Nov 10 2012

Homeopathic malaria pills

Published by at 12:45 am under Health & safety

I was doing some personal research recently and came across a subject that is dear to my heart, especially after a visit from a friend of mine not so long ago. I was thrilled to see her of course; she’s a wonderful human being: smart, funny, kind and drop dead gorgeous. Come to think of it, I don’t know why I hang around with her — she makes me look bad. We’ve known each other for our entire lives and in that time I’ve never had cause to question her judgement — aside from one particular boy — until she told me that she had brought homeopathic malaria tablets with her. I nearly dropped my drink.

Average mosquito wingspan.

Average mosquito wingspan.

Malaria is a natural concern for visitors to Cambodia and the temptation to load up on pharmaceutical prophylactics — which can give you powerful indigestion; take with LOTS of water, it seems to help — can seem irresistible, and understandable. It should be noted though that these do not give 100% protection, but do at least give you more valuable time to seek medical attention. Which is difficult, as taking pills can lead people into believing that they have taken all the steps necessary to protect themselves. In fact, everyone should also be aware of how to protect against mozzie bites, the symptoms for malaria, when we are visiting an area that is malarial, and then be prepared to act quickly should symptoms manifest. This is the best protection going.

That difficulty is infinitely compounded when someone believes themselves to be taking precautions against malarial infection, languishing in the ensuing complacency, when those precautions are of no effect whatsoever. And this is what happens when someone comes to a potentially malarial region with homeopathic malaria pills, which have absolutely no effect whatsoever either as a preventative or a treatment for this painful parasitic infection.

An essential part of your protection - and made in Siem Reap!

An essential part of your prophylactic arsenal — and made in Siem Reap.

This can mean that they are less likely to arm themselves with fore-knowledge, more likely to engage in risky behaviour (visiting malarial areas) and less likely to act on it if symptoms start to manifest. After all, they’ve taken their (sugar) pill, so what’s to worry about?

A great deal in fact. If people want to take homeopathic pills to treat colds and their cat’s nerves, good luck to them. It cannot be stated strongly enough however that, no matter what is said on homeopaths’ websites, homeopathy is completely and utterly ineffective for the prevention or treatment of malaria. The people who prescribe these pills for travellers are either breathtakingly, dangerously irresponsible or breathtakingly, dangerously naive about their job. People can die. Indeed people have died as a direct result of being advised that homeopathic remedies will prevent or treat malaria and acting on that advice.

Homeopathic medicine was conjured up by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18the century as he was attempting to develop remedies that wouldn’t leave patients feeling worse than they already did — a common feature of medicine at the time when bloodletting, cupping and purging were among the standard medical repertoire. Homeopathy got around that problem — in essence — by diluting out anything that might have an effect. In that sense, it might have been a step up for its time, by not actually making patients sicker.

The irony is that his first offering was a prophylactic against malaria based on Cinchona bark. He settled on this, somewhat randomly, by taking a high dose of the bark and then experiencing symptoms which he decided were similar to those of malaria — there is evidence that he suffered an idiosyncratic adverse reaction though.

I suppose I should state my position here for the avoidance of confusion: I believe — though my belief is irrelevant as they either actively, repeatably do what they claim or they don’t regardless of my position — and properly conducted, repeated, double-blind studies on randomly selected populations have shown, that homeopathic remedies do not act on the physiological causes of the ailment or condition sought to be treated because they contain no active ingredients.

What they do do, in my view for what it’s worth, is a) give the person taking them the impression that their own natural healing process (their cold going away, for example) is a function of a positive action that they’ve taken — no harm in that, I guess, other than the role it plays in the propagation of poor scientific understanding, and, or; b) triggers the placebo effect — which scientists are still trying to understand fully.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon when you look at it more deeply and has even been shown to operate when no pill or other magic bullet is taken. The power of positive thinking is more than just a tacky Hallmark card. (And just to pre-empt the standard response: I’m not a fan of pharmaceuticals either, and certainly not of pharmaceutical companies. Modern medicine is a gift to be sure — there is more than a small correlation between its development and the explosion of the human population in the past 100 years — but it is also poisoned by profit. However, the one being bad does not equal the other being good. In fact, the two industries share a great deal in common when it comes to deceptiveness).

To anyone taking homeopathic remedies for normal, everyday ailments I say “more power to you”, each to his own and all that jazz. But, if you’re touring Southeast Asia with nothing but a bottle of sugar pills as the sum total of your protection against malaria, I would ask you please to make sure that you are fully aware of the symptoms of malaria, and to be aware of when you are visiting malarial areas. Because those pills are about as effective as waving a condom at the mozzie buggers — which would at the very least ensure you some funny looks, and maybe even a free drink.

Malaria is not fun. An uncle of mine contracted a strain that kept recurring and laying him out for the rest of his life. However, the chances of contracting it in Siem Reap are slim as urban areas tend not to be breeding grounds. You are far more likely to contact dengue fever instead. However, if you go to destinations outside of town, then you’re at risk.

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