There is no evidence that it is effective, says the British parliament's science and technology committee.

To true believers, including the Prince of Wales, homoeopathy is an age-old form of treatment for a wide range of ills. To most scientists, it is nothing more than water. On Monday, the sniping between the devotees and the deniers became a full-scale battle as the House of Commons science and technology committee challenged the government to live by its evidence-based principles and withdraw NHS funding from homoeopathic treatment.

Nobody knows exactly how much the UK health service (NHS) spends on homoeopathy. The Department of Health does not keep figures, although the Health Minister, Mike O'Brien, told the committee that it was probably about or a little less than the figure of £12 million over three years he had read in the Guardian.

But, said the MPs' report, “it appears that these figures do not include maintenance and running costs of the homeopathic hospitals or the £20 million spent on refurbishing the Royal London Homoeopathic hospital between 2002 and 2005.”

Whatever the true figure, the money could be better spent, said the committee, accusing the health department of failing to abide by the principle that its policies should be evidence-based. There is no robust evidence that homoeopathy is effective, it said. “The weight of evidence shows that homoeopathy works no better than placebo,” said chairman Phil Willis.

Homoeopaths believe that like can cure like. A tiny dose of a substance linked to the cause of the malady is diluted until there is — chemically speaking — an undetectable amount of it remaining (homoeopaths say the water retains the “memory” of the substance). The concept “seems to us to be scientifically implausible, to put it mildly,” said Willis.

The committee was highly critical of a scheme operated by the government's drug licensing body in the U.K. — the authority which regulates medicines and healthcare products — which allows homoeopathic remedies to get a similar licence to drugs that have been through clinical trials.

The national rules scheme, introduced in 2006, requires only study reports, literature and homoeopathic “provings” (evidence of long-term use by homoeopaths). Just one product has so far been licensed under the scheme: Arnica Montana 30C. The report says the product's labelling misleads those who buy it, suggesting that in contains an active ingredient. Yet, said Willis, it “contains nothing but water.”

The committee said it felt the scheme operated “more in the interests of those who produce homoeopathic ‘medicines' rather than in support of public health.”

The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health countered the MPs' attack by citing a study in the International Journal of Oncology which, it said, proved that homoeopathic remedies were biologically active. Research had shown that four homeopathic remedies were capable of killing cancer cells in a test tube.

“This is one of a number of research trials that suggest positive results for homoeopathy. It is puzzling that studies like this are ignored,” said Dr Michael Dixon, medical director of the PFIH.

“Trial results are sobering”

Edzard Ernst, is professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, says:

When I began my research, I was open to homoeopathy. A homoeopathic doctor treated me for years, my father practised homoeopathy and my medical career began in a homoeopathic hospital.

But my job was to be not just open but also critical. The acid test, I thought, was whether homoeopathic remedies behave differently from placebos in clinical trials.

We conducted several trials and the results were sobering. Today there are about 200 clinical trials and all this evidence fails to show homoeopathic remedies work.

Tonnes of data show that people get better after seeing a homoeopath. But this can be amply explained by factors such as the empathic encounter with a homoeopath, the patient's expectation and the natural history of the disease.

We could ask: why not give homoeopathic placebos if they help patients? Because this strategy deprives patients of fully informed consent.

Also, they could turn to placebos — whose effects are unreliable and often short-lived — for serious, treatable conditions. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

Keywords: medicinehomoeopathy

More In: Comment | Opinion