Flu season is nearly upon us, and millions of Americans will soon be turning to a dubious "remedy" widely available at health-food stores and pharmacies. It's called Oscillococcinum, a tongue-twister of a potion that, according to its label, provides "temporary relief of colds and flulike symptoms." It is the standard homeopathic treatment for influenza and goes for about $10 a box. But like other homeopathic products, it's basically worthless.
The first clue is the "200C" on the label. What this means is that whatever active ingredient Oscillococcinum began with--in this case, duck heart and liver (no quack jokes, please)--has been diluted beyond all imagining. First, one part of the active ingredient is combined with a hundred parts of solvent. Next, the mixture is shaken and diluted again at one part per hundred--a process that is repeated a total of 200 times. Finally, sugar granules soaked in the resulting solution are enclosed in six capsules a box, good for two days of treatment.
The laborious dilution process is not unique to Oscillococcinum. It is the bedrock of homeopathy, a mystical specialty invented in the early 19th century by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician. Homeopaths today still rely on his "law of similars," which holds that tiny quantities of a substance that in larger amounts produces symptoms of a disease will cure that disease. Another homeopathic dictum, the "law of infinitesimals," states that the smaller the dose, the more powerful the effect.
That theory is reflected on the labels of homeopathic preparations, in which the number of dilutions is represented by Xs (each X representing a 1-to-10 dilution) and Cs (hundredfold dilutions). Yet by the laws of chemistry, there is only a 50% chance that a single molecule of the original substance remains in a 24X dilution. In the case of Oscillococcinum (200C), the chance that even one avian molecule has survived is virtually nil.
Then how does the so-called active ingredient of homeopathic brews work? Well, say the homeopaths (with straight faces), during the shaking process, which they call succussion, a "memory" of the original active ingredient is somehow retained by the surrounding solution. Sheer mumbo jumbo without a shred of evidence, say most scientists.
Homeopathic preparations are hardly dangerous. Even those that use deadly poisons as active ingredients are so diluted that they should cause no harm. Many users swear that their minor ailments have been cured through homeopathy. But scientists argue that the placebo effect--whereby belief in a treatment will provide relief--is probably at work. It's likely that the symptoms would have disappeared anyway with no medical intervention.
The bottom line is that the manufacturers of homeopathic remedies are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year for products that may be no more effective than ordinary tap water and are probably not as pure. Yet proponents abound, particularly in Europe. A standard boast, in fact, is that the British royal family uses and believes in homeopathic products.
I rest my case.