Diluting a Disease

In 1918 a vicious strain of flu spread to every populated
continent, snuffing out lives faster than coffin makers could
supply caskets. The Spanish flu killed as many as 50 million people
over two years. People who were perfectly healthy when they woke up
in the morning could be dead by nightfall. Medical classes were
canceled so that students could serve as doctors and nurses. In
Europe, military strategists on all sides of World War I scrambled
to redraw battle plans for lack of healthy soldiers.

Surrounded by death and reduced to simply comforting patients
with aspirin, a desperate doctor in Pittsburgh asked a nurse
whether she knew a better way to save lives. The nurse, who had
worked with homeopaths, urged the skeptical doctor to switch to
their simple remedies, which she had seen save countless lives.

According to the late homeopathic historian and authority Julian
Winston, a victim of the Spanish flu treated by a conventional
doctor had only a 70 percent chance of surviving; homeopaths saved
99 percent of their patients. Now a number of modern-day homeopaths
believe they can help fight another pandemic — a rare bit of
hopeful news given that, as this magazine went to press, neither
the mainstream medical establishment nor the pharmaceutical
industry had found a way to counter H5N1, the virus that causes
avian flu.

German physician Samuel Hahnemann discovered homeopathy 200
years ago when he found that cinchona bark containing quinine, then
the best treatment for malaria, caused all the symptoms of malaria
in a healthy person. After experimenting with more than 200
substances, he concluded that like cures like. Give
someone with a runny nose a homeopathic solution of onion, that
pungent veggie that normally causes a runny nose, and it
strengthens the body in just the right way to heal. If you’re
suffering from insomnia, a homeopath will give you a controlled
dose of a caffeine-like substance.

Homeopaths dilute substances in double-distilled water,
vigorously shake the mixture, and then dilute it again, explains
homeopath Dana Ullman. They repeat this over and over until it’s
unlikely that a single molecule of the original substance remains,
and then deliver what’s left in a pill. No one knows exactly why
this works, but homeopaths posit that water retains the energy of a
substance and delivers a message to the body. (Ullman likens it to
rubbing a magnet on a piece of metal to transfer the magnetic

Because of its success in treating the era’s epidemics,
homeopathy enjoyed its greatest popularity during the 19th century.
Just before the American Medical Association was founded as an
alternative to the American Institute of Homeopathy, there were 22
homeopathic medical schools in the United States, including at
Boston University and Stanford. Today, the method is most popular
in England, where 40 percent of conventional doctors refer patients
to homeopaths.

Countless conventional studies, including one published last
summer in the British medical journal The Lancet, have concluded
that homeopathic remedies are no more reliable than placebos —
cold comfort in the face of a deadly virus. The French Society of
Homeopathy, however, found in a 1998 survey that 90 percent of
those who used a homeopathic solution called Influenzinum were able
to avoid a common flu bug. For those already laid up with the flu,
at least three separate studies favor homeopathic treatments over
using a placebo.

Some mainstream doctors, like Christian Sandrock of the
University of California-Davis Medical Center, are willing to
consider this evidence but still caution patients against relying
on it as a cure-all. And some mainstream doctors still stereotype
homeopaths as con artists or quacks. But even homeopathy’s harshest
critics don’t accuse practitioners like Ullman of peddling harmful
substances, so there’s a powerful argument to pursue the remedy

The standard flu vaccine requires specially cultivated chicken
eggs, infected with a specific strain of virus that can be grown
only after it is identified, which is why scientists must wait
until H5N1 mutates into a human-to-human bug. Once this happens it
will be difficult to produce vaccine fast enough (one dose often
requires its own egg). And even if a number of heretofore
nonexistent pharmaceutical facilities sprang up to instantaneously
produce vats of vaccine, scientists aren’t sure whether host eggs
could survive long enough to be harvested.

In the short term, the U.S. and Asian governments have pinned
their hopes on Tamiflu, an antiviral drug (not a vaccine) meant to
seize influenza inside a victim’s cells. It works in petri dishes,
but, according to the maker’s website, its effectiveness in humans
has not been established. Even if Tamiflu proved deadly to the
virus, homeopaths point out that the antiviral could, as
antibiotics have in the past, cause patients to build up resistance
or spur diseases to mutate into more powerful strains, constantly
upping the ante. Ullman goes so far as to argue that people who
take Tamiflu ‘are posing a public health threat.’

Homeopaths prescribe remedies according to symptoms, so they
already have the ability to study the disease in patients without
worrying about which strain of what virus is the culprit.
Homeopathic treatments are cheaper and easier to produce than a
standard vaccine because they’re made from natural substances and
pure water. And since most remedies aren’t patented, progress isn’t
hindered by squabbles over intellectual property rights. Best of
all, homeopathy is about strengthening the body instead of
targeting the bug, so patients don’t become unwitting vessels for a
mutated virus.

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