Alternatives to the Quack Stuff

Today, I sent the following letter to the Irish Times.

Regarding “Alternatives to the Pink Stuff” published on Tuesday, March 8th.

A chara,

I find it disappointing and disturbing to note that a well renowned and regarded paper would publish what amounts to a puff piece promoting a form of quackery that has been debunked countless times. I refer, of course, to the Alternatives To The Pink Stuff article of March 8th. This article is a shameless promotion of homoeopathy, a non-medical treatment that is regarded as quackery by prominent doctors and scientists around the world. Its claims have been proven groundless time and time again.

We are told that, if a child is unwell, Ni Chinneide would treat them with fast-acting belladonna. Homoeopathic belladonna, aka Deadly Nightshade, is proposed as a cure because taking belladonna will give you a fever. Homoeopathic dilutions render the solution so dilute that it contains nothing but water. I’m not certain which is more laughable as a cure, but I am sure that neither will work.

Ni Chinneide herself says that if a child is in danger, one should see a doctor. Surely if her cures were as legitimate as this article makes out, one would have no need of a doctor?

The letter is in response to an article published on March 8th, called “Alternatives to the Pink Stuff“, and while I would have liked to go into more detail in the letter, I was advised that brevity is the watchword if one wishes to be published. Luckily, I impose no such restrictions here.

I was surprised, and more than a little disappointed to see that the Irish Times, a paper I would have previously regarded as being fairly upstanding, had published what amounts to a promotional puff piece, vaunting homoeopathy as a natural, safe, panacea-style alternative to all those nasty medicines that we stuff into our children.

After an opening paragraph which sets the tone for the article, “Applying the homeopathic, holistic principle of treating the whole person, not just the symptoms, she proposed more individualised methods of temperature control, specifically in childhood illnesses.”, we are introduced to Lee Ni Chinneide, a homoeopath working in the “Elbow Room” clinic in Dublin. Sadly, not two paragraphs in, and the contradictions and apologetic tone come to the fore. We are told that Ni Chinneide would treat a fever with “fast acting belladonna”, a delightful oxymoron. Just previously, however, we are warned that “if a child has suspected meningitis or could be in danger, do not delay seeing a doctor”.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here – either your medicine works, or it doesn’t. You can call it whatever you wish – alternative, natural, homoeopathic – but it all falls into one of two categories; the stuff that works, and the stuff that doesn’t. If fast acting belladonna provides fever relief, and the principles of homoeopathy are sound, then why preface your assertion with a “get out” clause? If homoeopathy worked, then you wouldn’t need to see a doctor if your child was in danger, as there are homoeopathic cures for virtually every ailment (including several purported cures for meningitis, such as belladonna, ferrum phos, bryonia, helleborus, and zincum metallicum). Of course, if one were certain that the medicine being administered was safe, and would cure all ills, then why caveat at all? It is an admission that the cures being administered will cure nothing at all, and that when the fast acting belladonna doesn’t take down the child’s fever, you’ll have to seek real medical help.

I’m not saying that everyone should rush to medicate their children at the slightest hint of a runny nose, but common sense should dictate that when your child has fallen more seriously ill, you should treat them with something more potent than water. Croup, diarrhoea, ear infections, and “tummy upsets”, may be common enough childhood illnesses, but that does not mean that they should be disregarded. Croup can cause rapid, and sometimes lethal, narrowing of the airways. Diarrhoea and “tummy upsets”, if prolonged or frequent, can be indicative of allergies or severe digestive problems which, if left untreated, can lead to the child becoming malnourished. Ear infections, left untreated, can result in ruptured eardrums, hearing loss, and bone infections. While these are undoubtedly the worst examples of complications from common illnesses, they are all possible. If a child begins to exhibit symptoms that indicate that he or she is not succeeding in fighting the infection themselves, and a parent chooses to seek homoeopathic treatment in lieu of real medical treatment, those complications become far more likely.

It goes without saying that all of the homoeopathic remedies mentioned in the article are extremely unlikely to cure anything, since they contain no active ingredients, and many of the purported ingredients have not been proven to be effective even when actually included in medication. Perhaps it needs to be said that, when it comes to children, doctor knows best.

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