Homeopathy has had its fair share of critics over the past few years. an American illusionist, James Randi, offered money to anyone who could prove, under laboratory conditions, that homeopathic remedies cured ailments. No-one has risen to the challenge. However that does not make it irrelevant. The new controversy about the efficacy of alternative, or complementary, medicine proves this is a subject where strongly-held opinion is prevalent.

Homeopathy has been around for some 200 years, the founder was a German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) who had great success in treating epidemics of scarlet fever Villages treated with his prophylactics entirely escaped dreaded epidemics, including the plague.

What Homeopathy also seems to be weighed down with is the anomaly that Homeopathic remedies don’t contain any remedy at all. Many people seem to believe that Homeopathy was similar to Herbalism The fact is that Homeopaths take a substance and dilute it over and over again, until there isn’t a single molecule left.

The Journal of the American Institute for homeopathy in May 1921 reported the success of the homeopathic approach in the flu epidemic. A Dr McCann, from Dayton, Ohio reported that 24,000 cases of flu treated allopathically had a mortality rate of 28.2 per cent while 26,000 cases of flu treated homeopathically had a mortality rate of 1.05 per cent.

The eminent’s caught up in the furor amongst others are Michael Baum, a professor of surgery urging that NHS funds should be used for conventional treatments. Prince Charles arguing that alternative medicine should be given a bigger role and further adding fuel to the fire, Dr David Reilly, lead consultant at the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital (GHH) dismissing the letter writers as elderly scientific gentleman damning what they do not understand.

The testing regime also is not as rigorous as for chemical based treatments because the side effects are, at worst, mild compared with the potential impact of new drugs. That is why these are significantly assessed for potential contra-indications. Homeopathic remedies are cheaper to produce and many of the ingredients are not patented. What should be good for patients and the National Health Service is not necessarily good for the big drug companies who depend on licensed drugs for their profits.

The cost is minimal in the context of the multi-billion-pound health budget. In relative terms, so cheap, that it is possibly an obstacle to wider availability. But homeopathy should not be an either-or option, on cost grounds or as an alternative to other courses of treatment. The GHH treats patients suffering from, among other illnesses, cancer and depression. If homeopathy works and benefits patients (as it clearly does), we should be sufficiently open-minded and content to support it as a complementary treatment in tandem with conventional medicine.

Furthermore when on the 8th December 2003 the worldwide vice president for Glaxo SmithKline said that the the vast majority of drugs – more than 90% – only work in 30% or 50% of the people they are prescribed for. Alarming perhaps, but surprising? A spokesman for the Association of The British Pharmaceutical Industry (trade association for companies in the UK producing prescription medicines) at the time was also quoted as saying that they often did not know why and conceded that the answer very likely lay ‘in a persons genetic make up’, so quite clearly conventional medicine does not have all the answers. Another key issue is also the active participation of the patient.