Homeopathy in Haiti, a year and a half later

What did the poor Haitians ever do to deserve this?

Think about it. A year and a half ago, they suffered through an enormous earthquake that will take them decades, maybe even a lifetime, to recover from fully; that is, if they ever do recover from it fully. Since then, they’ve received massive amounts of international aid, which is good. What’s not so good is that, along with that aid have come a bunch of quacks. I first noticed the incursion of the quackiest of quacks, namely homeopaths, into Haiti only a couple of weeks after the quake. This group of homeopaths was patterned after the famous and effective charity group Doctors Without Borders and was dubbed–surprise, surprise!–Homeopaths Without Borders. The big difference, of course, is that doctors bring effective medicine and surgery to the suffering in areas devastated by natural disasters and other society-disrupting events. Homeopaths, on the other hand, bring magic water and a pre-scientific vitalistic faith that this magic water remembers the medicine it’s diluted but forgets all the urine and feces that it’s been in contact with.

Then, as I noted a month later, it wasn’t enough that homeopaths had brought their quackery to Haiti. They were soon followed by acupuncturists (one of whom wanted to use acupuncture anesthesia during amputations) and practitioners of Energy Meridian Tapping, which involves–you guessed it–tapping acupuncture meridians. I must admit, I mostly forgot about this incursion of woo into earthquake-devastated Haiti. At least, I forgot until a reader sent me this updated report from Homeopaths Without Borders:

Homeopaths Without Borders-NA (HWB) has accomplished another successful mission to Haiti.

It took all my effort not to laugh uproariously upon reading this first sentence, but then I remembered: A homeopath’s “success” comes at the cost of suffering people in Haiti. So I read on, dreading what I might read next:

Volunteers Sally Tamplin, Holly Manoogian and Alyssa Wostrel traveled to Port-au-Prince on May 23 and returned home on June 3, participating in the longest, most intense undertaking in that country by HWB. Responding to requests by charitable groups in Haiti, the volunteers worked not only in the capital but also traveled to sites in the countryside. Their ten-day schedule was a whirlwind of compassionate homeopathic intervention.

“Compassionate homeopathic intervention”? What a frightening thought. They would have shown far more compassion by staying away and using the money that it took to equip them and transport them to Haiti to purchase real medicine and support useful charities, like Doctors Without Boarders or the International Red Cross. Instead of that, they used their funding to bring their magic water to conditions that they described as still very rough, with potable water being scarce, roads remaining seriously damaged, piles of rubble still littering various areas of the country, and people in need far outstripping anything the little band can do.

So what did the band do for the people of Haiti? Not a lot:

Haitians continue to demonstrate symptoms of trauma and grief from an earthquake that took place a year and a half ago. Skin problems such as ringworm are prevalent as are gastrointestinal problems including severe diarrhea; some of the latter are related to poor nutrition. Vaginal infections persist. Sadly the group treated several very ill infants who were malnourished, dehydrated, underdeveloped, feverish and covered with rashes from head to toe.

Although a great variety of remedies were used, following were the most frequently administered: Arnica, Aconite, Ignatia, Causticum, Nat mur, Sepia, Phosphorus acid and Sulphur.

So let me get this straight. A bunch of homeopaths go into an impoverished Third World country that is still recovering from a devastating earthquake. They find people still suffering from a variety of diseases, including ringworm, vaginal infections, and infectious diarrhea. They see malnourished, underdeveloped, dehydrated infants. And what do they have to offer? Arnica, Aconite, Ignatia, Causticum, Natu mur, Sepia, phosphorus acid, and sulfur, all diluted to the point that not a single molecule is left. In other words, all they have to offer is water and sugar pills infused with that water. They don’t even have water with electrolytes in it, such as Pedialyte, which is what these infants almost certainly really needed, along with formula.

Stunned by the uselessness of it all, I decided to peruse some of the reports of previous expeditions of HWB. It was depressing to see just how much the homeopaths had insinuated themselves into the relief effort, as this report from April 2010 reveals:

Immediately after we opened our clinic at the French Hospital, men, women, and children from all over the city headed our way. They lined up seeking help for headaches and dizziness, sprained ankles and crushed toes, and every complaint in between. We treated an infinite number of people who had irritated eyes caused by the debris in the air and countless lethargic babies weakened by the inadequate food supply. We used Euphrasia for eyes and Carbo vegetabilis for the infants. We also used Sepia and Vaginitis combinations for many of the female complaints and Arnica montana and the Arnica gels for a good number of the musculoskeletal injuries. We relied on many of the most basic remedies like Calcarea carbonica and Sulphur and handed simple cell salt combination remedies to the children over and over again. There were countless other valuable medicines, but rarely did we need Aconite, Ignatia, or Natrum muriaticum. Why was that so?

So let me get this straight. People with crushed toes, irritated eyes, and all manner of other injuries and ills were given magic water. One wonders how a homeopathy would treat an amputation? Would they try to dilute the limb with water in order to make it stronger, perhaps strong enough to be usable? OK, OK, that was a bad joke, but the thought of homeopaths promising help that they can’t deliver to suffering people tends to get me more than a bit cranky. Again, it’s the babies who suffer. What these babies almost certainly needed was Pedialyte and formula; what they got was magic water. Then what they got, according to this this report from February, was the indoctrination of their health care professionals in woo. It wasn’t enough for these homeopaths just to provide homeopathic remedies. Rather, they had to teach homeopathy to nurses.

I hate to be too hard on these homeopaths, given that it’s clear that they are doing what they do based on the best intentions. They see people who need medical help and are willing to sacrifice considerable time and effort, not to mention comfort, in order to bring them what they believe to be help. Even so, what they are doing is nearly completely useless. I say nearly, because they describe their efforts thusly, “We distributed water, food, and homeopathy for trauma, injuries, and a long list of chronic and acute complaints.” the food and water were helpful. The homeopathy, not so much. Not at all, actually. That doesn’t stop HWB at all. They’re currently looking to set up a permanent homeopathic clinic, staffed by nurse homeopaths that they’ve trained.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Adding quackery like homeopathy to those good intentions only turbocharges the quackmobile traveling down that road.