In Germany, a heated debate over homeopathy


Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), originator of homeopathy IMAGE/Wikipedia

With a lack of evidence that the alternative treatments work, some doctors and governments are now pushing back.

In 2016, Christian Lübbers met a sobbing 4-year-old girl at his private medical practice in the south of Germany. The ear, nose, and throat physician quickly identified the source of the girl’s problem: acute inflammation of the middle ear. Though the condition is common, this particular visit was unusual. “You have to imagine, the ear canal was basically completely blocked — pus is coming out,” says Lübbers, “and as I was extracting it, I saw that the goop contained more or less intact white pieces.” Some were still the size of about half a Tic Tac. Others had partially dissolved, melded with the pus. He remembers turning to the girl’s parents and asking, “Have you, by any chance, put globuli in the ear?”

Globuli, the German term for tiny white balls comprised of sugar, are the main vehicle for administering homeopathy, a more than 200-year-old practice originally developed by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann. In his day, Hahnemann experimented with a wide variety of substances that cause illness or symptoms in a healthy person. He believed that these substances — when given to a sick person — could cure the illness or lessen the symptoms that they would otherwise cause in a healthy person. Crucially, most of the time homeopathic products contain no traceable elements of the original substance. Instead, that original substance is diluted with water or alcohol. Practitioners claim that the substance’s “spirit-like power” is stored in water’s “memory.”

Homeopathy became wildly popular during the 19th century. The practice offered an alternative to mainstream medicine, which at the time, included ineffective and harmful treatments, such as bloodletting. Of course, over the past two centuries, the fields of medicine and public health have advanced dramatically. Vaccines, antibiotics, anesthesia, and a host of other interventions have all been rigorously tested and proven to be effective at saving lives and lengthening lifespans. Homeopathy, however, has not developed along similar lines. After a systematic review of 176 individual studies, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council found that not a single high-quality study “reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than placebo, or caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment.”

In a 2014 survey, 60 percent of Germans reported trying homeopathy.

And yet reliance upon homeopathy is common, particularly in Europe. In Hahnemann’s native Germany, homeopathic treatments are prescribed by medical doctors, covered by 70 percent of government medical plans, and available in almost every pharmacy. In a 2014 survey, 60 percent of Germans reported trying homeopathy. The country’s homeopathic drug market is worth around $750 million (670 million euros), with consumers paying largely out of pocket. Consultation fees account for hundreds of millions more.

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