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Anke Zimmermann, a Victoria-based “naturopathic physician,” published a blog post in which she recounted treating a four-year-old boy who was acting out violently and having nightmares about werewolves by giving him homeopathic tablets made from the saliva of a rabid dog.

The alternative-medicine practitioner boasted that the treatment was successful and the preschooler had been brought “back into a more human state from a slightly rabid dog state.”

When the media reported on this claim and health officials reacted with outrage, Ms. Zimmermann responded by saying the saliva was so diluted that it contained no trace of rabies.

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In other words, what the boy received was nothing but a sugar pill.

Was the treatment dangerous, in that it theoretically exposed a child to rabies, or was the product of dubious value because the active ingredient was so watered down?

Neither is a good look for a medicine.

Ms. Zimmermann took down her original blog post and replaced it with an attack on the media for their “salacious” coverage.

She said the real story was: “Wonderful news: Child greatly helped by a safe, effective, homeopathic remedy costing pennies.”

It would be easy to shrug off this case as a self-important rogue practitioner.

But the real tragedy here is that Ms. Zimmermann is practising homeopathy – a “complementary” therapy that has way more legitimacy and popularity than it deserves.

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There has been too much focus on the fact that the remedy was made using rabid dog spit – a treatment approved by Health Canada but not the brand used by Ms. Zimmermann. It’s no worse than other homeopathic remedies made with the cankers of syphilis patients or the tuberculosis bacterium – both of which are approved by Health Canada.

Homeopathy was conceived by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century. It is based on the belief that “like cures like“ and that the dilution and shaking of a substance – a process called “potentiation” – renders it not weaker but stronger.

Homeopaths believe that the water molecules retain a “memory” of the original substance, allowing nano-doses to trigger a healing response in the body.

This was no doubt a compelling theory in the 18th century, a time when conventional medicine consisted largely of bloodletting, leeches and enemas.

Concepts like dilution and water memory have no basis in biology and physiology; they are not evidence-based.

The best thing about homeopathy is that, when all is said and done, patients are essentially consuming sugar pills – deluded by dilution – which are unlikely to do any harm. The real harm comes from people forgoing legitimate treatments because they believe in magic.

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For example, nosodes – diluted bits of diseased tissue, pus, blood or other excretions from a sick person or human – are often touted as an alternative to vaccines.

Health Canada has recently cracked down on nosodes, demanding labels read: “This product is not intended to be an alternative to vaccination.”

But Health Canada’s rules confuse and mislead the public.

The federal regulator has approved more than 8,500 products by granting them a homeopathic drug number (DIN-HM). This gives the public the false impression these products are legitimate.

What a DIN-HM means is that the product is safe, not efficacious. Of course it’s safe if it consists of little more than water and sugar – oh, and “water memory.”

A larger problem is that entire aisles of pharmacies are dedicated to homeopathic products. If you sell diluted pus alongside prescription drugs, you give the impression they are equally legitimate. That’s profitable, but is it ethical?

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Then there are the practitioners. The rules vary by province but, in several jurisdictions, homeopaths, naturopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists and the like are licensed, self-regulating professions.

Legally, this puts them on an equal footing with physicians and nurses and, again, sends a message to the public that what they do is legitimate.

There have been growing calls to ban homeopathic products outright, and to strip practitioners of complementary medicine of their credentials as health providers.

But regulators are caught between a rock and a hard place. Surveys show about 70 per cent of Canadians use complementary medicines.

Is it better to try and bring some order and oversight to ensure basic safety, or should we leave alternative medicine to a completely unregulated black market? For the most part it should be caveat emptor.

Adults are free to purchase rabid-dog-spit pills. But we need to, at the very least, protect children from neglect and abuse.

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Beyond that, we need to ponder why, when science and medicine has made such tremendous advances, so many are still drawn to Victorian-era charlatanism.

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