TCS Daily

Confessions of a Homeophobe

By Dominic Standish - June 10, 2003 12:00 AM

My Italian pharmacist will now say little more than "buon giorno" to me. My crime? When I took my son into the chemist to buy some medicine for his bad cold, the pharmacist gleefully told me that she had some great homeopathic remedies for his condition. I replied that I'd prefer a classical medicine. She insisted that the homeopathic remedy was especially good for children and thrust some child-friendly literature into my son's hand. Eventually, I got orthodox medicine.

In contrast, 30 percent of European citizens are now trying alternatives to orthodox medicines. Two European Union directives (92/73, 92/74) came into force on 1 January 1994 to regulate the manufacture, inspection, marketing and labeling of homeopathic products. According to the 1995 European Commission Report to the Parliament and the Council, these directives are insufficient. In June 2003, the 15 EU member countries are likely to adopt new common policies to send to the European Parliament for a second reading. If approved, there would then be another year's wait before implementation.

In Italy, homeopathy has a long tradition and there have been attempts to regulate it since the mid-19th century. At present, only registered allopathic physicians with degrees in medicine or surgery can practice complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). However, a new government bill on alternative therapies is proposing to allow people with non-conventional doctorates (homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine) and therapists (reflexologists, shiatsu masseurs, osteopaths, chiropractors) to operate legally. These CAM practitioners would be required to attend a three-year course and sign onto a professional registry under the new legislation.

In 1995, the two EU directives were adopted by the Italian government with legislative Decree 185. "In Italy since 1995 there has been no space for new products," complained Giancarlo Bucchèri, President of the International Federation of Anthroposophical Medical Associations. Nevertheless, the consumption of homeopathic remedies has mushroomed. Some 8.2 percent of Italians now use homeopathic products compared to 2.5 percent in 1991. The homeopathic sector now has a turnover of €220 million.

Despite the legislative reform expanding CAM, its increasing use and business profitability, Bucchèri claims a lack of attention: "We have the same business turnover as aspirin. Nobody listens to us."

The reality is that CAM is becoming widely recognized and used. It is traditional medicine that is in the retreat. Advocates of CAM are challenging discrimination against alternative medicines across Europe. "Homeopathic products must enjoy the same rights as others," exclaimed Paul Lannoye, a Belgian Member of the European Parliament and head of a green group that has been fighting for homeopathy for years. But there are very good reasons for such discrimination.

From the scientific revolution of the 17th century into the 20th century, the rational method of scientific enquiry triumphed over the superstition and empiricism of alternative medicines. The ascendancy of orthodox medicine was confirmed in the early 20th century with the development of surgery, anesthesia, antibiotics and immunization. These advances and the eradication of numerous diseases have enabled us to live longer and healthier lives than previous generations.

Towards the end of the 20th century, medical science suffered from the wider loss of confidence in expertise and established authority. It is true that orthodox medical science is far from perfect and understanding of conditions like multiple sclerosis and motor neuron disease is very limited. But this is an argument for developing medical science, not retreating to primitive forms of healing.

The "balanced" solution is said to be to adopt an integrated approach, benefiting from the gains of medical science and CAM. The integrated approach fails to appreciate that orthodox medicine and CAM are as incompatible as studying the stars with astronomy and astrology.

A key moment in medical science was the mechanistic separation of mind and body by René Descartes in the 17th century. As eloquently explained by Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick in Alternative Medicine (Hodder and Stoughton/Institute of Ideas, 2002), this has been theoretically developed to provide a sophisticated understanding of the human body (although weaknesses in the study of the mind that need to be scientifically corrected). Cartesian dualism encouraged the study of anatomy, physiology, pathology and biochemistry. It has provided a framework for the emergence of transplant and artificial implant surgery, treatment of thyroid disorders and the use of antibiotics against infectious diseases.

Orthodox medicine has been condemned by CAM advocates for its mechanistic conception of the body. The diverse practices that come under the CAM umbrella seem to be united in embracing a "holistic" approach to the patient's mind, body and spirit. Treatment cannot be effective using two such conflicting concepts of the body. By seeking harmony between the individual, nature and the cosmos, the holistic approach retreats from science into mysticism, as Dr. Fitzpatrick explains.

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