The World Health Organization is, like most UN entities, is a highly political creature. It tries to promote health in a bewildering variety of political, economic, and physical environments, and I give it full credit for what it manages to accomplish in the face of such challenges. Unfortunately, it has generally been forced by political and cultural considerations into an unfortunately weak stance on alternative medicine (or as WHO prefers to call it, “traditional,” as inaccurate as that term is for most CAM therapies).
While the official statements of the organization on traditional medicine usually include some reference to the need for validation by scientific evidence, they also tend to take a “more study is needed” approach even to the ridiculous and clearly disproven varieties of CAM. Here is an example of the usual WHO posture:
WHO and its Member States cooperate to promote the use of traditional medicine for health care. The collaboration aims to:
- support and integrate traditional medicine into national health systems in combination with national policy and regulation for products, practices and providers to ensure safety and quality;
- ensure the use of safe, effective and quality products and practices, based on available evidence;
- acknowledge traditional medicine as part of primary health care, to increase access to care and preserve knowledge and resources; and
- ensure patient safety by upgrading the skills and knowledge of traditional medicine providers.
However, it is nice to see that WHO can be more assertive when the dangers of CAM are especially clear. A number of researcher scientists and doctors associated with Sense About Science issued a statement in June asking WHO to condemn the use of homeopathy in treatment of HIV, TB, malaria, influenza, and infant diarrhea. These serious disease sicken and kill millions, especially in poor nations with limited health care resources, and the statement articulates what should be obvious; that offering clearly ineffective treatments for life-threatening diseases, especially when proven medical therapies exist and resources are limited, is unethical, impedes control of these diseases, and causes a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
In response, a number of WHO officials have issued responses clearly acknowledging that homeopathy is useless, and even potentially harmful, when used in serious diseases.:
Dr Mario Raviglione, Director, Stop TB Department, WHO: “Our evidence-based WHO TB treatment/management guidelines, as well as the International Standards of Tuberculosis Care (ISTC) do not recommend use of homeopathy.”
Dr Mukund Uplekar, TB Strategy and Health Systems, WHO: “WHO’s evidence-based guidelines on treatment of tuberculosis…have no place for homeopathic medicines.”
Dr Teguest Guerma, Director Ad Interim, HIV/AIDS Department, WHO: “The WHO Dept. of HIV/AIDS invests considerable human and financial resources […] to ensure access to evidence-based medical information and to clinically proven, efficacious, and safe treatment for HIV… Let me end by congratulating the young clinicians and researchers of Sense About Science for their efforts to ensure evidence-based approaches to treating and caring for people living with HIV.”
Dr Sergio Spinaci, Associate Director, Global Malaria Programme, WHO: “Thanks for the amazing documentation and for whistle blowing on this issue… The Global Malaria programme recommends that malaria is treated following the WHO Guidelines for the Treatment of Malaria.”
Joe Martines, on behalf of Dr Elizabeth Mason, Director, Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development, WHO: “We have found no evidence to date that homeopathy would bring any benefit to the treatment of diarrhoea in children…Homeopathy does not focus on the treatment and prevention of dehydration – in total contradiction with the scientific basis and our recommendations for the management of diarrhoea.”
Certainly, we might hope for more global and definitive statements on the importance of employing strictly evidence-based, scientific medicine in world public health efforts, but it is at least encouraging that when the consequences of a politic, but ultimately irrational, stance are high enough, even such a political organization has to openly acknowledge that science offers a far better hope for reducing human suffering than faith-based approaches such as homeopathy.