Health Canada is responsible for protecting Canadians from unsafe or ineffective products. So why hasn't the department done anything to stop the sale of nosodes, dubious homeopathic concoctions promoted by many naturopathic and homeopathic practitioners as being superior to traditional vaccines?
It's a question a growing number of medical professionals are asking. As vaccination rates continue to fall and outbreaks of preventable illnesses, such as measles and whooping cough, are becoming increasingly common, doctors are worried that nosodes could divert more people from legitimate immunization campaigns and lead them to an alternative therapy that doesn't work.
"It's an abdication of government responsibility," said Lloyd Oppel, chair of the British Columbia Medical Association council on health promotion.
Often referred to as homeopathic vaccines or homeopathic prophylaxis, nosodes are made using saliva, feces, mucus or other material infected with a particular disease or ailment. The substance is mixed with alcohol and diluted until, as naturopaths describe it, it is rendered harmless and can stir an immune response that can protect the consumer from future infection. The solution is often turned into a sugar pill and taken orally. Common nosodes include those for measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, whooping cough, meningitis, hepatitis, diphtheria and polio.
Many naturopathic practitioners say nosodes are equally or more effective than regular vaccines and that the added bonus is they contain no additives or preservatives, which may be found in trace amounts in some vaccines.
Anna Sienicka, a homeopathic practitioner in Toronto, says she and her family use nosodes and believes they offer protection.
"There are no side effects," she said. "There are no chemicals or anything else."
She said that ample research has backed the immunizing power of nosodes. One of the most cited studies, published in the journal Homeopathy, looked at the use of nosodes to prevent leptospirosis, a bacterial disease common in Cuba. After cases of the disease fell, the researchers attributed it to the use of nosodes. However, it's worth noting that a sizable portion of the high-risk population had already received traditional vaccines, which would help reduce transmission. The study has several other flaws, such as the fact the homeopathic treatment was administered right before the peak of the disease outbreak, after which it would be expected that rates of infection would fall.
Health Canada has officially approved about 150 nosodes for sale in Canada, most of them receiving approval in the last five years. However, they haven't been approved as alternative vaccines, but as homeopathic preparations that are to be used on the advice of a health-care practitioner said Scott Sawler, director general of the natural health products directorate. He said that Health Canada has taken steps to ensure manufacturers avoid stating that nosodes can be used in place of regular vaccinations. "In no way has Health Canada approved these as a vaccination or a substitute for a vaccination," he said.
Many traditional medical experts say nosodes simply don't work. They are diluted so much that little or no active ingredients make it into the final product, said Jamie Williams, executive director of Bad Science Watch, an advocacy group that has launched an anti-nosodes campaign. And no credible scientific evidence has been able to show they work, said Paul Martiquet, medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.
A major concern is that nosodes could divert people from legitimate immunization campaigns and provide them with a false sense of security. In turn, this could contribute to outbreaks of preventable illnesses, such as measles, mumps and whooping cough.
New Brunswick is starting to get its worst-ever whooping cough outbreak under control and there have been numerous measles outbreaks across Canada, such as one that infected more than 700 people in Quebec in 2011. Britain is also battling a major measles outbreak in Wales. These outbreaks are linked directly to the decision by many parents not to have their children vaccinated because of safety fears.
Mounting public pressure forced the British Homeopathic Association to issue a statement in April saying that traditional vaccination is the only way to reduce transmission of illness and a spokesman for the group told The Guardian that there "is no evidence to suggest homeopathic vaccinations can protect against contagious diseases. We recommend people seek out the conventional treatments."
Nosodes are manufactured by several companies. Boiron Canada and Homeocan Inc., both based in Quebec, produce the lion's share. Boiron Canada did not respond to a request for comment. Michèle Boivert, founder and president of Homeocan, said "Not interested thanks" in an e-mail requesting comment.
In many provinces, such as Ontario, Alberta and B.C., provincial naturopathic bodies regulate the activities of naturopathic doctors. Other provinces have naturopathic and homeopathic associations, although they don't have regulatory authority or the ability to make binding decisions. Several naturopathic colleges and associations contacted for this story did not respond or declined to answer questions about the promotion and use of nosodes.
Sawler said that Health Canada doesn't have authority over what health professionals say. It is up to provincial colleges to regulate and enforce professional medical standards, he said.
It's an illustration of the leadership void Oppel says is allowing the perpetuation of false information and the peddling of ineffective products to the public.
"That essentially to me is very much willful blindness," Oppel said.