An August, 2015 study in Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine is being touted as evidence that homeopathy is as effective as antibiotics for respiratory infections in children. It doesn’t show that at all — in fact, it doesn’t show anything, except that crappy studies in crappy journals can nonetheless be used to manipulate opinion. Beware.
First, the study itself. Researchers in Italy looked at about 90 children with ordinary colds. All of them were given a homeopathic product that the authors claimed had already been shown to be effective for cough (that’s not actually true, but let’s let it slide for now.) All of the children did improve, as expected – colds go away, as we all know.
The “study” part was randomizing the children into two groups. One-half of the study subjects only got the homeopathic product; the other half got both the homeopathic syrup plus amoxicillin-clavulanate, an antibiotic. You are already thinking — what, wait, what? You know that antibiotics have no role at all in the treatment of the common cold. Colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics won’t make any difference. In fact, they’re very likely to cause harm, causing allergic reactions and gut problems and maybe triggering C. diff colitis. It was entirely unethical for them to even give these antibiotics to the children, with not even an inkling of a reason to think they were a valid medical therapy. But they did it anyway.
The results are exactly what you’d expect. Both groups of children (the ones on homeopathy, and the ones on homeopathy plus antibiotics) did the same — their symptoms all improved over the weeks of the study. No surprise at all.
But the authors claimed, “Our data confirm that the homeopathic treatment in question has potential benefits for cough in children …” The study didn’t show that all. They didn’t even look for that kind of effect — if they wanted to, they could have, by randomizing one group to receive homeopathy, and the other group to not receive homeopathy. But that kind of study wouldn’t show what they wanted it to show, so they didn’t do it.
You’re wondering, maybe, why did Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine even print this unethical, worthless study? The answer is here:
Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine is what’s called a “predatory journal,” which charges high fees — $1,940 — to publish articles. These types of journals exist only to make money — there is minimal, or no editorial oversight, and the whole point is to publish whatever someone will pay them to publish. The authors get their publication, and journalists and the public are fooled into thinking real science has occurred.
Another highlight: I’m not an investigative journalist, but looking at the full text of the article, I see under footnotes, “The authors declare they have no competing interests.” Yet under acknowledgments, it also says, “We thank Boiron SA, Messimy, France for a non-binding financial contribution.” Boiron is a huge producer and marketer of homeopathic products. And: when I Googled the lead author’s name + the word “Boiron,” I found this page, which features a video of him on Boiron’s site. No competing interests?
So, an unethical study comparing the wrong things claiming to show something it didn’t, published in a pay-to-play journal, paid for by a homeopathy company, written by a guy who is featured on said homeopathy company’s website. You still shouldn’t use antibiotics to treat a cold. And this study, like so many other homeopathy studies, shows only that homeopathy is a scam.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at the Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child and the creator of The Great Courses’ Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases.
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