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Companies that sell homeopathic products or other so-called “natural” remedies realized the exit of traditional over-the-counter drugs from the market for children’s medication left them with a huge window of opportunity.

Keith Brofsky/©PHOTODISC

Even if we're not yet at peak season for sniffles, coughs and colds, it sure feels like it. Maybe that's just because every other commercial on TV these days is for some powerful medication that promises to knock any cold symptom into submission.

For parents of young children, however, the answer is not as simple as a spoonful of cough medicine. There is little proof that over-the-counter cough and cold remedies work in children, and plenty of evidence they can cause harm.

Because of that, Health Canada ruled in 2008 that companies could no longer market multi-ingredient cough and cold remedies that contain certain active ingredients, such as diphenhydramine or dextromethorphan, to children under six. They also said parents of children under 12 should consult a health professional before giving those children over-the-counter cough and cold drugs. The change was prompted by numerous reports in Canada and the United States of children who suffered medical complications after being given cough and cold medicine – including five infants under the age of two who died in Canada.

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But walk into any pharmacy today and you'll still see an array of cough and cold medications for kids. How is that possible? Well, companies that sell homeopathic products or other so-called "natural" remedies realized the exit of traditional over-the-counter drugs from the market for children's medication left them with a huge window of opportunity. So now, any parent looking to give his or her child relief from blocked sinuses or a painful cough can bring home an extract of dried ivy leaves, a mixture of zinc and honey or a remedy made with ingredients such as Allium cepa and Natrum muriaticum. The products have all been approved for sale by Health Canada and so, to the average consumer, they would appear to be safe, effective and a viable treatment option.

There is a serious problem with Health Canada's legitimization of these homeopathic treatments: "To be blunt," says Dr. Michael Rieder, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society's drug-therapy committee, "there's really no evidence any of them work."

And the fact that Health Canada has approved these products is "Canada's national shame," according to Dr. Joe Schwarcz, chemistry professor and director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society.

In simplest terms, a homeopathic remedy consists of a molecule of the disease you're trying to fight that has been diluted dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in water. Anyone hearing of this for the first time would logically conclude the resulting formula would be nothing more than plain old water. But homeopathic followers argue that water has a "memory" and that these solutions are just as – if not more – effective than conventional treatments.

Ironically, some "homeopathic" cough and cold remedies aren't truly homeopathic, notes Schwarcz, because they contain active ingredients such as zinc or vitamin C instead of the traditional diluted-water formula. So far, no credible evidence has shown these ingredients or any homeopathic "remedy" reduces the severity or duration of coughs and colds. Of course, some people will report that they got better soon after taking some pricey homeopathic potion. But in all likelihood, they would have seen the same results if their medicine were nothing more than a spoonful of sugar water (also known as the placebo effect).

While a child's life likely won't be endangered by one of these treatments, the harm will come from the fact that Canadians are being misled by these companies, with Health Canada as a willing participant. Having the forum to dispense medical advice and sell any number of so-called treatments or remedies gives homeopaths the opportunity to replace conventional treatments that actually work. For instance, homeopaths across the country continue to sell "alternative" flu vaccines – even though those products, called nosodes, don't offer any protection. Think that isn't harmful?

Keep this in mind: All it takes for a homeopathic cold product to get Health Canada's approval is proof that the ingredients have been in use for 50 years or more. There is no requirement for companies to show the products work, or to conduct large-scale, high-quality clinical trials.

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Unlike drug companies, which must spend millions on clinical trials proving their products are safe and effective, homeopathic companies face no such burden.

The average consumer doesn't know this. What they see is an industry (one that, like Big Pharma, makes money from the products it sells) that appears to be a legitimate alternative to the crowded walk-in clinic or family doctor's office.

What does Health Canada say about all this? Not much. The department declined an interview request. In an e-mail statement, Health Canada said it only investigates suspect advertising claims if it is made aware of them. In other words, if a consumer goes to the trouble of filing a complaint, the federal agency responsible for protecting us against misleading claims will decide to take action.

It's a sorry explanation.

Health Canada has a responsibility here. By authorizing these products, it confers upon them respectability and legitimacy. And that means it should be holding those companies, and the products they sell, to a higher standard. Those who choose homeopathic treatments are free to do so, but they should have a better understanding of exactly what they are buying into.

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