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Some physicians are concerned that asthma patients, in relying on homeopathic remedies, may reject puffers or other medications that may be needed in a medical emergency.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Millions of Canadians contend every day with the wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing that accompany asthma. And in recent years, many have been turning to homeopathic solutions to provide relief for some of those symptoms.

Asthma appears to be a big business for homeopathic practitioners. A quick Internet search reveals dozens of homeopaths across Canada who offer a variety of solutions they say can relieve symptoms and prevent attacks. In some cases, homeopaths even claim to be able to cure the disease.

Alternative and complementary therapies have been gaining steadily in popularity over the past decade as more people become interested in natural treatments and alternatives to mainstream medicine and pharmaceutical drugs. In some cases, such as acupuncture, there is evidence that alternative therapies may work (although some argue that any perceived benefit could simply be a placebo effect).

But in many cases, such as asthma, the promotion of homeopathic remedies and cures is, according to critics, misleading, misguided and even dangerous.

The homeopathic 'cure'

The main principle behind homeopathy is "like cures like." If a substance causes illness in large doses, then small doses can be used as treatment for the same ailment. That's because the body knows how to cure itself and small doses of a substance can trigger that response, according to practitioners. In essence, this means homeopathic remedies consist of substances that have been heavily diluted and, in many cases, turned into a pill.

When it comes to asthma, there are a number of remedies that various homeopaths recommend, including vegetable charcoal and potassium dichromate. It's not entirely clear what these substances are supposed to do or how they work. Many homeopathic websites just describe the symptoms they can treat, or recount anecdotal examples of individuals whose problems cleared up after taking the homeopathic remedy.

There is evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective, but the problem is that this proof is almost exclusively published in low-quality medical journals that focus only on promoting the benefits of homeopathy. No high-quality, rigorous, randomized controlled trials show that homeopathic solutions actually make a difference.

"The evidence behind them is very thin at the end of the day," said Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist and clinical immunologist at McMaster University in Hamilton and spokeswoman with the Asthma Society of Canada. "You have to be extremely careful."

The concern is that many patients may be wasting their money by investing in ineffective homeopathic remedies. But the more troubling issue is that some people may reject puffers or other asthma medications that may be needed in a medical emergency. About 250 Canadians die as a result of asthma each year. "There's a potentially big downside in a disease that causes disability and possibly death," Waserman said.

A grey area

Health Canada regulates homeopathic treatments sold in Canada. Critics of the system point out that homeopathic treatments, like other natural health products, don't need to have extensive evidence before they're approved. In some cases, simply showing that a product has been in use for several decades can be enough for approval. However, the system does allow Health Canada to step in when a company is misleading consumers and may cause harm. It did so last year when it required the manufacturers of a homeopathic treatment called nosodes to carry a new warning that they are not to be used as a substitute for vaccines.

But what happens when misleading promises aren't on a product label, but instead on a homeopath's website?

Normally, complaints about a doctor would be made to a provincial college of physicians, who would investigate and take

punitive action, when warranted. But unlike physicians, there is almost no regulation over homeopaths in Canada. Ontario has been moving to create a regulatory body that would establish standards and professional-conduct codes for the profession, but that process isn't yet complete. The lack of regulation seems to have created a vacuum allowing homeopaths to make unchallenged promises and claims.

The bottom line

Advocates of homeopathic treatments believe the field deserves widespread recognition and respect as a safe, effective way of treating sickness and disease. But some of the claims they make are exaggerated, misleading and out of touch. And unless there is some government leadership to address this void, it's unlikely anything will change.

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