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Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010
Homeopathy: cure or placebo?
By MIZUHO AOKI
Homeopathy recently came under the spotlight after Science Council of Japan President Ichiro Kanazawa urged medical workers to refrain from using the more than 200-year-old form of alternative medicine, calling it "ignorance of science" and "absurd."
Kanazawa's Aug. 24 comments were a response to last year's death of an infant girl in Yamaguchi Prefecture who died of a vitamin K deficiency when a midwife allegedly gave her a homeopathic remedy instead of the vitamin.
Nine medical groups, including the Japan Medical Association and the Japanese Associations of Medical Sciences, promptly supported Kanazawa's stance, calling on members to steer clear of homeopathy.
Homeopathic groups released counterarguments on their websites, arguing that many illnesses have been cured by the practice and that the evidence more than counts as scientific proof.
Homeopathy is used worldwide and has been spreading in Japan since the late 1990s, experts say.
Following are basic questions and answers on homeopathy.
What is homeopathy?
Established in the late 18th century by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is a system of medicine based on the principle that "like cures like."
In other words, an illness can be treated by taking highly diluted substances that cause similar symptoms in a healthy body.
For example, extracts from coffee can be used to treat insomnia, according to the "Homeopathy Self Care Bible" by physician Hiroe Nakamura.
Today, more than 3,000 different kinds of flora, fauna and minerals are used as materials for making homeopathic remedies, Nakamura claims.
Among them are substances such as mercury, aconite and breast cancer tissue. Extracts from the substances are heavily diluted with water and alcohol to the point that there is hardly a chance for even a single molecule of the original substance to be left in the water, experts say.
It is then soaked into tablets made of sugar and used as medicine in homeopathic remedies.
According to the website of the Japanese Physicians Society for Homeopathy, the practice is a system of treatment that develops self-healing powers. In this way, all illnesses that can be healed by such powers can be treated by homeopathy, it claims.
Another book by Nakamura titled "Homeopathy" says that the treatment has helped ease symptoms of atopic dermatitis and rheumatism.
If there is no trace of the original substance left in the liquid, how does it work?
Homeopathy practitioners claim it works because the water retains a "memory" of the original substance.
Homeopathic principle has it that the more diluted the substance, the more powerful and effective the medicine.
Scientists criticize such medicines for lacking factual evidence to support the claims and call it a placebo instead.
Kanazawa of the Science Council of Japan, who also serves as the physician to Emperor Akihito, said in the statement that homeopathic medicine is "just water," therefore "it has neither therapeutic effects nor side effects."
If there are no side effects, why did the SCJ urge health workers to refrain from using the treatment?
Although there are no data on the size of the homeopathy market in Japan, both practitioners and opponents of the therapy say that use of the alternative medicine has spread rapidly in recent years.
Kanazawa of the SCJ noted that one big concern is that is people may stop taking conventional medicines.
How many people turn to homeopathy in Japan?
The exact number is unknown, but the membership rosters of homeopathic groups indicate it is not small.
The Japanese Homeopathic Medical Association, founded in 1998, has more than 1,000 members. Among them, about 560 are approved by the association as homeopaths, or those who perform homeopathic treatment.
The association has 250 homeopathy centers across the nation where they conduct consultations. To be eligible for therapy, patients must become members of Tora no Ko Kai, a support club. Full membership costs ¥2,000 a year, and there are about 50,000 registered members, the association said.
Another homeopathic association, JPSH, has more than 400 physicians, veterinarians, dentists and pharmacists.
There are currently 11 schools in Japan that specialize in training people to become homeopaths, according to the JPSH.
How much does it cost to receive homeopathic treatment?
As there are no regulations for setting prices on therapy, the cost differs from practitioner to practitioner.
The Obitsu Sankei Seminary Clinic in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district charges ¥18,000 for an initial medical consultation, ¥6,000 for a followup exam, and ¥2,000 per medicine, regardless of amount, the JPSH said.
During consultations or examinations, physicians or homeopaths ask patients not only about their illnesses, but also about their lifestyles, mental states and other factors so they can provide a holistic treatment, according to the JPSH website. After the consultation, a homeopath will prescribe medicines.
For those who prefer self-treatment, homeopathic medicine can be purchased online at such websites as Neal's Yard Remedies. A 14-gram bottle of homeopathic medicine costs ¥3,255, while a set of 42 different medicines is currently priced at ¥23,940.
How popular is homeopathy in other countries?
According to the JPSH, homeopathy is practiced in over 80 countries, and in Europe, about 30 percent of people use homeopathy as a form of health care.
In Britain, homeopathic medicine has been funded by the National Health Service since its inception in 1948, although the treatment has remained controversial.
Earlier this year, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called on the NHS to stop funding homeopathic treatment, saying that there was no scientific evidence to prove it works and that it only produces a placebo effect.
The Department of Health, however, decided to continue the funding.
Are there any celebrities known to use the therapy?
Britain's Prince Charles is widely known to be a fan. In Japan, singer Sunplaza Nakano-kun is a homeopath and has published a book on the topic. Recently, actress Erika Sawajiri praised the treatment in fashion magazine Glamorous.