Bioethics Complementary and alternative medicine Homeopathy Medicine Quackery

Homeopathy in Haiti, a year and a half later

What did the poor Haitians ever do to deserve this?

Think about it. A year and a half ago, they suffered through an enormous earthquake that will take them decades, maybe even a lifetime, to recover from fully; that is, if they ever do recover from it fully. Since then, they’ve received massive amounts of international aid, which is good. What’s not so good is that, along with that aid have come a bunch of quacks. I first noticed the incursion of the quackiest of quacks, namely homeopaths, into Haiti only a couple of weeks after the quake. This group of homeopaths was patterned after the famous and effective charity group Doctors Without Borders and was dubbed–surprise, surprise!–Homeopaths Without Borders. The big difference, of course, is that doctors bring effective medicine and surgery to the suffering in areas devastated by natural disasters and other society-disrupting events. Homeopaths, on the other hand, bring magic water and a pre-scientific vitalistic faith that this magic water remembers the medicine it’s diluted but forgets all the urine and feces that it’s been in contact with.

Then, as I noted a month later, it wasn’t enough that homeopaths had brought their quackery to Haiti. They were soon followed by acupuncturists (one of whom wanted to use acupuncture anesthesia during amputations) and practitioners of Energy Meridian Tapping, which involves–you guessed it–tapping acupuncture meridians. I must admit, I mostly forgot about this incursion of woo into earthquake-devastated Haiti. At least, I forgot until a reader sent me this updated report from Homeopaths Without Borders:

Homeopaths Without Borders-NA (HWB) has accomplished another successful mission to Haiti.

It took all my effort not to laugh uproariously upon reading this first sentence, but then I remembered: A homeopath’s “success” comes at the cost of suffering people in Haiti. So I read on, dreading what I might read next:

Volunteers Sally Tamplin, Holly Manoogian and Alyssa Wostrel traveled to Port-au-Prince on May 23 and returned home on June 3, participating in the longest, most intense undertaking in that country by HWB. Responding to requests by charitable groups in Haiti, the volunteers worked not only in the capital but also traveled to sites in the countryside. Their ten-day schedule was a whirlwind of compassionate homeopathic intervention.

“Compassionate homeopathic intervention”? What a frightening thought. They would have shown far more compassion by staying away and using the money that it took to equip them and transport them to Haiti to purchase real medicine and support useful charities, like Doctors Without Boarders or the International Red Cross. Instead of that, they used their funding to bring their magic water to conditions that they described as still very rough, with potable water being scarce, roads remaining seriously damaged, piles of rubble still littering various areas of the country, and people in need far outstripping anything the little band can do.

So what did the band do for the people of Haiti? Not a lot:

Haitians continue to demonstrate symptoms of trauma and grief from an earthquake that took place a year and a half ago. Skin problems such as ringworm are prevalent as are gastrointestinal problems including severe diarrhea; some of the latter are related to poor nutrition. Vaginal infections persist. Sadly the group treated several very ill infants who were malnourished, dehydrated, underdeveloped, feverish and covered with rashes from head to toe.

Although a great variety of remedies were used, following were the most frequently administered: Arnica, Aconite, Ignatia, Causticum, Nat mur, Sepia, Phosphorus acid and Sulphur.

So let me get this straight. A bunch of homeopaths go into an impoverished Third World country that is still recovering from a devastating earthquake. They find people still suffering from a variety of diseases, including ringworm, vaginal infections, and infectious diarrhea. They see malnourished, underdeveloped, dehydrated infants. And what do they have to offer? Arnica, Aconite, Ignatia, Causticum, Natu mur, Sepia, phosphorus acid, and sulfur, all diluted to the point that not a single molecule is left. In other words, all they have to offer is water and sugar pills infused with that water. They don’t even have water with electrolytes in it, such as Pedialyte, which is what these infants almost certainly really needed, along with formula.

