A homeopath who promotes ineffective "alternative vaccines" and counsels patients about the dangers of immunization is an instructor at the University of Toronto and a headline speaker at a university-sponsored conference on non-traditional health care on Saturday.
The university is facing intense criticism from public health experts who question why it is aligning itself with an anti-vaccine advocate and sponsoring a conference focusing on alternative health care, homeopathy and unproven complementary therapies.
"It's staggering to me that U of T is providing a platform for the promotion of messages that are not only controversial messages, but unsafe," said Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. "It's hugely troublesome."
Public health experts have been putting pressure on the federal government to remove homeopathic "vaccines" called nosodes from the market. Health Canada has approved more than 100 nosodes, which homeopaths and naturopaths promote as safe, effective alternatives to vaccines for measles and other illnesses. Health Minister Rona Ambrose said she has no plans to remove them, noting that nosode package labels are supposed to state they are not vaccine alternatives. Homeopaths who mix their own nosodes do not need to include the warning.
Toronto-based homeopath Beth Landau-Halpern is a health studies instructor and teaches a course in alternative medicine at U of T's Scarborough campus, where her husband, Rick Halpern, is dean. Last year, she wrote a blog post on her clinic's website about teaching fourth-year health studies students to have "a healthy degree of skepticism about the limits of science in understanding health and disease." On her website, Ms. Landau-Halpern has also written that "normal childhood illnesses like measles and chicken pox are almost always followed by massive developmental spurts" and to "avoid vaccinations" because they are "of questionable efficacy, full of ingredients that definitely should not be in the blood stream, and may compromise your general immunity irreparably."
Last year, an undercover CBC Marketplace investigation filmed Ms. Landau-Halpern advising a young mother against vaccines and promoting nosodes as safe alternatives. In response, Ms. Landau-Halpern wrote a blog post stating nosodes or "homeopathic vaccines" are safe and effective and that Health Canada gave her a "seal of approval" to continue marketing them.
On Saturday, Ms. Landau-Halpern is slated to speak at the Population Health and Policy Conference at the Scarborough campus. The event – sponsored by the University of Toronto International Health Program, a non-profit student organization, the anthropology/health studies department, and others – also features a naturopath who claims to treat cancer, heart disease and fibromyalgia with vitamin injections.
In an e-mailed response to an interview request, Ms. Landau-Halpern said she was unavailable to comment on Friday. She added: "I in no way consider myself to be an 'anti-vaxxer,' but believe in a nuanced and individualized approach to vaccination."
Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations at U of T, said the university encourages faculty and students to engage in "controversial topics in their research and scholarship" and that the school is "committed to the principles and policies of academic freedom and freedom of speech." Conference organizers did not respond to a request for comment by late Friday.
Earlier this month, Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., was at the centre of controversy after students complained a health instructor included anti-vaccine information in course material. The instructor is on leave and will no longer teach the course.
Across Canada, more academic institutions are offering alternative health courses . The problem is that alternatives to evidence-based medicine are not rooted in science, says Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta's School of Public Health. He worries about the consequences of holding events such as U of T's alternative health conference. "It's problematic when a university, an institution, lends credibility to these kinds of presentations with its name and support," he said. "Having University of Toronto's name next to their names on these [promotional] posters legitimizes their position and can be used to legitimize their unscientific views."
Dr. Freedhoff said he understands the importance of freedom of expression, especially on a university campus, but adds, "there really has to be a line that gets drawn somewhere."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Yoni Freedhoff is a professor at the University of Toronto. Dr. Freedhoff is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. This version has been updated