The invasion of well-meaning quacks into West Africa continues apace, part three


I hope my U.S. readers have all had a happy Thanksgiving. Today has been known at least since the mid-1970s as Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Whether it’s still true or not, given the relentless proliferation, progression, and metastasis—yes, the use of terms related to cancer is intentional—of holiday sales right up until Christmas, I don’t know. I do know that I plan on going nowhere near any store bigger than a convenience store until next week if I can possibly help it. I’m also sitting back and congratulating myself on one of the smartest decisions I’ve made in a very long time, namely to take this whole week off as a “staycation.” True, I did go to Skepticon to give a talk last weekend, but instead of the usual situation I find myself in after arriving home on a Sunday after such jaunts of having to dive straight back into work, I just chilled out for three days, with three more days after Thanksgiving to recover.

Consequently, I hope you will forgive me if this is simply be an update of a story I’ve been following for a while, namely the story of the hapless and ridiculous homeopaths who claim they can cure Ebola using homeopathy. The reason I can’t resist is that the day before Thanksgiving there appeared an article that is the most detailed and comprehensive description of the antics of these homeopaths that I’ve yet come across. Some of it confirms what I’ve discussed before based on previous news reports from the UK. Some of it gives more of an insight into what happened. For instance, there’s this bit, which suggests that the homeopaths who went to West Africa (most of whom were also physicians, to the eternal shame of the profession) were—shall we say?—less than honest about their intent. The trip was organized by the Liga Medicorum Homeopathica Internationalis, a major institution for homeopathy advocacy, and a German group Freundes Liberias, whose purpose is to promote cooperation between Germany and Liberia. Apparently, Freundes Liberias raised funds for the trip without any mention that the doctors it was planning to send were also homeopaths:

Freundes Liberias raised donations for the trip with ​this campaign. The page talks about a “team of 20 international doctors,” but makes no mention of the fact that they will be operating only as homeopaths. This squares with the fact that the Liberian medical authorities backed the trip when they thought it was a “team of doctors,” and were then shocked to learn about the homeopathy.

The explanations coming from the two organizations are conflicting:

When asked for comment, Thomas Köppig, head of Freundes Liberias, was emphatic:

“When LMHI first contacted Freunde Liberias asking if the association would be willing to support a trip, I received the four CVs and confirmation that all members of the group were physicians and obviously experienced in working in disaster areas. Furthermore, LMHI confirmed that the doctors would work as regular doctors and only secondarily as homeopaths.”

The response from LMHI is rather less clear, claiming that the doctors “were not able to treat Ebola patients do [ sic] [to] some diplomatic problems… We are not asking for donations for the Ebola relief action any more because the situation changed.”

The homeopaths, however, had other ideas. They were definitely planning on going to Africa to treat Ebola with homeopathy:

When this story broke, Karen Allen of Homeopaths Without Borders deleted​this message from Dr. Ortrud Lindemann, one of the homeopaths in Liberia, from her Facebook page. Homeopath Dr. Edouard Broussalian also deleted ​a post from his own site that claimed the mission would ensure “the makers of experimental vaccines will have to pack their bags.” In fact, there was a real flurry of deleted pages regarding the mission from people connected to LMHI, which is never a particularly good sign.

Dr. Hiltner himself is very open: “This was a golden opportunity to treat something that conventional medicine couldn’t,” he says. “Not only to help the people, but to show homeopathy works… There’s got to be that day that conventional medicine will respect homeopathy—both have their strengths, both have their weaknesses; they need to stop calling each other names.”

Apparently, to homeopaths pointing out that homeopathy is pseudoscience based on prescientific ideas of vitalism and a pre-germ theory understanding of human physiology and disease is “calling them names. The author of this Vice piece seems rather taken with Dr. Richard Hiltner, noting that he’s a nice guy who’s been in practice for 44 years and that he volunteered his own time and money (he paid for his own flight) to head to Brussels, where the international team of homeopaths was assembled to fly to Monrovia. Oh, sure, the article says, Hiltner is into some “wacky shit,” like iridology and medical astrology, in addition to the homeopathy but is characterized thusly, “Essentially, his heart is in the right place, even if it’s making him do some very silly stuff.”

I reject this explanation. Hiltner’s heart might be in the right place, but what we know thus far suggests that he was either complicit in the deception (i.e., he knew that the trip was being advertised and sold as a bunch of doctors coming over to help, with no mention of homeopathy) or he was a dupe who had no idea that he wouldn’t be allowed to practice homeopathy once he arrived in Liberia. Take your pick. In the meantime, what this whole sorry incident tells me is just how deluded homeopaths are.

As the article concludes, “sneaking a PR stunt for homeopathy into an epidemic under the cover of sending medical help is really pretty tawdry.” No doubt, but why is anyone surprised? It’s not as though homeopaths haven’t done this sort of thing before in past disasters. The difference here is that the danger level is much higher, because they’re now trying to treat a deadly infectious disease with their magic water.

OK, I think I’ve beat this topic to death. Next week, I’ll be back at blogging my usual topics with a vengeance. Remember, I’m rapidly approaching my tenth anniversary of starting this blog; it’s only two weeks away now. I feel so old.