Stunned by the uselessness of it all, I decided to peruse some of the reports of previous expeditions of HWB. It was depressing to see just how much the homeopaths had insinuated themselves into the relief effort, as this report from April 2010 reveals:

Immediately after we opened our clinic at the French Hospital, men, women, and children from all over the city headed our way. They lined up seeking help for headaches and dizziness, sprained ankles and crushed toes, and every complaint in between. We treated an infinite number of people who had irritated eyes caused by the debris in the air and countless lethargic babies weakened by the inadequate food supply. We used Euphrasia for eyes and Carbo vegetabilis for the infants. We also used Sepia and Vaginitis combinations for many of the female complaints and Arnica montana and the Arnica gels for a good number of the musculoskeletal injuries. We relied on many of the most basic remedies like Calcarea carbonica and Sulphur and handed simple cell salt combination remedies to the children over and over again. There were countless other valuable medicines, but rarely did we need Aconite, Ignatia, or Natrum muriaticum. Why was that so?

So let me get this straight. People with crushed toes, irritated eyes, and all manner of other injuries and ills were given magic water. One wonders how a homeopathy would treat an amputation? Would they try to dilute the limb with water in order to make it stronger, perhaps strong enough to be usable? OK, OK, that was a bad joke, but the thought of homeopaths promising help that they can’t deliver to suffering people tends to get me more than a bit cranky. Again, it’s the babies who suffer. What these babies almost certainly needed was Pedialyte and formula; what they got was magic water. Then what they got, according to this this report from February, was the indoctrination of their health care professionals in woo. It wasn’t enough for these homeopaths just to provide homeopathic remedies. Rather, they had to teach homeopathy to nurses.

I hate to be too hard on these homeopaths, given that it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions. They see people who need medical help and are willing to sacrifice considerable time and effort, not to mention comfort, in order to bring them what they believe to be help. Even so, what they are doing is nearly completely useless. I say nearly, because they describe their efforts thusly, “We distributed water, food, and homeopathy for trauma, injuries, and a long list of chronic and acute complaints.” the food and water were helpful. The homeopathy, not so much. Not at all, actually. That doesn’t stop HWB at all. They’re currently looking to set up a permanent homeopathic clinic, staffed by nurse homeopaths that they’ve trained.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Adding quackery like homeopathy to those good intentions only turbocharges the quackmobile traveling down that road.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

37 replies on “Homeopathy in Haiti, a year and a half later”

Truly despicable. I could seriously slap one of these people real hard.

“I hate to be too hard on these homeopaths, given that it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions.”

And yet of course what they’re doing is harmful and unethical whether they (wish to) know it or not. This ‘dilemma’- and some quacks’ exploitation of it – is one of the reasons why I think such appalling practices should be criminalised and put firmly beyond the ‘excuses’ of well-meaning ignorance and stupidity… and one of the reasons they likely never will be. :/

“it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions.”

I am not so sure I agree with this bit – I think for most part it is down to greed. And HWB is a front for publicity for that multi-billion pound industry which we know only as – quackery.

Not only do they have no grasp of medicine, chemistry or physics, but it seems homeopaths also have no clue when it comes to mathematics. “We treated an infinite number of people…”?

“I hate to be too hard on these homeopaths, given that it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions”

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” – updated Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Intentions don’t matter when you’re actively harming someone by denying them legitimate medical care and giving them quackery you’ll insist will cure them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a conscious and unabashed quack who cares nothing about the value of human life as long as you’re making a profit, or just deluded and ignorant enough not to care, you’re a menace and a public health hazard plain and simple.

Never does the use of woo baffle me more than when it is used in severe trauma. That seems like the most obvious place to defer to mainstream medicine, and particularly to surgery. I can kind of see how chiropractic gets in there, but how does homeopathy regrow limbs? How does tong ren set bones? How does acupuncture suture a wound?

