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Homeopathy - an alternative to antibiotics?
Dr Ton Nicolai looks at the problems being created by the extensive use and misuse of antibiotics, and whether homeopathy can provide a solution.
After their discovery in the 1940s, antibiotics considerably reduced illness and death from infectious diseases that are caused by bacteria. However, over the decades virtually all important bacterial infections throughout the world have been becoming resistant due to the increasing and indiscriminate use of powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics to treat common infections, such as ear infections; and the misuse of antibiotics in situations where they are not appropriate, such as treating viral infections like the common cold.
Tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia, meningitis, and sexually transmitted diseases, that are caused by bacteria were once easily treatable with antibiotics but are once again becoming increasingly deadly due to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance, which has been called one of the world's most pressing public health problems, has led to antibiotic-resistant “super bugs” causing an estimated 37,000 deaths in the EU each year.
Approximately 50% of Europe's total consumption of antibiotics is by animals. Treatment of food-producing animals – for important therapeutic, disease prevention or production reasons – with antibiotics that are also important in human healthcare may present a public health risk by the transfer of resistant pathogens of diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans via consumption of contaminated food. Resistant bacteria can diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics and demand the use of more expensive or less safe alternatives.
Until recently, research and development (R and D) efforts have provided new drugs in time to treat bacteria that became resistant to older antibiotics. That is no longer the case. This potential crisis is the result of a marked decrease in R and D carried out by the pharmaceutical industry combined with the increasing prevalence of resistant bacteria. Physicians specialising in infectious disease are alarmed by the prospect that effective antibiotics may not be available to treat seriously ill patients in the near future.
The production of new antibiotics is drying up. Major pharmaceutical companies are losing interest in the antibiotics market because these drugs may not be as profitable as drugs that treat chronic conditions and lifestyle issues.
Combating germs versus reducing susceptibility
Modern Western medicine started to develop rapidly in the late 19th century with the discovery of bacteria as an important cause of disease. Initially there were two opposing theories on germs and their relation to disease. In Germany, it was Robert Koch’s idea that micro-organisms were the “most dangerous enemies of mankind”, while Max von Pettenkofer maintained that poor hygiene was the greater threat to health. A similar argument in medical theory raged in France. Supporting the position that the microbe was the prime factor in causing disease was none other than the great Louis Pasteur. Firmly in the hygiene camp, however, was the French physiologist Claude Bernard who stated that “the germ is little, the terrain is all”. Eventually the views of Pasteur and Koch prevailed.
During this time Doctors were seen as heroes, battling with the forces of disease conceived of invaders from without, alien bacteria, viruses and other microbes that are bent on our destruction.
In reality, infection is always the result of two factors: exposure to a pathogen and the person's susceptibility. From this perspective, bacteria and viruses are not the cause of disease but at best are a contributory factor to disease. That also means that taking a conventional antibiotic may get rid of the pathogen, but it does nothing to strengthen a person's immune system. In addition, there is some evidence that antibiotics actually increase the prevalence of allergy and asthma. Children who receive antibiotics within their first six months of life were three times more likely to develop allergies to pets, ragweed, grass and dust mites; whereas children receiving broad-spectrum antibiotics were up to 8.9 times more likely to suffer from asthma.
Research demonstrating that homeopathy can be effective
Antibiotics may provide symptomatic treatment, but often patients given these medical treatments tend to experience recurrent infections. By contrast, homeopathic doctors have seen that many people with infections can be effectively helped by homeopathy and that it can also strengthen the immune system.
Scientific research on the use of homeopathy as an alternative to antibiotics has mainly been conducted in respiratory tract and middle ear infections. An international observational study involving 500 consecutive patients with upper respiratory tract complaints, lower respiratory tract complaints, or ear complaints, found 83% of patients receiving homeopathic care experienced improvement, while only 68% of those receiving a conventional medication experienced a similar degree of improvement. The study also found that those people given a homeopathic medicine experienced more rapid relief: 67.3% experienced improvement with homeopathy within 3 days, while only 56.6% of patients given conventional medicines experienced improvement over the same period of time.
Apart from observational studies some more rigorous research projects of the highest scientific standards have been conducted over the last few decades. In several randomised placebo-controlled double-blind clinical trials, involving between 100 and 200 individuals each, treatment with commercial complex homeopathic medicines has proven its effectiveness in medical conditions that in conventional practice are treated with antibiotics. The conditions treated included sinusitis, both acute and chronic, and bronchitis. Two such clinical trials of homeopathy involving 75 and 230 children found that homeopathic treatment of acute middle ear infections was significantly more effective than placebo.
Since sinusitis and bronchitis account for millions of missed workdays each year and acute ear infection is the most common infection for which antibacterial agents are prescribed for children in the Western world, it is clear that homeopathy can play a valuable role in this condition. The economic benefit was also demonstrated by a study published in 2005 that compared two treatment approaches – homeopathic strategy and antibiotic strategy – used in routine medical practice by conventional and homeopathic GPs in the management of recurrent rhinopharyngitis (an acute or chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes in the nose and throat) in 499 children. The GPs using homeopathy had significantly better results in terms of clinical effectiveness, complications, parents' quality of life and time lost from work, for lower cost to social security. GPs who integrated homeopathy in their practice achieved better results for similar cost.
However, it must be stressed that there is as yet no conclusive evidence that homeopathy can be used as an alternative to antibiotics. But the growing number of positive outcomes from previous studies clearly indicates the need for further research in this area.
Dr Ton Nicolai
The original version of this article appeared in ECH News summer 2010
Dr Ton Nicolai is President of the European Committee for Homeopathy. He practices medicine in the Netherlands.