Dr Richard Hiltner is a really nice guy. He's in his sixties (but seems younger, in that way that Californians often do) and has a very West Coast way of making everything sound super positive all the time, up to and including the fact that, a few weeks ago, he and three other practitioners flew to Liberia to try and treat Ebola patients using homeopathy.
Hiltner says, "We landed in Monrovia on the 17th of October, then had to spend three days training to use the PPEs – the personal protective equipment, those big suits you see everyone wearing – before heading up to the hospital in Ganta."
It was only when they got to Ganta, a province hit hard by the Ebola epidemic, that problems arose.
The team suited up, broke out their homeopathic treatments and tried to get to work on some patients. At which point the medical staff and administrators at the Ganta Hospital realised what it was they were attempting, before completely banning them from the ETU (Ebola Treatment Unit).
It turned out that no one in the hospital – or, it seems, the entire Liberian medical administration – had any idea that this team would be using homeopathy. The Liberian government had approved the expedition and issued visas on the basis that all four were medical doctors coming to support local staff.
So, Hiltner and his colleagues got in their jeeps and drove back and forth to Monrovia in a continued effort to sort out the paperwork. "It took over five hours to drive 100 miles – it was probably the scariest part of the trip," he tells me. "We did that journey five times in all."
But the authorities were clear: there was no way they were going to let Ebola patients be treated with what are essentially sugar pills soaked in water.
For those who haven't yet been prescribed it on the NHS, homeopathy was developed in 1796 by the German scientist Samuel Hahnemann, based on the idea that "like cures like". It works like this: hay fever makes your eyes water, right? Guess what else makes your eyes water? Onions! Just soak a minuscule piece of onion in distilled water, then dilute that water a few hundred times, give it a shake and you're all done – hay fever will trouble you no more.
The Ebola virus kills you by essentially dissolving the walls of your veins, making you bleed to death from the inside in a massive internal haemorrhage. It's absolutely fucking horrific. Dr Hiltner says his team went to Liberia carrying 110 potential homeopathic Ebola remedies. Based on the "like cures like" principle they needed other substances that kill you by haemorrhage. Among their brightest hopes were arsenic and rattlesnake venom. So exactly the kind of thing you want to put in your body when you're already laid out in the ETU.
Aside from the whole deliberately feeding sick people arsenic thing, the real controversy of homeopathic practice is that the remedies are so heavily diluted that no molecular trace of the supposed active ingredient – be it onion, venom or any other – actually remains. In chemical terms, it's literally just water dropped onto sugar pills. The theory is that the homeopathic agent "re-programmes" the "energy" of the water, in the same way one saves information on a hard drive – and it's the "water memory" that supposedly cures you.
Despite the claims of practitioners – and celebrity endorsements from MP Peter Hain, Prince Charles and other people who are basically too rich to ever get ill – there is absolutely no peer-reviewed scientific literature indicating that homeopathy works any better than placebos.
So, it is perhaps understandable that, with the eyes of the world upon them, the Liberian authorities were unwilling to let this stuff anywhere near Ebola patients.
The thought of four experienced medical doctors stretching the resources of a poverty-stricken country in the grip of an epidemic, when they could be really helping, is kind of galling. This is certainly the view of Mike Noyes, head of ActionAid, who is quoted on the MailOnline: "With this crisis, you can't be offering false hope. There is no scientific evidence that homeopathy has any impact on dealing with viral disease like Ebola. Coming in from the outside with these unproven approaches is damaging to the response and bringing the disease under control."
The team did eventually get to treat non-Ebola patients in Ganta with homeopathy, and reported good results. Of course, every one of those patients was also receiving all the prescribed conventional treatments, so those results are totally meaningless from any scientific or therapeutic perspective.
All in all, the whole trip just sounds like a massive disaster – four doctors running around Liberia, banned from peddling their quackery by bemused local medics. Even the obvious question of whether they underwent quarantine on their return – or were just planning on curing themselves with snake venom – is irrelevant, as they never actually came into contact with an Ebola patient.
While the expedition itself may come off as merely chaotic, there's also a slightly sketchier side to the story.
The mission was organised through two organisations: the Liga Medicorum Homeopathica Internationalis, a key institution for homeopathy advocacy, and the German group Freundes Liberias, an organisation dedicated to promoting co-operation between Germany and Liberia.
Freundes Liberias raised donations for the trip with this campaign. The page talks about a "team of 20 international doctors", but makes no mention of the fact that they will be operating only as homeopaths. This squares with the fact that the Liberian medical authorities backed the trip when they thought it was a "team of doctors", and were then shocked to learn about the homeopathy.
So, did the organisers of the expedition raise money and obtain visas and support in Liberia by telling people they were sending doctors, before actually sending homeopaths? If so, that would be pretty shoddy business.
When asked for comment, Thomas Köppig, head of Freundes Liberias, was emphatic:
"When LMHI first contacted Freunde Liberias asking if the association would be willing to support a trip […] I received the four CVs […] confirmation that all members of the group were physicians and obviously experienced in working in disaster areas […] Furthermore, LMHI confirmed that the doctors would work as regular doctors and only secondarily as homeopaths."
The response from LMHI is rather less clear, claiming that the doctors "were not able to treat Ebola patients do [sic] [to] some diplomatic problems […] We are not asking for donations for the Ebola relief action any more because the situation changed".
Among the doctors on the expedition, however, there was absolutely no confusion that they were going to Liberia specifically to practice homeopathy, not conventional medicine – and to also use the opportunity to promote homeopathy.
When this story broke, Karen Allen of Homeopaths Without Borders deleted this message from Dr Ortrud Lindemann, one of the homeopaths in Liberia, from her Facebook page. Homeopath Dr Edouard Broussalian also deleted a post from his own site that claimed the mission would ensure "the makers of experimental vaccines will have to pack their bags". In fact, there was a real flurry of deleted pages regarding the mission from people connected to LMHI, which is never a particularly good sign.
Dr Hiltner himself is very open: "This was a golden opportunity to treat something that conventional medicine couldn't," he says. "Not only to help the people, but to show homeopathy works… there's got to be that day that conventional medicine will respect homeopathy – both have their strengths, both have their weaknesses; they need to stop calling each other names."
Speaking to Dr Hiltner, it's difficult to hold all this against him. He took the time to volunteer to go to Liberia and paid for his flight from California to Brussels, where the international team of homeopaths assembled and was flown to Monrovia (he does say he may be compensated for the ticket at some point).
For a guy who's been a practicing medical doctor for 44 years, Dr Hiltner is into some fairly whacky shit, not least Iridology and Medical Astrology, practices that make homeopathy seem positively vanilla. However, he's also clear that he knows these are controversial techniques and would never use them to interfere with conventional medicine – including on the trip to Liberia. Essentially, his heart is in the right place, even if it's making him do some very silly stuff.
Which makes it all the more of a shame that he's been drawn into this fiasco. A couple of doctors pin-balling around West Africa carrying cases of highly diluted snake venom has a certain shambolic gallows-humour; sneaking a PR stunt for homeopathy into an epidemic under the cover of sending medical help is really pretty tawdry.
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