And then this:

They were soon followed by acupuncturists (one of whom wanted to use acupuncture anesthesia during amputations)

This just makes me shudder. Even nineteenth century surgeons knew to at least give the patient a stiff drink before getting to work; alcohol’s not a great anesthetic, but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing, and if you get them drunk enough, they might not remember the procedure. I suspect Civil War field hospitals went through a lot of whiskey.

“I hate to be too hard on these homeopaths, given that it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions”

Then be even harder on all of homeopathy. Because it’s not at all isolated to these individuals. No homeopath will ever call them out for treating physical injuries, no ‘board of homeopathy’ will ever investigate what they are doing; rather, they will all wave the flag and celebrate. It is a Cult of Wishful Thinking, homeopaths have all been trained (at considerable personal investment) to believe nonsense, to see random positive effects as proof and simply ignore anything that might indicate it doesn’t work. An industry of the self-deluded preying on the ignorant. It makes me sick.

I have to second DBH @ 4. These are people who already pretend to be doctors for fun and profit, now pretending to be humanitarian aid workers for more ego fulfillment and the chance to promote their magic beliefs among a desperate and unsuspecting public. Not cool.

It is rather nauseating to me when quackish “charity” groups ( or *any* groups, for that matter) use a tragedy of this magnitude to raise funds. HWA lists a donation page ( of course) as well as enumerating their recent “projects”- Haiti, Gautemala, Sri Lanka. Most residents of these countries are poor: thin children photograph well if you want to incite pity. I imagine that photos of the devastation, the injured, and hungry children are used as bait for contributions.

Following *te tromble* ( the quake), I learned via *ma protegee*, a young Haitian student/ small business owner, that scads of donation cans, labelled bi-lingually, turned up in areas where many Haitians lived ( Spring Valley, NY; Brooklyn, NY)- she suspected many of these “charities” were brand new, formed overnight specifically to rake in money in the aftermath of the quake.

Needless to say, woo-meisters, already knowing the ins-and-outs of getting folks to part with their hard-earned cash, saw opportunity as well: as part of his effort to depict himself as a “humanitarian” who has his own “charity”, Gary Null lovingly parades photos of his own “relief effort”- I believe he brought supplements to the earthquake victims ( see website for “charity”/ photos). So what’s worse: “magic water” or “magic vitamins”?

….. and while I’m on the topic of useless substances for serious problems……..

@ NaturalNews, today:”FDA unleashes end game scheme to outlaw all dietary supplements formulated after 1994″. Adams
again invokes the spectre of the government stomping upon your cherished health freedom by seizing your supplements. He refers readers to the ANH(US) site.

Can they be charged with crimes against humanity? They’re crossing international borders with the intent to increase human suffering.

W. C. Fields (unintentionally) summed up homeopathy better than anyone else: “I never drink water – fish f**k in it.”

If someone’s delusions lead them to behave in a way that makes them a danger to themselves or to others, I believe there’s a name for that isn’t there?

“….. and while I’m on the topic of useless substances for serious problems……..

@ NaturalNews, today:”FDA unleashes end game scheme to outlaw all dietary supplements formulated after 1994″. Adams
again invokes the spectre of the government stomping upon your cherished health freedom by seizing your supplements. He refers readers to the ANH(US) site.”

How dare you call Mike Adams a useless substance! His site is a goldmine of the crazy.
We get notifications of these dire threats to supplement manufacturers’ bloated profits our Health Freedom on a regular basis. Oddly, none ever seem to materialize – but only because the faithful are stampeded into signing petitions and freaking out over the possibility that their Vita-Mix Colon Purge might be cleansed off the shelves at the vitamin store.

Good to know the ANH is looking out for our Health Freedom.

From Wikipedia’s entry on the ANH (“Alliance for Natural Health”):

“The ANH is mainly financed by donations from private individuals and vendors of dietary supplements. Its support base consists of Complementary Health Associations, Consumer & Health Advocacy NGOs, Innovative manufacturers, suppliers & distributors, and Trade Associations.”

