Vaccines? Go with the conventional wisdom

By Dr Eddy Bajrovic*

Each week, hundreds of Australians heading overseas call our travel health advisory service for over-the-phone advice about vaccinations, malaria, and staying healthy abroad.
Occasionally, we’re asked if homeopathy offers an effective alternative to conventional vaccination.
The answer is ‘no’. In fact, there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy offers an effective treatment for any disease or condition, according to new findings by the National Health and Medicine Research Council (NHMRC), which develops and maintains Australia’s health standards. 
That’s despite the fact that homeopathy has been around for more than 200 years.  
Homeopathy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine. The theory behind it is that ‘like cures like’.
The practice is based on two main ideas: The first is that substances that may cause illness or symptoms in a healthy person can, in very small doses, treat those symptoms in a person who is unwell. Secondly, that molecules in highly diluted substances retain a memory of the original substance.

New review into homeopathy

The NHMRC last month published a Statement on Homeopathy based on the findings of a lengthy review of the existing research on the effectiveness of homeopathy treatments for conditions ranging from the common cold to malaria. 
The aim of the review was to provide Australians who use homeopathic remedies with information as to their risks and benefits so they could make informed health decisions, the statement said.
The assessment was based on:
- an overview of published systematic reviews.
- an independent evaluation of information provided by homeopathy interest groups including the public.
- consideration of clinical practice guidelines and government reports published in other countries. 
The assessment used standardised, accepted methods for gauging the quality and reliability of evidence for whether or not a therapy is effective for treating health conditions. 
It found that the safety and effectiveness of homeopathic and other alternative medicines remain untested and therefore unknown – findings which mirror those of a similar review of homeopathic vaccines and other treatments in the United Kingdom in 2010.

Claims of effectiveness lack evidence

The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance is the body that advises the Australian government on immunisation. It recently updated its fact sheet, Homeopathy and Vaccination, which includes web-based references and scientific articles.
It notes that many of homoeopathic treatment schedules are complex, involve multiple doses over extended periods, and involve a significant financial cost – with no evidence that they work.
It warns that the strength and contents of homoeopathic preparations vary considerably, that each homoeopathic practitioner has a different approach to their preparations, and there is no centralised body to regulate homoeopathy in Australia.
Perhaps most importantly, homoeopathic preparations don’t undergo the rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness that Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration subjects prescription medications to.

Homoeopathy versus conventional immunisation

The fact sheet answers many of the questions Travelvax Australia‘s nurses and doctors are asked, including the following. I’ve abbreviated some for length, but you can read the fact sheet in full.

Is homoeopathy an alternative to conventional immunisation? 
“No. Although homoeopathic preparations and schedules have been developed claiming to prevent childhood infectious diseases such as pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella (German measles), homoeopathic peak organisations still support the need for children to be vaccinated conventionally.2,3 Unlike immunisation using conventional vaccines, there is no reliable evidence to support the claimed protective effect of homoeopathic ‘immunisation’.”

How effective are homoeopathic preparations in preventing infectious diseases? 
“Some homoeopathic preparations for the treatment of certain health problems, such as childhood diarrhoea and hay fever, have been scientifically tested. However, no well-designed, well-reported and high quality research can be found that demonstrates the effectiveness of homoeopathic ‘immunisations’ for prevention or treatment of vaccine-preventable diseases without a significant risk of bias.1,4,5 This is in contrast to conventional immunisations which have been rigorously tested, and for which there are large amounts of high-quality clinical and epidemiological data to support their efficacy in the prevention of certain childhood infectious diseases.”

Which is safer, homoeopathic preparations or conventional medicine for immunising my child?
“Conventional medicines such as vaccines are thoroughly scrutinised, tested, evaluated, and followed up for their safety and effectiveness. Homoeopathic preparations do not undergo the same level of attention. Many homoeopathic preparations have not been subjected to testing or approval through government regulatory bodies, such as the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration or the United States’ Food and Drug Administration, which is standard practice for conventional vaccines.”

Can homoeopathic preparations be given to lessen the possible side effects of conventional immunisation? 
“Conventional vaccination may cause minor side-effects such as redness, swelling and pain at the injection site. More serious side-effects are rare. There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of homoeopathic remedies in preventing or lessening vaccine side-effects.”

Trust the safe, tested, proven option

If you decide to consult a homoeopath, ensure they are accredited with the Australian Register of Homoeopaths (AROH), the national registration board for professional homoeopaths. Homoeopaths registered with the AROH are recognised by all major health insurance funds for rebates.
However, homoeopathic ‘immunisation’ is not recognised for family tax benefits or rebates linked to a child’s immunisation status. Nor does it fulfil any childcare or school entry vaccination requirements in Australia. 
Travelling or not, everyone should expect accurate and up-to-date information on treatment options.
It’s clear that some treatments in the field of complementary and alternative medicine lack evidence that they are safe and effective.
So, when it comes to travel or general immunisation, trust the tested, proven options to protect the health of you and your family.

* Dr Bajrovic is the Medical Director of Travelvax Australia.

Travelling overseas? Learn more about the potential health risks of your destination by calling Travelvax Australia on 1300 360 164 (toll-free on land lines) or visit our website.