Despite what Prince Charles thinks, homeopathy is not the answer to antibiotic resistance


Edzard Ernst
Edzard Ernst is Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at the Peninsula School of Medicine, University of Exeter. He is the author of ten books on complementary and alternative medicine.

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In the past, we have used antibiotics far too frequently – not only in human medicine but also in veterinary medicine. The consequences of this misuse can be fatal: today, more and more pathogens no longer respond sufficiently well to antibiotic therapy, and infections that were once considered trivial grow into life-threatening diseases.

Proponents of alternative medicine have long been critical of antibiotics and many of them now claim that their therapy offers the solution to the problem – first and foremost the homeopaths. They argue that we could often avoid using antibiotics if we replaced them with homeopathics. To doubters, they even show studies that seem to prove this phenomenon:  doctors working homeopathically prescribe significantly fewer antibiotics. If only more colleagues would follow them, they argue, the vexed problem of antibiotic resistance would soon be under control.

This seemingly logic notion convinces many. In Bavaria, the state government has even decided to invest large sums in research into this issue. Even Prince Charles is enthusiastic and now has his cows treated homeopathically in order to save on antibiotics. But on the other hand we know quite well that homeopathics are pure placebos.

So where is the error in thinking?

No one would seriously claim that homeopathics have an antibiotic effect, that they kill bacteria or prevent their growth – even homeopaths don’t do that – because that could be tested very easily in a test tube. Thus, homeopathics are not actually substitutes for antibiotics. They are merely a diversionary tactic. They do not replace an antibiotic, but they reduce the likelihood that an antibiotic will be prescribed.

But that’s great, isn’t it?

Not really! Because the same effect would be achieved, of course, if no medication at all – and no homeopathic remedies – were prescribed for infections. Because if an infection disappears after administration of homeopathics, it simply means that it would have also gone away on its own.

In fact, experts have been reminding the medical profession for decades that antibiotics are best not given for many trivial infections. I learned this at university almost half a century ago, and it’s been in most clinical guidelines for quite some time as well. In other words, the studies that imply that antibiotics can be avoided by giving homeopathy actually only show that trivial infections often go away on their own and therefore do not require antibiotic therapy in the first place.

In plain language, this means that many of us – including Prince Charles and the Bavarian state government – have fallen for a fallacious argument that is vigorously promoted by homeopaths. If we want to use fewer antibiotics, the best way to do that is to prescribe fewer antibiotics. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with homeopathy or alternative medicine. It is simply the implementation of what evidence-based medicine tells us to do, and what doctors have unfortunately ignored for far too long.

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