In other words, it’s a supplement manufacturers’ pressure group that can’t abide the thought of even a minor regulatory requirement to notify the FDA of new ingredients in its products, casting this change as an attempt to ban their nostrums altogether.

If you know you’re peddling snake oil, it might seem reasonable to fear that a crackdown will come sooner or later. As long as Orrin Hatch & Co. are on board however, that’s extremely unlikely.

You can thank the likes of Orrin Hatch, the feckless Senator from Utah who has, among his monied constituents, the ‘natural cure’ vitamin industry. It is the protection that these quacks have received from him that have allowed these woo purveyors to continue their estimable works. He gets about half of his total haul of contributions from these goons. Alongside of him, Jason Chaffetz is another one…his family actually owns one of these magic water outfits.

“potable water being scarce”

I wonder how the Haitians would feel knowing that for every liter of magic “medicine,” the homeopaths dump 19 liters of pure water down the drain.

Any word on how the $cientologosts’ “assistance” to the Hatians worked out?

countless lethargic babies weakened by the inadequate food supply

They’re giving food and homeopathic remedies to babies suffering from malnutrition? How in the world is homeopathy supposed to help someone with malnutrition?

@Calli Arcale:

Never does the use of woo baffle me more than when it is used in severe trauma. That seems like the most obvious place to defer to mainstream medicine, and particularly to surgery. I can kind of see how chiropractic gets in there, but how does homeopathy regrow limbs?

If a person has a broken bone or sprained ankle or such, I think the claim is that the treatment “helps accelerate the body’s natural healing process”, or words to that effect. For amputations, maybe it’s supposed to “boost the immune system”, so as reduce the chance of infection?

@Matthew Cline:

How in the world is homeopathy supposed to help someone with malnutrition?

By giving them diluted-to-nonexistence quantities of NotFood, of course. But they can’t put that in a lactose pill, because some folks can digest lactose and then it would be Food. So they put a homeopathic dose of NotFood in a pill made of NotFood, ignoring the cognitive dissonance, and then all that potentized NotFood nourishes the patient.

Where’s the harm? Here’s the harm, right in Haiti. Not only is HWB wasting resources (time, manpower, money, etc)on delivering homeopathy rather than allocating those resources to effective medicine and relief efforts, but they are almost certainly displacing proper medical treatment in at least some instances.

Relief agencies that don’t know any better may bypass persons being serviced by HWB in order to focus on people who haven’t been helped yet (not knowing those treated by HWB haven’t been helped yet either), and some Haitians in need of real medical help will delay or abandon seeking medical treatment, believing they have already been treated with effective medicine.

Where’s the harm? People giving money to HWB to p!ss away on magic jelly bean water instead of giving to the Red Cross, who can do actual good.

Homeopathy may be ineffective, but it is not benign. It has costs. Not just direct monetary costs, but real world, human costs. It’s possible that nobody will die or unnecessarily suffer because money and resources went to HWB instead of to a relief organization like the Red Cross, but it’s also disturbingly possible (and perhaps probable) that someone died in Haiti that might otherwise have been helped.

-Karl Withakay

Ringworm would actually a pretty good test of homeopathy. It is relatively benign, and can be compared to the EB treatment.

(CA: They had morphine during the Civil War – Whiskey not required. Unless you meant the English Civil War.)

@ Dangerous Bacon:

Alas! You misunderstood me : I was of course, referring to the *supplements* hawked @ NaturalNews which are nearly useless- unless your plan involves creating expensive urine. Although Mikey is of little substance himself he is *not* totally useless: it is a harsh world indeed that we live in and we are ever in dire need of merriment and frivolous laughter which he unwittingly provides for us *free of charge* ( unlike the aforementioned supplements). Often when I read his excretions I find myself feeling genuinely *thankful* for whatever I have received via genetics or education. Thanks Mike, I needed that!

