) .
Artemisia annua also known as "sweet Annie" and used for 2000 years in chinese medicine system as a potent tea used to cure malaria and other fevers. The plant has been successfully cultivated in central Africa and the aerial parts extracted by simple tea preparation method. In a trial of 48 patients with malarial symptoms 44 showed disappearance of parasitaemia within 4 days . In 1972, the active part of the plant was isolated using alcohol and since then clinical evaluations have focussed on pure, isolated artemisinin and its semi-synthetic derivatives, artesunate, artemether and arteether. A study over 13 years in two large camps for displaced Karen people on the northwest Thailand boarder used initially a monotherapy of mefloquine to control P.falciparum (most commonly occurring malaria strain). Resistance increased even as higher doses were used and cure rates fell to 71%. Artesunate was combined with Mefloquine in 1994 and cure rates have reached 100% since 1998 with a general decline in incidence of P. falciparum since 1995. Further research into Artimisins will continue to produce results of the utmost importance in the fight against malaria .
Conventional medicine's store for treating viral infections is running low, and the use of vaccines is increasingly controversial on account of the range of side-effects different vaccines can cause (see "Health warning over partially effective vaccines", this issue).
Homeopathy is based on stimulating the body's defence system instead of attacking pathogens directly, and may offer protection without undue side-effects, though few practitioners have the confidence to recommend it due to the lack of research and plausible mechanism of action.
A trial in HIV infection was reported by the British Homeopathic Journal in 1999 . The study aimed to evaluate the role of homeopathic remedies on the immune status in 100 HIV positive individuals. The CD4+ and CD8+ve lymphocyte counts were monitored after homeopathic treatment and compared with placebo over a six-month period. There were significant increases in both lymphocyte counts in symptomatic AIDS patients after homeopathic treatment. No improvements were seen in the asymptomatic or placebo groups.
At Lyon University Hospital, a pilot study was conducted with 75 HIV and/or Hepatitis C (HCV) patients with a combination of homeopathic and orthodox antiviral treatment . Orthodox antiviral medicines induce well-known and unknown side effects due to individual variation in reacting to drugs. The study concluded that a synergy exists between the two therapies; anti-viral drugs reduced viral load while non-toxic homeopathic remedies improved the patients' quality of life by treating symptoms not related to the viral disease.
Childhood diseases such as measles, whooping cough and chickenpox are not normally targeted for prevention by homeopathic treatment. It is thought if a child succumbs to these illnesses it's their way of naturally shedding any "miasms", or suppressed inherited susceptibility to diseases. If symptoms linger, a 'potentised-microdose' of the specific virus may be given to effect a cure. For example, variecellinim is given for chickenpox and protidinum for mumps. With suspected links of autism to MMR jabs a worrying spectre for many parents, some have turned to homeopathy .
Homeopathic veterinary medicine is now used to treat common health problems presented by cows. Treatments are applied at the earliest sign of disease. Homeopathic vaccinations are called nosodes and are encouraged in America for most bovine conditions including mastitis and fevers . For the treatment of mastitis, common homeopathic remedies are phytholacca, byronia and hepar sulph.
"The key to the success of the organic farmer has been the employment of homeopathic remedies for the prevention and treatment of their herds." Says Tony Pinkus in his report . One of the major disadvantages of diary farming is the "withhold" period for produce when the cow is treated with drugs. The UK Soil Association (organic certification body) guidelines states that if a cow is treated with drugs for any reason, then produce from that animal is withheld for three times the normal period recommended by the manufacturer. In case of mastitis, a cow will normally be administered an antibiotic. After such administration the milk is withheld for 3-4 days. The cow's milk will be discarded and loss of income is around £150 per episode. In homeopathic remedies, only the milk from affected batches needs to be discarded.
A study of pigs in 1999 revealed that between 24% and 69% became ill during some stage of the fattening process. Most prevalent is a disease of the upper respiratory tract. Results showed that a homeopathic remedy was more effective than both the placebo and the routine dose of antibiotic. Only when the antibiotic dose was increased did it compare favourably to homeopathy . Homeopathy offers hope on different levels to a conventional medicine system desperately searching to cope with multi-drug resistance 
There is an urgent need to support research, not just in more clinical trials, but also in the possible mechanisms whereby homeopathy might work, which would greatly enhance our understanding of the organism itself .
Article first published 30/05/02
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