The antibiotics crisis is one of the urgent issues of our time and great attention should be paid to any possible solution. Last year the Prince of Wales addressed a summit of experts on the subject — specifically, on the issue of antibiotic over-use. The meeting took place at one of our most prestigious institutions of science worldwide, the Royal Society in London.
Prince Charles told his audience that he had long been worried about the over-use of antibiotics. In fact, he said, ‘it was one of the reasons I converted my farming operation to an organic, or agro-ecological, system over 30 years ago, and why incidentally we have been successfully using homeopathic — yes, homeopathic — treatments for my cattle and sheep as part of a programme to reduce the use of antibiotics… I find it difficult to understand how we can continue to allow most of the antibiotics in farming, many of which are also used in human medicine, to be administered to healthy animals… Could we not devise more effective systems where we reserve antibiotics for treating animals where the use is fully justified by the seriousness of the illness?’
Charles seems to have a few good points here with which few would disagree. Sadly, he then spoils it all by not being able to resist his passion for quackery.
- Yes, we have over-used antibiotics both in human and in veterinary medicine.
- Yes, this has now gone so far that it now endangers our health.
- Yes, it is a scandal that so little has happened in this respect, despite us knowing about the problem for many years.
- No, homeopathy is not the solution to any of these problems.
I find it extraordinary: our heir to the throne claims he has been ‘successfully using homeopathy’, and he does so at the Royal Society. This institution has a proud history that goes back to 1660 and includes virtually all the giants of British science. The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba‘ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It expresses a determination to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.
And the experiments show that Charles’s highly diluted homeopathic remedies are placebos. A recent systematic review assessed the efficacy of homeopathy in cattle, pigs and poultry. Here is a summary of it:
Only peer-reviewed publications dealing with homeopathic remedies that could possibly replace or prevent the use of antibiotics in the case of infective diseases or growth promotion in livestock were included. Search results revealed a total number of 52 trials performed within 48 publications fulfilling the predefined criteria. Twenty-eight trials were in favour of homeopathy, with 26 trials showing a significantly higher efficacy in comparison to a control group, whereas 22 showed no medicinal effect. Cure rates for the treatments with antibiotics, homeopathy or placebo varied to a high degree, while the remedy used did not seem to make a big difference. No study had been repeated under comparable conditions.
Consequently, the use of homeopathy cannot claim to have sufficient prognostic validity where efficacy is concerned. When striving for high therapeutic success in treatment, the potential of homeopathy in replacing or reducing antibiotics can only be validated if evidence of efficacy is confirmed by randomised controlled trials under modified conditions.
If this is so, why did the Royal Society let Charles get away with his claim that homeopathic treatments are successful in reducing the use of homeopathy?
Nullius in verba!
The Royal Society published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning. They backed James Cook’s journey to Tahiti, reaching Australia and New Zealand, to track the transit of Venus. They published the first report in English of inoculation against disease, approved Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, documented the eruption of Krakatoa and published Chadwick’s detection of the neutron, which would lead to the unleashing of the atom. And never did they take anyone’s word for it. They always insisted on solid evidence. But now they are confronted with Charles’s verbal claim about homeopathy being a solution to antibiotic resistance.
The problem seems obvious, but what can be done? Perhaps the Royal Society could ask Charles for the evidence to support his claim? Because, given their motto, they cannot possibly take his word for it. And given their proud history, they cannot meekly remain silent. Once the evidence is on the table, they must critically evaluate it.
If it passes muster, it would have enormous consequences; all farmers should then start using homeopathy immediately and thus save us from the current crisis of antibiotic resistance. If, however, it turns out to be inadequate or false, they must ask Charles to publicly withdraw his claim.
Nullius in verba!
Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of Homeopathy: The Undiluted Facts and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.