The ANH is eternally harping on *Codex Alimentarius* which has them all riled up that the public’s access to mega-vites will be limited which would mean the end of health freedom ( as well as supplement sellers’ profit margin). Now that the dreaded date ( April 1) has passed I suppose we’ll see those poor Europeans dying like flies without their life enhancing supplements at full dose. Shame.

I venture that the ANH, the NSF ( Stubblebine, Laibow, et al),and our web woo-meisters form a very cozy clique, trading articles on websites or appearing on each others’ radio shows. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll find that there are also ties to the anti-vax movement and HIV/AIDS denialists. I’m sure I could draw a nice little chart that shows how (mis) information is shared amongst these folks.

Again, to quote the poet: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”

“I hate to be too hard on these homeopaths, given that it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions.”

Tolerance is nearly always a good thing, but I think you should go ahead and be hard on these people. Someone has to be; they are peddling nonsense to people who desperately need help. The very first poster wrote that it was “truly despicable” and I agree completely. Normally there needs to be tolerance of stupid ideas in a free society, but these homeopaths are actually a hazard.

Their nonsense wasting the time of the people who need real help–if people accept these homeopathic remedies, how long does it take before they discover the remedies are actually useless? In that same amount of time that they were being “helped” with the magic water, they might have been able to seek real help from actual doctors, nurses, health workers, etc.

If the homeopaths want to help, they should either pitch in and help the true healers, or get out of the way. Makes me sick just to think about it–no pun intended.

Sorry, that should have read “Their nonsense is wasting the time…” Guess I worked myself up into such a lather that I couldn’t type properly!

KeithB — no, it’s worse that that, I was actually conflating the American Civil War with the American Revolution; it’s been kind of a chaotic week. 😉

My family got this *awesome* book when we visited Valley Forge on a family vacation when I was a kid. It was all about revolutionary war battlefield medicine. As a child, of course I found all of the gruesomeness quite fascinating. 😉 A great deal was made of the primitive pain relief of the day — if you were lucky, you got whiskey; otherwise, you just got a strip of leather or a chunk of wood to bite down on. But I digress.

And check this out:
It is quite long and horrifying. Homeopaths inflicting woo on sick Tanzanians.

“Patients in Africa seem to respond to a wide variety of remedies. Hence the variety of homoeopathic approaches, ranging from classical to combinations, unproved remedies, and radionics all seem to work well. We have all seen this in the West but the phenomena of ‘first potency working’ is much more apparent here. Even when we had some inexperienced volunteers working in the project, they did reasonably well too.”

Ummm.. maybe there’s something wrong with your methods if it appears that *everything* *works*, even stuff that homeopaths think is dubious??? Or, just successfully applying the homeopathic method of not really looking.

“We take large general rubrics to form a totality, then look for the cherry on the cake to individualise the remedy. We are very grateful to have my Repertory of Mental Qualities, a Boenninghausen-style repertory of mental-emotional themes. We use rubrics like ‘Money’, ‘Victim’, ‘Water’ or ‘Snakes’ on a daily basis”

Oh, god, the stupid, it burns… Somebody save Tanzania from these dangerous cretins.

One wonders how a homeopathy would treat an amputation? Would they try to dilute the limb with water in order to make it stronger, perhaps strong enough to be usable?

My RPG group faced a similar problem. See, we’re doing Urban Fantasy, and our healer’s a complete quack, so we needed to figure out what a homeopathic remedy for a wound would look like. I think we agreed on something like “use a string to suspend a bullet in the water”.

Reporting of the variety below is so brainless and frustrating:

It’s so good to see this young woman surviving – and indeed thriving – but in this case the fact life support was turned off is more likely to be that she was deemed almost certain to live – rather than (the implication of the story) that she was close to death, and unable to be saved!

While her parents’ whacky interventions were (hopefully) as harmless as they were ineffective, this kind of credulous reporting implies otherwise and we could live without it!

