Monday, June 19, 2006

voodoo vets?

Their words, not mine!

This is about the Veterinary Medical Directorate planning an amendment to their regulations to allow homeopathic remedies to be registered and authorised to be administered to animals. As you might guess, this is controversial, and a lot of people are unhappy about it.

This is interesting because one of the most common arguments is that if the effect of homeopathic treatments is 'just' the placebo effect, then why would they have any effect on animals (and babies or small children). The obvious problem of course is that while the placebo effect wouldn't be expected to work on an animal or baby, it could well work on the owner or parent, who is probably the one reporting the improvement in symptoms. And of course on the doctor or vet administering the treatment, which is why drug trials have to be double-blinded.

The 'against' opinion seems to be divided between those who think 'why shouldn't people use homeopathic treatments if it makes them feel better', which is what I tend to think, and those who think that this is deception of poor ignorant people, or at least self-deception, and therefore bad (of course you could have a similar argument about religion and faith, and probably a lot of other things). And that what we need is study of the placebo effect itself, with a view to understanding how it works so we can use it in the most effective way.

There have been interesting studies into how homeopathy might work, with some tentatively interesting results : see this and this in New Scientist.

But the big problem is that homeopathic treatments have never been shown (in a large, randomised, double-blinded trial with replicable results) to work any better than placebo, either in humans or animals. That's not to say there is nothing interesting happening at a chemical level, or that it shouldn't be investigated further. Or that people shouldn't use them. But it does raise the question of whether it's ethical to advertise or sell them as a cure for anything.
And when they're given as treatment for animals - well, if there's not evidence that they work, how is that different from giving no treatment at all? And isn't it neglectful and cruel to refuse to seek treatment for a suffering animal in your care?

I think a lot of the problems actually come from treating 'alternative' medicines as a separate category. That only makes sense if you think they work in some magical way that can't be detected and doesn't show up in trials - in which case they really can't be said to work at all in any meaningful way. If they do work in a real way then they should be regulated like every other medicine.

One of the best quotes I heard on the conventional/alternative dichotomy was from a letter to the Guardian - this was a few months ago but I still remember so it made an impression:
I don't buy into the artificial distinction between "western" and "alternative" medicine: there's medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work.

and that is exactly what I think as well!

Of course the idea of 'western' vs 'eastern' medicine is a problematic thing in itself, and I always thought there was something patronising and slightly racist about the idea that people from the 'East' are more primitive and more in touch with nature or whatever. Anyway there are plenty of traditional herbal remedies that originate in European cultures, and I think the first we know of homeopathy itself was in ancient Greece.

Anyway, the point of all this was to say that the VMD are currently accepting comments for their consultation. If you have an opinion, and want to let them know, then read the consultation paper here and email your comments before 7th July. I'm not sure how much attention they'll pay to letters from random people, but it can't hurt.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

all new

So this is the new blog, really very similar to the old blog. I've even copied a few of my recent posts across to make it feel home-like, and may copy more of them in the future in case anyone wants to re-read them!

Hopefully there should also be some new content here soon...