Despite lack of evidence, some try homeopathy to prevent flu

By Sandra G. Boodman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

After her son Devin was born last October, Grainne Ostrowski of Arlington was determined to do whatever she could to protect him from the flu. When he was a few weeks old, Ostrowski let her newborn suck on the same little pellets she had taken during her pregnancy: an over-the-counter drug called Influenzinum, made from extremely diluted flu vaccine and long marketed as an alternative to the conventional flu shot.

The 32-year-old executive leadership coach at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency says she and her son are taking the same pills now while they wait for the manufacturer, Washington Homeopathic Products, to ship this year's seasonal-flu remedy, which may be combined with diluted swine flu vaccine. Ostrowski no longer gets a flu shot and has no plans to get one for Devin or to immunize him against swine flu; for that she will rely on a remedy Washington Homeopathic plans to produce.

"He hasn't been sick," said Ostrowski. "Homeopathy has no side effects. . . . We don't hear about people dying from homeopathy."

Mounting concern about swine flu and shortages of the vaccine recently approved to battle it are refocusing attention on homeopathic remedies, which are increasingly being used in this country and abroad as an alternative to prevent or treat various forms of flu: swine, bird and seasonal. U.S. public health officials say that children under 4 -- Devin's age group -- are among the groups most at risk from swine flu and have designated them a priority group for vaccination.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has mounted an aggressive campaign against products making unproven or unapproved claims to fight swine flu.

While the gold standard for drugs and vaccines is proof of effectiveness in the form of randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials, there is no rigorous evidence that homeopathy works better than a placebo for any condition. That hasn't stopped a growing number of Americans from using it to battle a panoply of ailments, including arthritis, herpes and flu. A federally funded survey in 2007 found that in the previous year nearly 5 million Americans used homeopathic remedies, made from substances including duck liver, heavy metals such as arsenic, herbs and poison ivy, and diluted in water until they are virtually undetectable.

A form of medicine invented by a German physician in the 1700s, homeopathy is predicated on the belief that "like cures like" -- that a disease can be treated using a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. It seeks to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself through the ingestion of highly diluted substances that might be toxic at higher doses. Even though homeopathic medicines use substances so diluted that virtually no molecule of the active ingredient remains, proponents believe that water contains the "memory" of the original substance.

Many scientists dismiss homeopathy, which defies the laws of chemistry and physics, as quackery. Robert Park, a prominent physicist and critic at the University of Maryland who has written extensively about pseudoscience, has called it "voodoo science."

Different rules

Unlike vaccines or prescription or over-the-counter drugs, homeopathic medicines, which account for annual U.S. sales of more than $200 million, do not need to demonstrate safety or effectiveness, although they must be labeled with a list of ingredients and the conditions for which they are being used. A 1938 exemption allows drugs listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States to be sold without the scrutiny that governs standard medications.

"I think consumers should be aware that many homeopathic products are manufactured and distributed without FDA approval," said Elizabeth Miller, the Internet and health fraud team leader in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation.

Homeopathic drugs "are not necessarily safe," said David Schardt of the nonprofit Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. Homeopathic drugmakers "don't have to play by the same rules -- and I think consumers probably don't realize that."

While some homeopathic drugs require a prescription, most do not because they are used for self-limiting conditions that resolve without treatment. Many are sold over the Internet, in health-food stores and in pharmacies, where they may be placed next to conventional over-the-counter drugs, making it hard for consumers to tell the difference.

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