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Regulator drops cases against pharmacies offering homoeopathic malaria prophylaxis

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d338 (Published 18 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d338
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. 1London

The General Pharmaceutical Council of Great Britain has closed cases against pharmacies that offer people homoeopathic remedies to protect them against malaria, after the pharmacists took “remedial action.” The council made no changes to the pharmacists’ registration to practise, however. Its investigation was disclosed in a statement published last week.

The cases were brought after a joint investigation in 2006 by Sense About Science, a charity that promotes evidence based science, and the BBC television programme Newsnight. The investigation showed that the first 10 homoeopathic clinics and pharmacies selected from an internet search recommended homoeopathic pills containing no proven active ingredients to a researcher who said she was travelling to countries where malaria is endemic, instead of referring her to a GP or conventional travel clinic.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, the leadership organisation for pharmacy, began professional misconduct hearings against three pharmacies after the 2006 investigation. Last week the General Pharmaceutical Council, the regulator of pharmacists, said in a statement that it had carried out a detailed investigation of the complaints, including visits from a Royal Pharmaceutical Society inspector.

“In all three cases remedial action was taken,” the council said. After considering whether the individual pharmacists’ fitness for registration was impaired the council said that it “did not believe that pursuing these particular cases further would establish or clarify any significant points of generally principle.” It added that the cases are now closed and refused to comment further when invited to do so.

Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science, warned, “The General Pharmaceutical Council’s decision not to take any action against pharmacies who have been offering travellers homoeopathic alternatives to antimalarial medicine, after four years of delay, is downright shabby and irresponsible.”

She added, “We are in no doubt about the consequence of the council’s decision, as we see at least one of the pharmacies in question continuing to market useless homoeopathic travel ‘vaccinations’ for diphtheria, malaria, polio, typhoid, and encephalitis.”

In a letter to Sense about Science the council said, “If the case was presented before the council as a new matter, it would fall below the current threshold criteria for referral to the Investigating Committee.” Ms Brown pointed out these criteria include being “reckless with the safety and wellbeing of others.”

“If the committee does not consider that it is reckless to prescribe magic water to prevent a deadly disease such as malaria then it is hard to imagine what is,” she said.

The council said that it “takes seriously poor practice in relation to the supply of homoeopathic medicinal products and provision of information and advice.” But a recent Newsnight investigation revealed that one of the pharmacies in the case, Ainsworths, in central London, issued a leaflet last year (2010) advertising its homoeopathic remedies for serious diseases and claiming anecdotal evidence that they are successful treatments.

Fred Kavalier, a GP in north London, had a patient who developed malaria after taking a homoeopathic remedy rather than antimalarial pills. Dr Kavalier said, “He was planning to travel to the Sahara desert to make a documentary film. As his GP I gave him some straightforward advice about malaria prevention: insect repellent, bednets, tuck your trousers into your socks, and take the antimalarial pills.” Instead the patient followed a friend’s advice to take a homoeopathic alternative.

The patient contacted Dr Kavalier on his return, with diarrhoea and a temperature of 41°C. “His blood was teeming with malaria parasites, and he only survived thanks to the strenuous efforts of the Hospital for Tropical Diseases.”

The BMJ telephoned Ainsworths for a comment but no one was willing to comment.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d338

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