Ask Surly Amy: Malaria and Homeopathy

Ask Surly Amy

Message: Dear Surly Amy,

Recently I traveled with my sister’s family into a malarial area and her homeopath had prescribed drops to take as a prophylactic. I tried to inform her using e.g. Simon Singh’s Trick or Treatment and What’s the Harm etc. but she continues to believe that ‘allopathic’ medicines are money-making scams by big pharma.

Ultimately it’s her decision, but here’s the ethical dilemma: her kids were being given these drops as well. I concluded that given the season and other precautions such as long sleeves and mosquito nets the risk of exposure was low. I also decided not to make a big deal of it as it would just make the kids anxious.

Was this the right thing to do? Should I have refused to go? Should I have made a bigger deal out of it? In other respects we get on very well, but where does one draw the line when someone else’s children are being put at risk?

– Ethically Conflicted

Click to read my response.

Dear Ethically Conflicted,

It sounds like you did the correct thing. Sometimes being too aggressive just closes off the lines of communication. The best we can do as skeptics and critical thinkers is to protect ourselves while simultaneously doing our best to spread accurate information in as friendly and effective way as possible.

I think going on that trip and setting an example that you were refusing homeopathy and instead opting to take a proven effective treatment was the best thing you could have done in this particular case. You can’t control what other people are going to do but you can be a calm, rational signpost in the center of the nonsense. I would have been very vocal about the facts and dangers of malaria to your sister and I would have done my best to explain to her how homeopathy actually can not work beyond a placebo and that a placebo effect can not save your life if you contract malaria. I would have done my best to spare the children any anxiety just as you mentioned and if they were young I wouldn’t have discussed it in front of them. It’s not their fault and they have no control over these decisions.

I actually think it was great that you went on the trip. Had anything happened you would have been able to explain that they had taken only sugar pills or water drops to protect them and you would have been in a position to hopefully help should anything had gone wrong.

You mentioned Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s book, Trick or Treatment. The book’s contributors conducted their own internet investigation on homeopathy and malaria and it was astounding how willing homeopaths were to prescribe something that would literally endanger the lives of those who took it. I recently lent my copy of that book to a family member of my own who is opting for homeopathy and pretty much any alternative practice instead of modern proven medical treatments. I don’t think I will be getting my book back and chances are I haven’t suddenly changed that family member’s mind. My hope is that if she reads the book instead of ‘little Miss know-it-all Amy’ telling her these things she might be more likely to internalize the information and then come to her own rational conclusions.

Plant the seeds of knowledge and hope that they grow. And when children who aren’t yours are involved, one of the best things you can do is set a good example. Congratulations on doing just that and keep up the good work!

raining homeopathy

Now for a few facts on malaria:

Malaria is a life threatening disease. It is spread by mosquito bites.

Malaria is an acute febrile illness with symptom onset about 7-15 days after exposure.

There are four types of human malaria. Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax are the most common. Plasmodium falciparum is the most deadly.

According to the WHO in 2008 there were 247 million cases of Malaria worldwide and 863,000 people died from Malaria.

In the United States in the late 1940’s and with the help of the CDC, malaria was eradicated but still, approximately half the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria and in Africa a child dies every 45 seconds of Malaria.

And a few facts on homeopathy:

Homeopathy was created over 200 years ago by Samuel Hahnemann. It was considered better than bleeding someone to death, which was one of the best medical treatments at that time.

Homeopathy is based on the ‘law of similars’ which is not an actual law, just a belief that ‘like cures like’ and the ‘like’ is diluted to the point that there often is not a molecule of any active ingredient left in the final ‘remedy.’

Homeopathy was invented prior to an understanding of molecules and atoms or germ theory.

Homeopaths believe water has memory.

Homeopathy is not based on science.

Homeopathy is based on a metaphysical belief system.

There is no evidence beyond placebo that homeopathy can treat or cure anything.

It’s easy to be blasé about a disease that you don’t see killing the people you love at home but stop and realize that while you read this post, at least one child died of malaria.

If you still think homeopathy is enough to protect you, think again.

More info can be found here: WHO facts on Malaria
and there is a great history of homeopathy here on the Skeptic’s Dictionary. And yes, Trick or Treatment is an excellent book, but if you lend it out don’t expect to get it back. ;)

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

*Ask Surly Amy is meant for entertainment purposes only. All advice should be taken with as much skepticism as anything else, really.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Even the homeopathists organization says that it probably doesn’t work:
    “The Society of Homeopaths, the UK’s largest register of professional homeopaths, acknowledges that malaria is a serious and life-threatening condition and that there is currently no peer reviewed research to support the use of homeopathy as an anti-malarial treatment. ”


  2. The irony here is that malaria is the origin of homeopathy. The bark of the cinchona tree, also known as quinine, could treat malaria. But when given in larger doses to someone who didn’t have malaria it caused malaria-like symptoms. So something that causes the symptoms of malaria was actually being used in very small doses to cure malaria. (Insert logical deduction here.)

  3. SurlyAmy:

    Can I add a fact here?

    Mefloquine tastes bad enough that (before doxycyline became the prophylaxis of choice) they would prescribe me two extra pills because it was likely I’d throw one up.

    Still better than getting malaria, though…

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