@ Greg Smith: ” save Tanzania from these cretins”

Agreed. This sadly reminds me of *other* recent “white mischief”** (of the medical variety) in Africa: how AIDS denialism spouted by supplement salemen became official policy in South Africa ( covered by Seth Kalichman’s book and its eponymous blog,”Denying AIDS”)

And who said Colonialism is dead?

** however, the whites had help.

I wonder if the boosters for homeopathy (for such conditions as gout) will be by to defend the work of Homeopaths Without Borders in Haiti.

I for one see the resources dumped out on homeopathy in Haiti as being equally wasted as those purloined by criminal gangs.

My wife, who has had some psychological issues through her life and tends to be somewhat credulous, is totally enthralled by homeopathy, and Hahnemann in particular. She is reading some translations of Samuel Hahnemann’s original works and eating it all up. All she talks about is how homeopathy is so “scientific” and how modern medicine is so barbaric.

Frankly, I’m concerned for her health. She’s turned into a confirmation bias ninja and I fear we are some day going to miss a real ailment that she will try to woo away until it’s too late. It is beyond “not funny” when it is happening to someone you love.

@S. Williams: It is the same thing with Dianetics progressing to a worship of L.Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I wish I had something to tell you, but not knowing the specifics and trying to determine the true root cause of your wife’s behavior isn’t something I’m willing to do.

I will, however, list a few things I’ve observed:

1) Bipolar cycles can cause obsessive behavior over unusual paranormal or supernatural events (creative manic phase). Other types of affective disorders can also cause this.

2) Obsessive fear of death. This has been done on this blog before.

There are others, but I’ve got a wee little one clamoring for attention. The best thing to do is observe and communicate without apparent judgement. If it is a functional psychological “illness” then it might be very difficult to suggest any sort of counselling or therapy, as no negative effects will be readily recognizable. You’re kinda in a bad position, and I totally understand and have been in your shoes.

Calli @26 – crudely-prepared opiates were in use in the C18th (either raw opium or laudanum). However, they were relatively expensive imports (and thus inevitably in short supply in wartime); and also there was the usual logistical problem of getting supplies to field hospitals and battlefield medics. A lot of medical interventions up to and including major surgeries were performs literally on the battlefield, behind the infantry lines or in the baggage trains, or even inside infantry squares or behind artillery positions. A surgeon asked to choose between opiates or bandages, opiates or drinking water, or opiates or musket-rounds for the soldiers protecting him is probably not going to pick the drugs. Then throw in the known habits of soldiers presented with stealable intoxicants (and, unlike on a ship, you don’t have strong-rooms on a battlefield), and you can see why it was often judged more trouble than it was worth.

On a separate point, would anyone with medical training like to weigh in on the relative harm of heavy sedation with laudanum versus pain of unanaethetised surgery for acute trauma cases?

NZ Skeptic @29

I believe that you have the correct interpretation of why life support was “turned off.”

I have personal experience of the same team refusing to turn off the life support of a teenager with no cardiorespiratory function, clinically much worse than the teenager in the tabloid report. That teenager took eighteen months of rehab as opposed to the month reported in your link, eventually demonstrating the same degree of recovery.

Miraculous cure caused by “chinese herbs, acupuncture and homeopathy”? No, just everyday scientific medicine, of the type that should never reach the tabloids.

S. Williams @32:

I’ve been there. My ex-wife went into, then clear past homeopathy/acupuncture/other New Agey wooishness deep into faith healing. I don’t want to reprise the consequences here, but my attempts at intervention for a serious fungal infection with fact-based medicine, with the support of real M.D.s, were a contributing factor to our later divorce. She resented the treatments, although she agreed to them and although they undoubtedly saved her life.

I also don’t want to scare you with anecdotal evidence, but my ex’s distrust of modern medicine devolved into (or was part of) being paranoid delusional. And the paranoia got more intense as the years passed, which compromised her willingness to seek treatment for later physical problems.

I hope your wife’s issues never get that bad. If she sees a psychologist/psychiatrist regularly, you should probably mention your concerns to him/her. (And hope they also don’t believe in homeopathy.)

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