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Homeopaths Without Borders practice exploitation not humanitarianism

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f5448 (Published 17 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5448
  1. David M Shaw, senior research fellow, Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, 4056 Basel, Switzerland
  1. david.shaw{at}unibas.ch

David M Shaw criticises the proselytising of a group that wants to provide homeopathy to some of the world’s most vulnerable people

Although homeopathy has received a great deal of criticism in recent years for unethical practices,1 the movement Homeopaths Without Borders has gone almost entirely unmentioned in the medical literature. This is somewhat surprising, given that the campaign is engaged in activity even more dubious than that of most homeopaths. It has quite a long history, with several different national associations. Here I focus on the German and North American groups and briefly describe some of their activities and their potentially harmful effects.

The centrepiece of the 15th anniversary conference of Homeopaths Without Borders Germany was a debate on the question “Does the call for scientific evidence entitle to refuse[sic] homeopathic humanitarian help?”2

The group’s website provides some examples of its work: “In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia there now are active associations for classical homeopathy. Well-trained doctors and therapists practice homeopathy there with great success. In Kenya traditional midwives learned to save lives by using homeopathy in difficult deliveries if there is no hospital available. Thus health care for the local population is being increased and qualified jobs are being provided.”2

The first example reveals a key part of the group’s mission: it seeks to propagate homeopathy in countries where it has not previously had a foothold. The Kenya example is shocking: it implies that homeopathy can save lives, which no mainstream homeopathy organisation has claimed for several years. Sadly, however, this seems to mean that the presence of medical personnel who happened to also be trained in homeopathy helped avert harm to these mothers and their children. Homeopathic healthcare is not being provided for the local population by Homeopaths Without Borders Germany because homeopathy is not real healthcare.

The more famous North American group hit the headlines in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, when it sent several homeopaths “to help” the people affected by this disaster (see box for a verbatim account from the group’s website). Unfortunately, people affected by massive earthquakes cannot benefit from homeopathy any more than people living safely in London. Although Homeopaths Without Borders’ workers may have helped to distribute water and food, any benefit was purely incidental to the presence of homeopathic treatments. Indeed, providing homeopathic treatments might actually harm patients by making them think that they do not need to seek conventional treatment for their injuries or diseases.3

From Homeopaths Without Borders North America website: activities in Haiti in 20124

  • HWB volunteers provided homeopathic care to 890 people in 2012 in community clinics in Port-au-Prince and rural communities—in some locations, a full two-day walk from the nearest doctor.

  • We concluded our inaugural, four-part Fundamentals of Homeopathy program, training and certifying 13 Haitian homeopathic caregivers, who earned the title “Homeopathe Communautaire.”

  • We enrolled 24 students and began the second Fundamentals program in rural Belle Anse, the remote, southeastern coastal region of Haiti.

  • To ensure that homeopathy holds a respected and sanctioned place in Haiti’s healthcare community, the Homeopathe Communautaires are currently seeking licensing through Haiti’s Ministry of Health.

  • We’ve begun to develop valuable organizational infrastructure in Haiti, by partnering with two community services [sic] nonprofits in Haiti and establishing an on-site homeopathic stocking pharmacy in Port-au-Prince.

Furthermore, the creation of homeopathic pharmacies increases the likelihood that Haitians will not obtain effective treatments for future illnesses. Training 38 people as homeopaths simply compounds the unethical effects of Homeopaths Without Borders’ presence in Haiti, as does the attempt at legitimisation represented by their trying to get official licences. Long after the earthquake, more people in Haiti will believe in a discredited system of so called medicine, making long term harm more likely than if the campaign had not been undertaken in the first place.

Homeopaths Without Borders North America intends to exploit developing countries even more in the future. Its website states that it intends not only to train Haitian homeopaths, but to have Haitians teach Haitians to become homeopaths. And like its German counterpart, the North American group is happy to claim that homeopathic therapies can help in prepartum and postpartum care and delivery.

Another troubling aspect of Homeopaths Without Borders in general is that its national organisations ask website visitors to make donations to support them. The North American group’s website states, “Please consider a donation of $25, $50, $100, $500, $1 000—or more—to Homeopaths Without Borders. Your support is more important than ever. Donate online today and help us bring homeopathic healthcare and training to even more people in the coming year.”4 Donating money to homeopathy at all is somewhat pointless given that there is no evidence for its efficacy, but people who donate to Homeopaths Without Borders are likely to do so because of their claim to international humanitarian achievements. As such, Homeopaths Without Borders may well be diverting money away from genuinely humanitarian organisations such as Médicins sans Frontières, whose name Homeopaths Without Borders has also appropriated.

Despite Homeopaths Without Borders’ claims to the contrary, “homeopathic humanitarian help” is a contradiction in terms. Although providing food, water, and solace to people in areas affected by wars and natural disasters certainly constitutes valuable humanitarian work, any homeopathic treatment deceives patients into thinking they are receiving real treatment when they are not. Furthermore, training local people as homeopaths in affected areas amounts to exploiting vulnerable people to increase the reach of homeopathy. Much as an opportunistic infection can take hold when a person’s immune system is weakened, so Homeopaths Without Borders strikes when a country is weakened by a disaster. However, infections are expunged once the immune system recovers but Homeopaths Without Borders’ methods ensure that homeopathy persists in these countries long after the initial catastrophe has passed. Homeopathy is neither helpful nor humanitarian, and to claim otherwise to the victims of disasters amounts to exploitation of those in need of genuine aid.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5448

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

References